Pakistan has now tested its own nuclear device. No security guarantees from or economic penalties imposed by the United States would have dissuaded that uneasy nation from doing what its security interests dictated. Although the United States and the other established nuclear powers are uncomfortable with nuclear proliferation, India and Pakistan both have a right to self-defense in a rough neighborhood (Pakistan borders India and Iran, India borders a nuclear-armed China).
The United States must realize that, over time, proliferation will probably occur in an even wider group of nations. Rewards--both in prestige and treasure--accrue to nations with nuclear programs.
The West paid off North Korea in an attempt to end its nuclear program (although whether that outlaw nation will actually give up its aspirations is a dubious proposition). The United States first tried economic penalties to slow or halt Pakistans nuclear program. Then it contemplated lavishing rewards on Pakistan to prevent it from taking that program to a new level. Some proposals to reward Pakistan--for example, extending U.S. security guarantees--would have had worse effects on U.S. security than the nuclear test they are designed to prevent.
While the prospect of a future limited nuclear exchange on the South Asian subcontinent is not pleasant, the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs pose little immediate threat to the United States. Neither of those nations is actively hostile to the United States (unlike other nations, such as Iran and North Korea). India and Pakistan probably do not yet have warheads deployed on missiles. Even if they did, neither country has--and will not have for some years to come--a missile that can hit the United States.
Rather than impose sanctions, the United States should encourage India and Pakistan to adopt confidence-building measures similar to those established by Russia and the United States during the Cold War.
Mandatory economic sanctions against both India and Pakistan in the wake of nuclear tests will only antagonize both nations unnecessarily and diminish U.S. influence when it is most critically needed. As usual, other rich Western nations are reluctant to tie trade and security issues, leaving the United States to carry the burden of playing bad cop. In addition, using sanctions as a message to dissuade other nations from conducting nuclear tests is unlikely to have much effect. Those nations that are either undeclared nuclear powers (Israel) or close to becoming such powers (North Korea and Iran) will probably not be deterred from testing if they deem it to be necessary for their national security. Congress and the president would probably repeal the sanctions law before they would impose sanctions on Israel in retaliation for a nuclear test. The United States has little influence with the unfriendly governments in Iran and North Korea and cannot ratchet sanctions up much higher than the stringent measures that have already been imposed on those nations.
More important, mandatory economic sanctions on both India and Pakistan interfere with possible U.S. efforts to prevent an upward spiral in tensions that could lead to a nuclear disaster. The United States should no longer deny reality by pretending that new nuclear powers are not nuclear states. It must also recognize that, eventually, both India and Pakistan will probably deploy their nuclear weapons.
Rather than impose sanctions, the United States should encourage India and Pakistan to adopt confidence-building measures similar to those established by Russia and the United States during the Cold War--for example, creating a hotline connecting the capitals of the two nations and conducting a regular dialogue on security issues.
In addition, the United States could share with both nations some of its technology for ensuring the safety and command and control of nuclear weapons. That technology transfer might reduce the chances of nuclear accidents or accidental launches.
Finally, the United States might even share future technology developed to simulate nuclear explosions so that India and Pakistan would have no need for further underground weapons testing. Most of these recommendations would require changing U.S. law. Instead of taking actions that attempt to penalize proliferation already well under way, the United States should maximize its influence to mediate tensions and promote stability between two new members of the nuclear weapons club.