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Mumbai Made Clear the Dangers of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

Beyond such lessons, however, there may lie another: the inherent danger of living in a world where more and more countries can acquire nuclear weapons. With the six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea stalled, and the unsurprising failure of the international community's feeble and inconsistent efforts to forestall Iran from acquiring the capability to produce fissile material for bomb use, one hears it sometimes said that we can live with nuclear weapons proliferation because even idiosyncratically belligerent governments can be deterred just like the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.

On one level, the Indo-Pakistani nuclear standoff might seem to offer grounds for encouragement in this regard because despite the history of rivalry and warfare between the two countries, they have more than once stepped back from the brink of nuclear confrontation.

The Mumbai terrorist attacks and their potential to re-poison the relationship between India and Pakistan suggests that we should not be too sanguine about the stability of nuclear deterrence in a proliferated world.  Even if nuclear weapons tend to encourage mutually-deterring relationships between possessor states (an assumption that, while plausible, is no more than an extrapolation from a single U.S.-Soviet case study and a mere decade of sometimes tension-filled Indo-Pakistani nuclear confrontation), there is no guarantee that any actual possessors' relationship will be stable.

This is true particularly where bitter regional rivalries are susceptible to inflammation from other factors (e.g., cross-border terrorism and/or squabbles over contested frontiers). One would have to have a great deal of faith indeed in the conflict-moderating impact of nuclear weapons in order to be comfortable that the net result will be more stable and less dangerous than before.  It is certainly possible that in such contexts the introduction of nuclear weapons would not increase stability. It would merely worsen the potential downside risks if troubled relationships deteriorate.

And deteriorate they can. The specter of a stable, nuclear-armed, Indo-Pakistani standoff being unsettled by the wildcard variable of a terrorist atrocity should remind us that future nuclear deterrent relationships in a proliferated world may be far more problematic and breakdown-prone than even the risky roller coaster ride of U.S.-Soviet confrontation. In other words, the fact that the world managed to live uneasily for a while with the Cold War nuclear dyad may tell us very little about whether it will be possible to avoid catastrophe with the advent of more and more players possessing nuclear weapons.

Among its many other effects, therefore, one should hope that the horror in Mumbai will at least encourage a greater international commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.  The world can scarcely afford to allow nuclear weapons capabilities to be layered upon regional rivalries that are subject at any time to sudden crisis.