Once upon a time, if a war was going to destroy your world, it had to take place in your world. The soldiers had to land, the planes had to fly overhead, the ships had to be off the coast. No longer. Nuclear war changed that equation forever and not just because nuclear weapons could be delivered from a great distance by missile. To use a term that has become commonplace in our world when discussing commerce, the prospect of nuclear conflict has globalized war and it's a nightmare of the first order.
In the post-Cold War world, Exhibit A in that process would certainly be the unnerving potential for a nuclear war to break out between India and Pakistan. As Dilip Hiro, author most recently of The Age of Aspiration: Money, Power, and Conflict in Globalizing India, makes clear today, there is no place on the planet where a nuclear war is more imaginable. After all, those two South Asian countries have been to war with each other or on the verge of it again and again since they were split apart in 1947.
Of course, a major nuclear war between them would result in an unimaginable catastrophe in South Asia itself, with casualties estimated at up to 20 million dead from bomb blasts, fire, and the effects of radiation on the human body. And that, unfortunately, would only be the beginning. As Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon wrote in Scientific American back in 2009, when the Indian and Pakistani arsenals were significantly smaller than they are today, any major nuclear conflagration in the region could hardly be confined to South Asia. The smoke and particulates thrown into the atmosphere from those weapons would undoubtedly bring on some version of a global "nuclear winter," whose effects could last for at least 10 years, causing crop shortfalls and failures across the planet. The cooling and diminished sunlight (along with a loss of rainfall) would shorten growing seasons in planetary breadbaskets and produce "killing frosts in summer," triggering declines in crop yields across the planet. Robock and Toon estimate that "around one billion people worldwide who now live on marginal food supplies would be directly threatened with starvation by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan."
To say the least, it's a daunting prospect at the very moment when the Obama White House has just ended the president's final Nuclear Security Summit with fears rising that Pakistan's new generation of small, front-line tactical nuclear weapons are "highly vulnerable to theft or misuse." In "The Most Dangerous Place on Earth," Hiro, an expert on the South Asian region, suggests just why a nuclear war is all too conceivable there and would be a catastrophe for us all.