Response to Yusuf and Kirk “Keeping an eye on South Asian skies”

CSP_Blog_16_03-Flags_of_India_and_PakistanEarlier this year, Moeed Yusuf and Jason A. Kirk published an article in Contemporary Security Policy on America’s pivotal deterrence in nuclearized India–Pakistan crises. The aim of this article is to theorize third-party involvement in a nuclearized regional rivalry. The role of the USA as a third-party arbiter between conflicting parties has been discussed before. This article is the first to apply pivotal deterrence theory to the nuclearized conflict, where the stakes are extremely high. Through the study of three major crises between India and Pakistan, Yusuf and Kirk show that America’s intervention generally enhanced stability.

The article by Yusuf and Kirk has triggered a response by Sumit Ganguly and Devin T. Hagerty, two prominent scholars who have previously published extensively on India–Pakistan relations including their nuclear rivalry. In the interest of open debate, and to further clarify the contribution of the original article, their response and the reply by Yusuf and Kirk is published below.

Response to Yusuf and Kirk “Keeping an eye on South Asian skies”

We write in response to “Keeping an Eye on South Asian Skies: America’s Pivotal Deterrence in Nuclearized India-Pakistan Crises,” by Moeed Yusuf and Jason A. Kirk.[1] In doing so, we applaud the authors for attempting to improve with theoretical rigor our understanding of South Asia’s nuclear dynamics.

Our response concerns two issues. First, we would like to correct a serious mischaracterization of our book, Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons.[2] On p. 3 of their article, Yusuf and Kirk write that: “Most prominently, nuclear optimists like Ganguly and Hagerty argue that bilateral deterrence explains war avoidance by India and Pakistan; they discount third-party involvement. . . . We are thus left with a Cold War-derived literature inclined toward analysing nuclear crisis dynamics through two-actor models, and with South Asia-specific studies that call attention to trilateral crisis dynamics but still leave as under-theorized, third-party efforts to prevent war.”

Contrary to this assertion, we neither “discount third-party involvement” nor “under-theorize” such involvement. One of the three theories we subject to empirical scrutiny is “unipolarity theory,” from which we generate the proposition that: “The Indian and Pakistani governments, despite compelling incentives to attack one another during the crises under examination, were dissuaded from doing so by timely and forceful US intervention.” (pp. 7-8) Although we argue that nuclear deterrence theory was more influential in keeping India and Pakistan out of war, we add that “US intervention in the form of crisis management sometimes played a secondary, but important, role – particularly in 1990, 1999, and 2001-2.” (p. 11) Moreover, each of our empirical chapters explicitly examines the US role, and our concluding chapter reiterates the significant, but secondary, influence of US efforts to prevent war. (p. 188) We close the book with a lengthy analysis of how those efforts might be improved. (pp. 201-09)

We agree with Yusuf and Kirk that mono-causality is misguided in the analysis of India-Pakistan crisis behavior; but we differ in our ordering of the causes of peace, attributing the primary role to nuclear deterrence. Their claim that we “discount” the role of US intervention has a straw-man feel to it. Bernard Brodie once wrote of the analysis of nuclear weapons dynamics: “In these matters, to be sure, we are dealing fundamentally with conflicting intuitions. There is no doubt that some people’s intuitions are better than others, but the superiority of the former, though sometimes definable and explicable, may be difficult to prove.”[3] The least we can do, even in disagreement, is to get each other’s arguments right.

Our second issue concerns Yusuf and Kirk’s questionable use of the concept of a revisionist state in international relations. The authors analyse South Asian crisis outcomes in the context of Timothy Crawford’s pivotal deterrence theory.[4] According to the theory, part of one of the necessary conditions for pursuing a policy of pivotal deterrence is that: “The pivot must believe that both adversaries hold revisionist aims toward each other . . . .”[5] Yusuf and Kirk argue that this condition is met in the India-Pakistan case, explaining that “Pakistan’s is territorial revisionism over Kashmir, whereas India’s is a strategic revisionism that seeks to end Pakistan’s support of militant non-state actors as proxies against it.”[6]

