Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 127-128
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India's Nuclear Bomb:
The Impact on Nuclear Proliferation
George Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Nuclear Proliferation. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999. 597 pp. $39.95.
George Perkovich has produced a definitive account of the evolution of Indian policy on nuclear weapons, covering the substance of the international strategic considerations affecting this policy, as well as the domestic process by which decisions have been made. Challenging the realist view that emphasizes power politics, Perkovich examines India's decision in 1974 to detonate a "peaceful" nuclear explosive and the decision in 1998 to conduct as many as five detonations. He shows that domestic politics (the internal politics of a democracy) were a key part of the picture.
Perkovich has digested most of the existing literature on the subject and has taken the trouble to conduct a great number of interviews, including some with the most senior Indian officials. His account is thus very well informed. It is also quite well written, incorporating a vast amount of detail while addressing some broad conceptual arguments within political science. At points the book becomes an exercise in diplomatic history, with month-by-month and even week-by-week accounts of how policy drifted either toward or away from India's acquisition of the nuclear bomb. In capturing almost all of the small currents of this flow, the book will strike some readers as blurring what analysts both in India and elsewhere had long contended was inevitable: an Indian nuclear arsenal. Perkovich's major argument is reinforced by his contention that domestic considerations intervened at every stage, making nothing so inevitable here.
Perkovich attaches more importance to the detonations of 1998 than some observers might; indeed, more than half the book is devoted to decisions made after 1974. Because the "peaceful" nuclear explosive that India detonated in 1974 was, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from a nuclear bomb capable of destroying a Pakistani or Chinese city, some analysts of nuclear proliferation would have ended the story there. When a large explosion shook the Rajasthan desert in 1974, proliferation had in fact occurred, and New Delhi had acquired the minimal deterrent needed to match China's small nuclear arsenal. Attaching great importance to the subsequent ins and outs of Indian policy, including whether India before 1998 officially called what it possessed a "bomb," might thus be to take Indian foreign policy propaganda too seriously. If a Chinese nuclear weapon had ever destroyed an Indian city, did anyone [End Page 127] in Beijing—or anywhere else, for that matter—doubt that Indian nuclear retaliation would be visited on a city in China?
Nonetheless, the world does attach importance to whether a country openly claims to possess nuclear weapons, and to whether or not it has actually detonated a nuclear explosive. Pakistan's detonations of 1998, following those of India, may not have changed what outside experts knew about Pakistan's ability to destroy cities in India; but they undoubtedly altered what ordinary people around the world "knew" about this. India's detonation of a nuclear explosive in 1974 had thus changed the political reality, even if it had not affected the military reality; and India's decision to refrain from any follow-on detonations for another twenty-four years (thus failing to match the patterns set by the previous five nuclear powers) may also have been very significant politically. Perkovich sheds important light on this long period of Indian abstinence.
He also offers some good coverage of Pakistani decision making. Readers might have wished to see this part of the book rounded out more, since the outside world often thinks of the two South Asian countries as locked together. Perkovich argues that Indo-Pakistani and Sino-Indian interactions did not sway Indian decisions as much as some other analysts have claimed. Because Perkovich clearly knows a great deal about Pakistan, one wishes he had written more about it, even at the price of shrinking some of...