Of arms and wars

Print edition : May 12, 2001
Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe 1904-1914 by David Stevenson, Clarendon Press, Oxford; pages 463,Rs.675.

India and Pakistan: The Cost of Conflict, the Benefits of Peace by Major-General Mahmud Ali Durrani (Retd.); Oxford University Press, Karachi; pages 96, (Pakistan) Rs.195 (both in paperback).

BOTH India and Pakistan are highly self-conscious nuclear weapons states engaged in an arms race in embittered diplomatic conflict. It is a situation fraught with danger. When arms pile up they acquire a momentum of their own.

David Stevenson, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has written a history of the decade preceding the First World War from a new angle. He subjects to critical scrutiny the thesis that the arms race in Europe during this period led inexorably to the War. Having examined material in the archives in Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany and Italy as well as a mass of published literature, the answer he provides is a nuanced one.

"Arms racing is a state of mind, of deliberate emulation on both sides... The crucial question is that of how the different strands interacted. Diplomatic crises can accentuate armaments rivalries; but the same rivalries make crises harder to settle, and a statistical correlation has been detected between arms races and crises that end in war. Governments may build up armaments not only to prepare for or insure against hostilities, but also to add force to their diplomacy. Since the Cuban confrontation of 1962 a literature has grown on the art of 'managing' international crises. As defining features of such crises it includes a threat (usually unexpected) to vital or important interests, a perception of heightened danger of war, and a limited response time. Its premise is that in most crises the protagonists at the outset may be ready for brinkmanship but do not wish to fight, and that if war results it is because of developments during the crisis rather than pre-existing sources of antagonism."

An arms build-up can becloud vision. It is not the arms but the insecurities that led to their mindless acquisition that affect judgment in a serious crisis; especially if a history of conflict and blind animosity prevails on both sides. The arms building can be a cause as well as consequence of growing tensions. Arms affect perceptions, and assessments mould responses to crises.

In 1914 peace grew "more precarious as the blocs converged, which contradicts the thesis that a balance of strength, in which neither side can expect an easy triumph, will deter war. But the pre-1914 balance was unstable, a temporary equivalence between rising and declining elements. Such a balance may offer both sides a chance of victory and encourage both to attack... In 1914 there was balance but no equilibrium; previously there was equilibrium without balance. Armaments convergence made it easier for war to start..."

The main lesson is summed up in these words: "Armaments were the wheels and pistons of the locomotive of history, not the steam, and if considered in isolation, they offer neither a sufficient nor an all-embracing explanation of the destruction of the peace. For such an explanation we must go back further and dig down deeper into the world from which the weapons emanated. The militarisation of diplomacy and of society were made possible by the militarisation of men's minds... To explore the universe of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers is to light, more often than we might care to, upon the troubled image of ourselves." (emphasis added, throughout).

MAJOR-GENERAL Mahmud Ali Durrani's ably documented monograph is appropriately "dedicated to the children of India and Pakistan". He fought in the wars of 1965 and 1971 and grew up with all the prejudices of a Pakistani soldier. He, however, did more than shed them after meeting Indians and befriending them. Having risen to a high position in the Army, he brought to bear his insights when, in 1996, he joined a small group of Indians and Pakistanis in the United States in what came to be known as the BALUSA group.

The book is a cogent analysis of the Indo-Pakistan deadlock based on hard facts. His analysis of military expenditure and force structure on both sides is particularly enlightening. "In 1998, the percentage of defence spending as a share of the central government expenditures for India was approximately 13 per cent. This is against the backdrop where half the government revenues are being spent on servicing existing loans. For Pakistan the situation is worse, where the percentage of defence spending as a share of the federal government expenditure is in the region of 24 per cent, nearly double that of India. This is an economy in which two-thirds of government expenditures are devoted to defence and debt servicing. Pakistan is surviving basically on borrowing. It is amazing how two of the poorest nations in the world, suffering from illusions of grandeur, are bent upon committing economic suicide." The nuclear dimension does not enhance security, as Kargil proved.

Conciliation promises a rich peace dividend, economically and politically. Once the process gets under way - and he offers practical suggestions for it - "Pakistan could easily cut down two to three infantry divisions worth of military assets (two independent armoured brigades and an infantry division or two infantry divisions and an independent armoured brigade) while India could cut down four to five infantry divisions worth of assets which are Pakistan-specific (one armoured division, one rapid division and two infantry divisions or two armoured brigades and two rapid divisions). This would of course require negotiations between the two militaries. In essence, the military balance would not be changed between the two nations. Seen from another perspective, Pakistan could reduce its defence spending by one and a half percentage points of its GDP while India could reduce its defence spending by about half a per cent of its GDP."

This is a book which deserves the widest readership in both countries for the sobering truths it tells.

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