This graphic of the nuclear competition on the subcontinent was compiled by my colleagues, Julia Thompson and Lita Ledesma, to illustrate the contents of Stimson’s new book, Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia. It’s a sobering depiction of high-octane missile development programs and lethargic diplomacy. It still doesn’t begin to reflect the difficulties national leaders in India and Pakistan face in trying to stabilize their nuclear competition.

This graphic excludes strategic modernization programs in China. It makes no reference to ambitious changes in conventional military doctrines in China and India. It excludes developments in air and sea power that can bear on the nuclear competition. It doesn’t reflect the inherent instabilities of opposing nuclear doctrines that rely on threats of first use — including the use of tactical nuclear weapons — and threats of massive retaliation. Nor does this graphic reflect dysfunctional civil-military relations in Pakistan, India and perhaps China as well, that make it difficult to stabilize an extremely active triangular nuclear competition.

This graphic does, however, adequately demonstrate how empty Indian and Pakistani pledges were to pursue minimum, credible deterrence made by government leaders after testing nuclear devices in 1998. Leading strategic thinkers on the subcontinent expressed confident hopes back then that going public with nuclear capabilities would have stabilizing effects by relieving anxieties and facilitating diplomatic efforts to normalize relations. Here’s a sampler:

In some respects, India should be relieved Pakistan has gone ahead and tested its nuclear devices and declared itself a nuclear weapons state. Such a move has ensured greater transparency about Pakistan’s capabilities and intentions. It also removes complexes, suspicions, and uncertainties about each other’s nuclear capabilities. A certain parity in nuclear weapons and missile capabilities will put in place structured and mutual deterrents. These could persuade the Governments of India and Pakistan to discuss bilateral disputes in a more rational manner. – J.N. Dixit in Indo-Pakistan in War and Peace

A mutual minimum nuclear deterrent will act as a stabilizing factor. – K. Sundarji, in Weapons of Mass Destruction: New Perspectives on Counterproliferation

Deterrence will continue, but on a higher level. I don’t think we are going to see a slide toward instability. I don’t think anyone will allow it to happen. – Jasjit Singh, interviewed in Defense News

The nuclear option will promote regional peace and create stability. – K.M. Arif, in Pakistan’s Security and the Nuclear Option

Attainment of nuclear capabilities by Pakistan and India has helped promote stability and prevented dangers of war… Self-interest itself should persuade Pakistan and India to exercise due restraint. Continuance of responsible conduct is likely also because it could gain greater tolerance of their nuclear policies. – Abdul Sattar, in Pakistan’s Security and the Nuclear Option

These high hopes were based on false premises. Optimists discounted domestic political and institutional drivers pushing for more bombs and better ways to deliver them. The abstract notion of minimum, credible deterrence couldn’t compete with these drivers and with growing threat perceptions.

Another false premise was that a sense of normalcy could be midwifed by devices with horrific destructive powers. In every case where states have felt compelled by security concerns to cross the nuclear threshold, their sense of insecurity only grew when a nuclear competition predictably ensued.

A third false premise was that the Bomb would impart a sustainable boost to diplomacy. Prime Minister Vajpayee tried to do precisely this by traveling over the Partition’s blood-soaked ground to Lahore — the most symbolic act of reconciliation thus far in the subcontinent’s nuclear history. But the Bomb is utterly indifferent to its uses, whether for peace making or war fighting.

Peacemakers have thus far been easily trumped by others who have sought military advantage under the nuclear umbrella or the disruption of diplomatic initiatives. Vajpayee’s attempt at Lahore was torpedoed by the Kargil war. Far less ambitious attempts at reconciliation by subsequent Prime Ministers in India and Pakistan have been foiled by spectacular acts of terror on Indian soil.

Engineering missiles is easy compared to engineering diplomatic accords. Accolades are given to those who do the former; brickbats await those who try the latter. As this graphic shows, India and Pakistan have flight-tested a total of seventeen types of missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons since the 1998 tests. Not all of these missiles will actually carry nuclear warheads, and missile types will be consolidated over time. But by any reckoning, seventeen is a very large number.

In contrast, the number of tangible diplomatic accomplishments since 1998 has been paltry. In 2003, Pakistan and India agreed to a cease-fire along the Kashmir divide. This agreement has often been breached, but remains essential. In 2005, another agreement was reached to provide prior notification of ballistic missile flight tests, followed by another in 2007 to provide notification of nuclear accidents. Other efforts have been made to increase cross-border trade, but progress has been beset by the usual bickering over linkages and conditionalities. Little of substance has been accomplished since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, whose planners have succeeded in raising barriers for those who wish to improve India-Pakistan relations.

A new Indian coalition government, regardless of its composition, can be expected to try again to improve relations with Pakistan. Significantly increased direct trade and nuclear risk reduction will again become possible. The likelihood of new explosions in India that can be traced back to Pakistan will also grow. National leaders in India and Pakistan will once again be tested whether they have the resolve to stabilize their nuclear competition and overcome spoilers.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Express Tribune, a Pakistani paper, on December 27th.