We find this formulation to be problematic. For decades, the international relations (IR) theory literature has ascribed a particular meaning to the term “revisionist.” Simply stated, it refers to a state in the international system that seeks to alter the territorial status quo, or – more broadly – the existing order. (See, for example, the discussion in Jason W. Davidson, The Origins of Revisionist and Status-Quo States.[7]) By this longstanding, widely accepted standard, Pakistan has been a revisionist power practically since its inception, as it has sought, through a variety of means, to alter the territorial status quo in Kashmir. Indeed, even prominent Pakistanis, both civilian and military, have explicitly stated as much and have pursued policies, including the initiation of war on three occasions (1947-48, 1965, and 1999), to try and wrest all of Kashmir from Indian control.

By adding the adjective “strategic,” Yusuf and Kirk essentially redefine the long-accepted concept of the revisionist state, which has served IR theory well since its inception. Their use of the term “revisionism” to describe India’s attempts to ward off the attacks of “militant non-state actors as proxies” of Pakistan simply makes no sense. Any state, when faced with attacks on its soil, has the legitimate right of self-defense. In 1999, 2001-2002, and 2008, India has been in the position of defending the status quo against Pakistani, or Pakistan-sponsored, aggression. The policies pursued by India are best understood as part of a strategy of “deterrence by denial” — attempting to fend off its neighbor’s attacks by rendering their goals difficult to accomplish. This strategy cannot under any circumstances, let alone through a verbal sleight of hand buried in a footnote, be considered “revisionist.”

Sumit Ganguly is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and the currently holds that university’s Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations. Devin Hagerty is a Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


Reply by Jason A. Kirk and Moeed Yusuf

Sumit Ganguly and Devin Hagerty object to our characterization of their important 2005 book. In positioning it “most prominently” in a brief discussion of “nuclear optimist” perspectives, we summarize briskly—perhaps too briskly.

In saying that Ganguly and Hagerty “discount third-party involvement,” our intention was to say that they assign a (significantly) lower value to this explanation for escalation avoidance than to bilateral nuclear deterrence, not to say that they do not consider it or that they dismiss it. Regrettably, our use of the ambiguous and imprecise verb “discount” did not adequately capture their perspective, but this was not a bad-faith attempt to present them as “straw-man” foils.

We were aware of their proposition (hypothesis) that India and Pakistan “were dissuaded… by timely and forceful US intervention.”[8] Their findings are somewhat more complicated. They say “Washington was most influential during the Kargil war of 1999, when the Clinton administration resolutely eased Pakistani leaders into ceasing their ill-fated incursion into Indian Kashmir.”[9] In analyzing India’s reasons for not “widening and deepening the scope of the conflict,” they say that the proposition, “namely American intercession, can easily be dismissed.”[10] Regarding 2001-02, they say: “while American diplomacy may have played an ameliorative role in this crisis, it was hardly decisive in shaping its final outcome.”[11] Their conclusion is that bilateral nuclear deterrence best explains war avoidance.[12] The secondary US role was “that of a facilitator of peace, providing both sides with the political cover they needed to stand down while still saving face.”[13]

We do not single out Ganguly and Hagerty for leaving under-theorized US efforts to prevent war in nuclear South Asia. That is our appraisal of the literature overall, which we offer in a separate paragraph from our reference to their work. We note here their book’s path-breaking initiative to apply nascent unipolarity theory, which they call “the least-developed body of theory we use.”[14] In our article, we similarly cite Monteiro’s more recent assessment that “the value of unipolarity for the preponderant power is an important and under-theorized topic.”[15] We try to address an aspect of this theoretical underdevelopment.

Ganguly and Hagerty also object to our use of “revisionist aims” to characterize India’s crisis objectives. This language comes from Crawford’s general theory, but we qualify this precondition. We use a footnote—an integral textual element, not “buried” ground—to retain formality and brevity in the theory’s preconditions. India’s strategy is detailed in our case studies.

