The Magazine

The India Syndrome

U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy melts down.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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LAST WEEK, PRESIDENT BUSH played a card that President Clinton and, before him, President Carter, had only toyed with: guaranteeing India, a nuclear weapons state that has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), full access to civilian nuclear energy goods. The president did this in the name of great power politics: Court India, a rising power, to help counterbalance China. But in doing so, he kicked to the side decades of nonproliferation policy and international agreements, while also pledging to ask Congress to overturn existing U.S. law, which prohibits such assistance.

In essence, President Bush promised visiting Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh to treat India as if it were Great Britain or France--giving New Delhi open access to U.S. and international nuclear fuel and reactors, advanced U.S. nuclear technology, and the freedom to make as many nuclear weapons free from international inspection as it wants.

Indian officials, of course, wanted more: They demanded that the United States explicitly recognize India as a nuclear weapons state under the NPT. After wrangling with the Indians, who tried to get this specific language into the U.S.-Indian joint statement (delaying its release for several hours), senior White House officials finally dug their heels in and said no.

But why? The White House had already given in on every other Indian nuclear demand. If the United States was fully prepared to treat India as if it were one of the original five nuclear weapons states that signed the NPT, why not say so?

Part of the answer lies with the treaty itself: No nuclear weapons state other than the original five that signed the NPT in 1968 can formally be granted that same privileged status without every other NPT member agreeing to so admit them. On this, U.S. officials knew they could not deliver.

This might seem like a relatively minor point, except that it reflects the underlying rationale of the NPT that nuclear proliferation would be controlled by states foregoing weapons in exchange for access to controlled and monitored civilian nuclear power technology. Treating India as though the rules of the international nuclear proliferation regime don't apply to it can't help but make stemming proliferation even more difficult today and in the future.

For example, China has said it wanted to sell Pakistan two reactors earlier this year but Washington objected, since this would violate guidelines forbidding such sales to non-NPT states that refuse to open all of their nuclear facilities to inspections. Is the United States now willing to look the other way? And what about Israel? It has long sought advanced computers for its nuclear weapons-related research institutes. But those same guidelines have banned such sales. Is the United States now willing to let such sales proceed? Even if countries like Egypt would take this as an invitation to begin nosing their way out from under the NPT regime (as Egypt indeed recently threatened to do)?

Then there is Iran. How can the United States maintain or increase its leverage over Russia, Germany, France, and Britain to keep them from appeasing Iran's "civilian" nuclear ambitions if we are encouraging international civilian nuclear commerce for India? New Delhi never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, has tested a bomb, and refuses to open all of its civilian nuclear facilities for inspection. As yet, Iran is not guilty of any of these.

And what of Brazil, Libya, Argentina, Ukraine, and South Africa--all states that once had nuclear bombs or weapons programs but chose to give them up and sign the NPT in exchange for international civilian nuclear cooperation. Will they think they made a mistake? If we make good on our nuclear offers to India, how likely is it that they (not to mention other nuclear dabblers like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia) will all remain passive?

Finally, there's the question of how discriminating the United States and its friends are going to be in sharing nuclear power reactors, with all of their attendant proliferation risks (hazards that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited earlier this month when she announced that the 1994 reactor deal with North Korea was officially dead). Backers of reactor aid to India insist nuclear power is a timely fix for India's oil and natural gas consumption, coal pollution, and global warming. But if it is, it is hard to see why anyone should be deprived of nuclear power.