Ahsan Butt in Foreign Policy:
Earlier this year, retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, who was in charge of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons for 15 years, delivered a message to policymakers in the United States. In his prepared remarks, Kidwai argued that nuclear weapons have rendered conventional war in South Asia “near redundant.” In turn, if conventional war is unimaginable, Kidwai reasoned, India and Pakistan should be able to invest more in their populations’ socioeconomic well-being — as long as their leaders are up to it.
There is precedent to Kidwai highlighting the potential welfare-increasing effects of nuclear weapons. When Western leaders first grappled with its political effects in the early 1950s, they believed that this new and dangerous technology could help them save money. The strategy of “massive retaliation” in the first decade of the Cold War prioritized nuclear over conventional deterrence against the Soviet Union, and was pursued partly in the hope of cutting long-term defense expenditures. Indeed, the intellectual case for massive retaliation was most persuasively made by Britain in its 1952 Global Strategy Paper, primarily due to its dire economic situation. Even France, pushed by former President Charles de Gaulle’s fiscal conservatism, emphasized nuclear weapons in its defense policy for budgetary reasons.
These states were acting on what, on the surface, appears to be sound reasoning. All countries operate in an environment of scarce resources. Those resources must be channeled to the population’s well being, through building schools and hospitals, as well as the state’s security, through buying tanks and missiles.
Nuclear weapons seemingly allow states to ameliorate the pressures of this guns-butter tradeoff; their awesome power means that states locked in arms races do not necessarily have to match their rivals’ conventional acquisitions.