Both the benefits and limitations of nuclear weapons are best captured by a single fact: of all nuclear-armed adversaries, only the Soviet Union and China in 1969 and India and Pakistan in 1999 ever fought a war with one another. The benefits are intuitive. There have been only two such episodes in the 68 years since Hiroshima, and both were limited in scope and duration. The shortcomings of nuclear weapons are equally obvious: the fact that such conflict took place at all and that military competition between and against nuclear powers often took other forms, including the use of proxies and nonstate actors. After all, nuclear weapons did not prevent American and Soviet allies from killing tens of millions of each other’s people between 1945 and 1991, nor did they deter the 9/11 attacks.
In his August 26 article (‘India’s Nuclear Blunder’), Zachary Keck argues that India’s failure to prevent cross-border incursions by China and Pakistan since 1998, when it declared its nuclear weapon capability, is evidence of a colossal strategic blunder. In Keck’s reading, Indian nuclear weapons acquired with the intention of deterring China’s territorial ambitions failed to achieve that purpose and—worse—provoked a weaker power, Pakistan, to develop a nuclear deterrent to its benefit. But this assessment stems from a fundamental misreading of India’s threat environment and strategic intent, the absence of certain key facts, and the obscuring of context.