We would not presume to redefine revisionism. We understand it to mean an intention to alter the status quo, which may mean territorial control but may also mean “the existing order” more broadly. Support for the status quo is multidimensional,[16] as states may seek to uphold some aspects while opposing others. That the status quo also includes notions of morality, legitimacy and more has been in the conceptual toolkit of IR theory since E.H. Carr undertook the “the beginnings of a science,” over three-quarters of a century ago.[17]

In Crawford’s original theory, the relevant condition is that the third party “must believe that the adversaries are ‘reciprocal revisionists’—that each seeks gains at the other’s expense and will use force to achieve them if conditions permit.”[18] There is no stipulation that the status quo is defined by or limited to territorial control. In his analysis of US efforts at pivotal deterrence in early-1960s South Asia, he does note Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1963 statement that Indo-Pakistani “[c]onfederation remains our ultimate end.”[19] But by the 1990 Kashmir crisis, the US perception of India’s possible war aims reflected Pakistan’s “barely disguised role in stoking the Kashmir uprising” in India.[20]

We say “Pakistan’s is territorial revisionism over Kashmir,” and would add here that its Kashmir obsession is so central to its regional policy (and self-understanding) as to make it a revisionist state—Ganguly and Hagerty’s term. India is territorially a status quo power regarding Kashmir, but that does not mean it cannot have revisionist aims amid ongoing violence and recurrent crises. India seeks, as we say, to “end Pakistan’s support of militant non-state actors as proxies against it.” India cannot accept an “existing order” in which Pakistan repeatedly provokes it, despite what should, from India’s perspective, be a clear international consensus that India is the aggrieved party and Pakistan the aggressor. Ganguly and Hagerty may read “revisionist aims” as pejorative—which was not our intention—for they uphold India’s right to defend itself, and appropriately so.

Ganguly and Hagerty say that “the policies pursued by India are best understood as a strategy of ‘deterrence by denial,’” but in their book they also characterize the 2001-02 crisis as entailing a “coercive diplomacy” strategy by India—albeit a largely unsuccessful one. This strategy, they say, “seeks to induce an adversary to desist from ongoing hostile actions by threatening to resort to force…”[21]

Ultimately, the substantive question is: Does the US believe that India is willing to go to war against Pakistan to counter militancy across the Line of Control and terrorist attacks on Indian soil? We believe that this condition is met, and we apply pivotal deterrence theory to nuclear South Asia accordingly.

Jason Kirk is associate professor of political science at Elon University in North Carolina. Moeed Yusuf, director of South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., is writing a book on U.S. crisis management in India-Pakistan nuclear crises. They are the authors of “Keeping an Eye on South Asia Skies: America’s Pivotal Deterrence in Nuclearized India-Pakistan Crises”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here.



[1]  Moeed Yusuf & Jason A. Kirk (2016): “Keeping an Eye on South Asian Skies: America’s Pivotal Deterrence in Nuclearized India–Pakistan Crises,” Contemporary Security Policy, DOI: 10.1080/13523260.2016.1177954.

[2] Sumit Ganguly and Devin T. Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry:  India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons (Seattle, WA:  University of Washington Press, 2005).

[3] Bernard Brodie, “The Development of Nuclear Strategy,” International Security, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Spring 1978), p. 83.

[4] Timothy W. Crawford, Pivotal Deterrence: Third-Party Statecraft and the Pursuit of Peace (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2003).

[5] Yusuf and Kirk, “Keeping an Eye on South Asian Skies,” p. 6.

[6] Yusuf and Kirk, “Keeping an Eye on South Asian Skies,” p. 23, note 30.

[7] Jason W. Davidson, The Origins of Revisionist and Status-Quo States (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).

[8] Ganguly and Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry, p. 7.

[9] Ganguly and Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry, p. 11.

[10] Ganguly and Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry, p. 160-1.

[11] Ganguly and Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry, p. 182.

[12] Ganguly and Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry, p. 188.

[13] Ganguly and Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry, p. 192.

[14] Ganguly and Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry, p. 7.

[15] Nuno P. Monteiro, Theory of Unipolar Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) (note 18), p. 73.

[16] See Glenn Palmer and T. Clifton Morgan, A Theory of Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), especially Chapter 2.

[17] Edward Hallett Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1939).

[18] Crawford, Pivotal Deterrence, p. 26.

[19] Crawford, Pivotal Deterrence, p. 250, note 21.

[20] Crawford, Pivotal Deterrence, p. 171.

[21] Ganguly and Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry, p. 169.