Atomic attraction

Internet polls provide evidence that a strict nuclear taboo is not widespread among the Indian public.

Written by Benjamin A. Valentino , Scott D. Sagan | Updated: June 3, 2016 1:05 am
obama in hiroshima, hiroshima speech, obama hiroshima speech, nuclear weapons, india nuclear, terrorism, terrorism in india, barack obama, hiroshima, hiroshima and nagasaki, obama speech, al qaeda, syria, terrorism, nuclear bomb, scientific revolution, moral revolution, nuclear danger, nuclear war, indian express column There are some Indian experts who argue that India is already on the moral high ground regarding nuclear weapons.

In last Friday’s Hiroshima speech, President Barack Obama called for a “moral awakening” on the part of leaders and citizens throughout the world: “The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of the atom requires a moral revolution as well.” India has an important role to play in that moral awakening about nuclear dangers. But to do so, the ethical principles of just war doctrine and international laws of armed conflict must be more widely understood and accepted by the Indian public.

There are some Indian experts who argue that India is already on the moral high ground regarding nuclear weapons. They argue that unlike most other nuclear weapons states (including the US, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and Pakistan), India has a no-first-use nuclear doctrine. Some go so far as to say that the Indian public has a “nuclear taboo” against the first use of nuclear weapons.

We conducted a 1,000-person internet poll in India in December 2015 that appeared, at first glance, to support that proposition because 90 per cent of participants agreed with the statement that “India should not use nuclear weapons unless it is attacked first with nuclear weapons by another country.”

But does the Indian public really hold a taboo against using nuclear weapons first? The answer is no. Although most Indian citizens will oppose using nuclear weapons first when asked in such general terms, public opinion changes when presented with more specific crisis scenarios. Indeed, our poll demonstrates that, if confronted with real-world scenarios in which a nuclear first-strike might actually be considered by Indian leaders, public support for nuclear first use is actually very high.

We presented our survey participants with a hypothetical story stating that Indian intelligence agencies reported that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist organisation had stolen nuclear explosive materials and was suspected to be building a nuclear bomb in an underground bunker outside of Lahore. The Indian prime minister was given two military options. The first was to launch a single missile with a nuclear warhead against the target. This was deemed to have a 90 per cent probability of destroying the bunker. The second option was to launch a number of conventionally armed missiles against the target, with the same 90 per cent probability of destruction. Readers were told that 1,000 Pakistani civilians fatalities were expected regardless of which kind of weapon was used.

The results were surprising. Despite conventional weapons being deemed just as effective against the target as nuclear weapons in this scenario, 53 per cent of those polled still preferred to use nuclear weapons. And 42 per cent of those who preferred a nuclear strike said that they did so because they wanted “to send a strong message to Lashkar-e-Taiba and other potential enemies of India that we will not permit them to build weapons of mass destruction.” When we presented the same scenario, but decreased the effectiveness of the conventional strike against the LeT bunker to 45 per cent, compared to 90 per cent for the nuclear strike, support for the nuclear option soared up to 72 per cent among our respondents.

We then polled a third group of Indian internet users, but altered the story to make the nuclear strike more deadly. This story said that nuclear weapons were twice as effective in destroying the LeT bunker than conventional weapons (90 per cent for nuclear strike versus 45 per cent for the conventional strike), but that the nuclear strike would kill 50,000 Pakistani civilians in the area, while the conventional strike would kill 1,000.

Again, the results were surprising. Even when the Indian nuclear first-strike was expected to kill 50,000 Pakistani civilians, 51 per cent of Indians polled said that they preferred it to the conventional weapons option, which was admittedly less effective, but also produced much less collateral damage. And when asked why, 36 per cent said they believed that India needed to send “a strong message to Lashkar-e-Taiba and other potential enemies of India.”

Using the internet to poll the Indian public does not provide a truly representative sample, because internet users in India are both more well-educated and wealthier than the average Indian citizen. But that fact reinforces our central point. Education and higher economic status are usually correlated with more moderate positions regarding the use of force, so it is highly probable that if all Indian citizens were somehow polled about these particular scenarios, the percentage supporting an Indian nuclear first-strike would be significantly higher than the 50 per cent range found in our surveys.

These kinds of polls cannot tell us what Indian political and military leaders will actually do if they ever face such a frightening scenario. But they do tell us something significant about the instincts of the Indian public. These polls provide strong evidence that a strict nuclear taboo is not widespread among the Indian public. Indians are not unusual in this respect. We conducted a similar poll of American citizens in 2013, presenting a scenario in which al Qaeda was suspected to be developing an atomic weapon in a bunker in Syria and found that 18.9 per cent of our American respondents preferred using nuclear weapons to destroy the target even when a conventional attack was deemed to be equally effective. When targeting terrorist organisations, over 50 per cent of the Indian respondents and almost 20 per cent of American respondents felt an atomic attraction, not an atomic aversion.

These new Indian polls suggest that much more debate and public education is needed in India, as it is needed in the United States, to create the moral awakening called for by President Obama in Hiroshima.

Sagan is the Caroline S.G. Monro Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. Valentino is Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College

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