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Peace lessons

The crisis is not over, but the world is breathing easier since India and Pakistan stepped back from the brink of a war that could turn nuclear, with unimaginable consequences.

It is instructive, if hair-raising, to look back to a notional nuclear war that broke out 17 years ago in the same place, over the same issue of who ought to govern the beautiful territory of Hindu-run, Muslim-dominated Kashmir. Maybe recalling that story will help avoid the usual post-crisis inattention to a still-ticking time bomb.

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In 1985, The Christian Science Monitor held a contest for the best essay that, as seen from the year 2010, plausibly described how "peace" had come to the world during the intervening quarter-century. The first-prize essay's description of how peace arrived in the late 20th century carries some haunting echoes for us today.

Peace came to the world as a result of a catastrophic nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan had already fought two wars over the disputed province of Kashmir. According to the essay winner's scenario, each had clandestinely acquired a deliverable nuclear weapons capability. But no one expected those weapons to be actually used. History's bloodiest war stemmed from miscalculation. An incident led to an outrage, an outrage led to war, and war led to nuclear-tipped missiles arcing in both directions toward mutual holocaust.

In living color, a stunned world saw mushroom clouds rising in Karachi, Pakistan, and Madras, India; craters where cities once stood; multitudes of innocents blinded; sweeping panoramas of a moonlike landscape, followed by climate change in the Northern Hemisphere; a global food crisis; ultraviolet radiation; and existential despair.

Analysts later speculated that, while neither side planned to use their nuclear weapons, there had probably been a computer failure in New Delhi. But, concluded the author, "in the end ... the very concept of blame seems irrelevant.... The demonic horror ... brought home to everyone the universality, not of brotherhood, but of the vulnerability of man.... It was neither idealism nor love of mankind that brought peace but the reality therapy of [nuclear] war.... Wisdom came not through treaty but through tragedy.... The cost was high but, in the end, reality was the only effective teacher."

What was left of India hastily agreed to a plebiscite in Kashmir – as mandated by the UN half a century earlier. All the other nuclear-weapons nations, having looked into the abyss, finally acknowledged that to use their weaponry would threaten civilization itself – and got rid of it.

That's how peace came to the world.

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That was not the only extraordinary feature of the Monitor's contest. Anticipating a modest response, the editors were swamped with more than 1,300 complete 3,000-word essays from around the world. The first-prize essay was written by Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado. The four judges themselves constituted an improbable mix – former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, former CIA director Stansfield Turner, Swiss strategist Curt Gasteyger, and this professor. After plowing through the 45 finalists, we had little difficulty agreeing that the governor's narrative was the most compelling.

Neither governor nor judges could foresee the real-life acquisition of nuclear weaponry a few years later by the two huge, largely impoverished nations locked in controversy. But it was as clear when the contest took place as it is today that a nuclear war between them could threaten everyone's security. Until India and Pakistan peacefully settle their dispute – or are seriously pressured to do so – not just their billion-plus populations, but much of the planet will lie at the mercy of volatile decisionmaking in New Delhi and Islamabad.

If the irony and the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that both sides are right, catastrophe could befall South Asia because both sides are wrong – India for denying the population of Kashmir genuine self-determination, Pakistan for fostering terrorism, and both for blustering when prudence is called for.

Perhaps their new capacity to inflict genocidal destruction will persuade South Asian leaders to behave as rationally in crisis as the US and Soviet leaders who got through the cold war without using their arsenals. Indeed, maybe the only realistic way to "bring peace to the world" is the way it happened in Governor Lamm's scenario. But there must be a better way.

• Lincoln P. Bloomfield is professor of political science, emeritus, at MIT. He has served in the Navy, State Department, and National Security Council.