War Stories

India’s Summer

Will Bush’s deal with Delhi unravel the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

This week, the Bush administration pulled off the deftest geopolitical maneuver that any U.S. regime has managed in more than a decade. Yet, with the same step, it addled the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with more confusion and peril than at any time in the accord’s 35-year history.

The big move, which didn’t get nearly the banner headlines it deserved, took place on July 19, when President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a joint statement resolving to “transform” the relationship between their two countries and to “establish a global partnership.”

The centerpiece of this grand alliance is a U.S. pledge to provide full assistance to India’s nuclear energy sector—in short, to treat India “as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” that should be allowed to “acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states.”

At first glance, this may seem like boilerplate, but it could hardly signal a more radical shift in policy. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, India was a stalwart ally of the Soviet Union and therefore an implacable U.S. foe. After the Cold War ended, relations warmed somewhat, but they could only go so far as long as India remained a renegade nuclear state. In 1974, India tested a nuclear bomb then built an arsenal of atomic weapons. It had never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a result, no signatory, including the United States, could supply it with any nuclear equipment or supplies—even for civilian purposes.

In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton held out a package of economic and technical enticements if India disarmed and signed the NPT. But India refused and relations cooled.

The startling thing about this week’s joint statement is that Bush has agreed to give India everything that Clinton offered, plus some—and India gets to keep, even expand, its nuclear arsenal.

This deal violates not just the NPT but several U.S. laws governing nuclear exports, as well as the international agreement underlying the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an organization of 44 nations that follow standardized rules on importing and exporting nuclear materials.

Changing the rules to make an exception for one country is troublesome, awkward, and unprecedented. But is it necessarily a bad idea?

Consider India. It is the world’s largest democracy, with a stable political system and one of the fastest-growing economies. It is poised to be one of the century’s global powerhouses—perhaps the Asian powerhouse or, in any case, a country that could offset the rising power of China. India is also naturally inclined toward a partnership with America. Its people speak English; its economy is oriented toward the U.S. market; its interests are fairly well aligned with U.S. interests and values.

For a few years now, India’s leaders have obsessed over one issue in their discussions with U.S. officials: that India has huge energy needs; that its big hope lies in nuclear power; that its land is not blessed with uranium or other resources for the task; and so, it wants the United States to help bend the rules on nonproliferation so that India can buy nuclear materials.

In exchange for this help, Prime Minister Singh agrees to let inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency into India’s civilian nuclear reactors. He will follow all IAEA rules on “safeguarding” these facilities. He will abide by the NPT’s protocols against selling or transferring nuclear materials and technology to other countries. As a further sweetener, he will open up India’s markets not just to American nuclear suppliers but also to a wide range of American-made conventional weapons that were previously off limits.

So, from a strategic angle, here is a golden opportunity to make a solid friend—a true partner—in a region where U.S. influence has been waning. If India needs materials for nuclear power, and if we could cement relations by supplying these materials, why shouldn’t we?

Advocates for this deal note that, as a practical matter, India is never going to give up its nuclear weapons. The NPT lets Russia and China—as two of the five authorized nuclear powers (the others being the United States, France, and Britain)—import as much nuclear material as they want. Why should India, a more stable and democratic nation, be denied the same privilege?

At the same time, there are several strong arguments—raised mainly by arms-control specialists—against this peculiar arrangement. First, India has agreed to let the IAEA inspect its civilian reactors—but not its military reactors, where it can continue to process as much nuclear fuel and make as many nuclear bombs as it likes.

Second, if the United States can insist on special favors for India, what is to keep Russia and China from doing the same for Iran and Pakistan? If India claims the right to keep nuclear arms because it is a “responsible state” of growing stature, what is to keep Brazil or Japan from declaring similar entitlements?

The U.S.-India joint statement draws a distinction between India and these other countries. One key passage states:

The prime minister and the president agree that international relations must fully reflect changes in the global scenario that has taken place since 1945. The president restated his view that international relations are going to have to adapt to reflect India’s central and growing role.

There is something to this recognition. Singh wanted to push it further, proposing to Bush that India be made a permanent member of an expanded U.N. Security Council and officially be declared the sixth “nuclear power” under a revised NPT. Bush resisted these extensions, for now.

But doesn’t this passage—in the context of the agreement that the two leaders did reach—reinforce the notion that nuclear weapons are the legitimate tokens of a great power? Doesn’t it, in effect, encourage other ambitious powers in their quest for nuclear weapons? And doesn’t India’s success this week at having it both ways—getting the civilian benefits of nuclear power, which the NPT grants those who forgo the bomb, while at the same time getting to keep its bombs—offer hope to aspiring nuclear outlaws that, if they just hold firm, they can outlast disfavor?

Even some supporters of a new alliance with India will wonder if Bush couldn’t have squeezed out a better deal. If Singh refused to dismantle his nuclear-weapons program, couldn’t he at least have been pressured to freeze it (perhaps in some bilateral side treaty with Pakistan, another nuclear power that never signed the NPT) and to let the IAEA inspect his military, as well as his civilian, reactors?

The India exemption is not a done deal. Federal laws and international guidelines will have to be rewritten. This means congressional hearings, floor debates, and special conclaves of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Bush and Singh realize this will take a while. Their joint statement notes that the two leaders will “establish a working group” to devise new arrangements “on a phased basis,” and that they will “review this progress when the President visits India in 2006.”

It is clear to even the most dedicated arms controllers that the NPT is fraying under the pressure of modern technology and an increasingly anarchic international system. The world’s most rogue regime, North Korea, simply abrogated the treaty. Iran seems on its way to acquiring the bomb by exploiting the treaty’s loopholes. The NPT isn’t quite obsolete, but maybe one way to keep the nuclear genie under some control is occasionally, unavoidably, to go outside the treaty, to cut separate deals with various countries that have gone, or are about to go, nuclear—negotiations with Iran, security guarantees for North Korea, a global partnership with India.

Bush’s challenge, in pursuing this new pragmatism, is to keep each deal truly separate. In the case of India, he has to figure out how to make the best of a fait accompli (India has the bomb, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it) without creating a precedent that other nuclear wannabes will demand to follow. It would be nice to know, at this point, that Bush recognizes there is a challenge. Does he see that the India deal could potentially unravel the delicate system of incentives and obligations that underlie the Non-Proliferation Treaty? Does he care?