The recent military stand-off between India and Pakistan was exhilarating for jingoists and worrisome for pacifists on both sides of the border. However, the exhilaration and anxiety were both uncalled for. The conventional large-scale war was a remote possibility considering the fact that the parties involved were equipped with nuclear weapons.

States like individuals are rational actors and make decisions according to their self-interests. States sign trade deals because they think that the benefits arising out of the deal will trump the costs of the deal. The same sort of cost-benefit analysis informs the states’ choices when it comes to signing treaties, entering into alliances or waging war. If the expected benefit from winning a war is less than the anticipated cost of losing it, a rational actor will not opt for war. These are the nuclear weapons which raise the cost of losing a war by an astronomical scale and thereby make the act of going to war an irrational one. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) will guarantee annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. To this day, the doctrine has proved itself to be true. Since a conventional war has the potential to lead to a nuclear war, two nuclear states have not waged a full-scale conventional war against one another.

The first major instance where MAD doctrine was tested was the cold war. The war is often cited as an example by both the proponents of MAD doctrine and nuclear proliferation. The Cold War was the only historical incident where enmity between two superpowers did not result in a head-on military conflict. Neither Washington nor Moscow could have risked the apocalypse that a conventional war might have led to. Therefore, even at the height of cold war, the full-scale conventional war was not an option for either the US or USSR. There is no reason why the logic that prevented war between the US and the USSR will falter in other cases.

Pakistan and India are one other such case which can be quoted as an example of MAD doctrine at work. A comparison between pre- and post-nuclear weapons era will help illustrate this point. Two major wars before both countries acquired nukes were those of 1965 and 1971. The 1965 war started from a Line of Control (LOC) violation by Pakistan but quickly escalated into a full-blown war. Similarly, Indian intervention in 1971 in East Pakistan was also retaliated by Pakistan in the shape of a full-scale war. However, after 1998, the conflicts either did not result in war or the war was limited to a very small scale. LOC violation by Pakistan in 1999 led to Kargil war. Unlike previous instances, Indian response was limited to the zone of conflict, and international borders were not attacked by the Indian forces. Similarly, there were military standoffs between India and Pakistan in 2001-2002 following the attack on Indian Parliament; 2008 following Mumbai attacks and the most recent episode following the attack on Indian forces in Kashmir. However, in none of these cases, the conflict spiralled into a conventional large-scale war.

Therefore, it was not pacifism or sudden change in the attitude of leaders on both sides of the border that prevented the conflicts after 1998 from escalating into large scale wars; in fact, it was a rational assessment of the gigantic risks that a war would carry. It was the complete annihilation guaranteed by the MAD doctrine which reined in the emotions of the decision makers and brought them to senses.

One major argument against nuclear proliferation is that nuclear programs are costly to run and the money used should be spent elsewhere. However, once the country has attained nuclear weapons, it can significantly reduce its expense on conventional armies and weapons. Therefore, nuclear weapons, in the long run, might end up cutting down the defence expenditure rather than increasing it. As a percentage of GDP, the United Kingdom (UK) was spending around seven per cent in the 1950s. In 2017/18, defence expenditure has plunged to two per cent of GDP. The acquisition of nuclear weapons might be one of the reasons for this reduction in the defence budget.

Similarly, in the 1950s, the United States was spending around eight per cent of its GDP on defence while in 2018 the number reduced to around four per cent. Moreover, the nuclear umbrella has been extended to many developed countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia etc. which has helped these countries to keep their defence spending low. The trend is also reflected in the defence spending of Pakistan. In 1998, Pakistan was spending 5.164 per cent of its GDP on defence, while in 2017 the number reduced to 3.495 per cent.

To conclude, one might argue that as of today, nuclear weapons of India and Pakistan have done more good than harm to people of both countries. The weapons have prevented low scale conflicts from accelerating into large scale wars. Moreover, the defence spending of both countries as a percentage of GDP has dipped after the countries acquired nuclear capabilities. Therefore, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by other states should be regulated by laissez-faire rather than inherently discriminatory treaties.