Limiting the Damage

Limiting the Damage

Mini Teaser: Nuclear hypocrisy for India's sake endangers U.S. security.

by Author(s): Robert Einhorn


THE UNITED States has an important national interest in strengthening relations with India and making it a strategic partner in the 21st century. But efforts to cement ties with India should not be pursued in a way that undermines a U.S. national interest of equal or arguably greater importance: preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Bush Administration has made precisely that mistake in the nuclear deal reached this past summer during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington.

In the joint statement released on July 18, India agreed to take several steps to demonstrate its commitment to being a responsible nuclear power and supporter of non-proliferation goals. In exchange, the administration agreed to seek changes in U.S. law and multilateral commitments to permit exports of nuclear equipment and technology to India--a radical departure from longstanding legal obligations and policies that precluded nuclear cooperation with states not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Administration officials have claimed that by aligning India more closely with the policies and practices of the international non-proliferation regime, the deal achieves a net gain for non-proliferation. Several of the steps pledged by India are simply reaffirmations of existing positions--for example, continuing its moratorium on nuclear testing, strengthening export controls and supporting negotiations on a multilateral fissile-material cutoff treaty. Some other steps are indeed new and useful. Among these are the commitments to place civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and to refrain from transferring enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that do not already possess them.

Still, the non-proliferation gains of the deal are meager compared to the major damage to non-proliferation goals that will result if the deal goes forward as it currently stands.

The U.S.-Indian deal would make it harder to achieve key Bush Administration non-proliferation initiatives. The United States is now asking the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to permit nuclear cooperation only with countries that adhere to the IAEA's Additional Protocol and to ban transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that do not already possess fuel-cycle facilities. But getting NSG partners to tighten the rules in ways favored by the United States will be an uphill battle if they are also being asked to bend one of their cardinal rules (that is, no nuclear trade with non-parties to the NPT) because it no longer suits the United States.

By seeking an exception to the rules to accommodate America's new friendship with India, the deal reinforces the impression that the U.S. approach to non-proliferation has become selective and self-serving, not consistent and principled. Rules the United States initiated and championed would be perceived as less binding and more optional. Countries with good relations with Washington may conclude that the United States will tolerate and eventually accommodate a decision to acquire nuclear weapons, while China and Russia may feel less inhibited about engaging in nuclear cooperation with "special friends" of their own that the United States might find risky and objectionable.

The nuclear deal in its present form has produced resentment on the part of close U.S. partners like Japan, Germany and Brazil who were forced to choose between nuclear weapons and civil nuclear cooperation. They chose the latter, giving up the weapons option and joining the NPT to realize the benefits of nuclear cooperation. Now that India has been offered the opportunity to have its cake and eat it too, many non-nuclear NPT parties feel let down. Not wishing to harm relations with either India or the United States, they are unlikely to make a public fuss over the sudden reversal of U.S. policy (on which they were not consulted). But they will be less inclined in the future to make additional sacrifices in the name of non-proliferation.

Moreover, U.S. plans to engage in nuclear cooperation with India will make it more difficult to address proliferation challenges such as Iran. Of course, Iran's interest in nuclear weapons long predated the India deal. But the deal has strengthened the case Iran can make internationally. Why, Iranian officials have asked publicly, should Iran give up its right as an NPT party to an enrichment capability when India, a non-party to the NPT, can keep even its nuclear weapons and still benefit from nuclear cooperation?

In general, the Bush Administration's policy shift conveys the impression that the United States--the country to which the world has always looked as the leader in the global fight against proliferation--is now de-emphasizing non-proliferation and giving it a back seat to other foreign policy goals. Other countries can be expected to follow suit in assigning non-proliferation a lower priority relative to political and commercial considerations in their international dealings, and this will have negative long-term consequences for the international non-proliferation regime.

THE DAMAGE can be minimized--and the deal transformed from a net non-proliferation loss to a net non-proliferation gain--if several improvements are made in the course of implementing the July 18 joint statement (whether by the U.S. Congress in adopting new legislation, by the governments of India and the United States themselves, by the Nuclear Suppliers Group in modifying its guidelines or by a combination of these).

Essay Types: Essay