Betting the Ranch on the US-India Nuclear Deal

in Program

The Bush administration, which has bet the ranch on a war in Iraq based on wildly unrealistic assumptions, has, in effect, doubled this bet on the nuclear deal with India.  This time around, the administration is betting that the up-side potential of transformed US-India ties is quite high, while the down-side risks to proliferation can be contained.  

One of the two main proliferation risks associated with loosening the rules of nuclear commerce is that India would not be the sole beneficiary, and that once the rules are relaxed, other countries would also succeed in securing preferential treatment.  In this scenario, profit-taking by nuclear suppliers would trump proliferation concerns.  States that have signed up for tough safeguards but that are worried about the shakiness of the Nonproliferation Treaty regime would seek more freedom to maneuver, alongside states of proliferation concern.  A key protection against this significant down-side risk is to continue to insist that nuclear suppliers adhere to a consensus rule before engaging in new commercial transactions.

The second main proliferation risk is whether the nuclear deal with India would make the resumption of nuclear testing by New Delhi more likely.  This question has barely been discussed, even though the answer matters a great deal. 

A global moratorium on nuclear testing has been in place for eight years.  If India were to be the first country to break this moratorium, it would likely generate a chain reaction of testing by Pakistan, Russia, China, the United States, and perhaps by North Korea.  (If Iran’s nuclear program were sufficiently advanced by the time the current moratorium on testing were broken, it, too, might join in this procession.)  New tests would be especially helpful for states with relatively small nuclear arsenals that seek more sophisticated designs and a greater variety of weapons.  Clearly, the US-India nuclear deal would be short sighted and dangerous if it facilitated a decision later on by New Delhi to be the first nation to resume nuclear testing.  A new cascade of nuclear tests would have devastating effects on regional security and global efforts to prevent proliferation – even if testing does not stimulate new arms races.    

Regrettably, the deal struck by the Bush administration and the enabling legislation it has asked the Congress to endorse make a resumption of nuclear testing by India more, not less, likely.  Unless modified, the Bush administration’s proposals would nullify congressional oversight and weaken the hand of a future President and a future Congress to dissuade India from resuming underground tests. 

The key provision that makes another round of Indian testing more likely is a promise of assured fuel supplies to guard against disruption.  If implemented, this promise eviscerates the administration’s insistence that the deal could collapse if New Delhi were to resume testing, because assured fuel supplies constitutes India’s best insurance policy against disruption. 

These and other particulars of the proposed deal appear to add up to a tacit Bush administration endorsement of a larger and more capable Indian nuclear arsenal.  If this inference is incorrect, and if it is not the Bush administration’s intent to facilitate another round of testing by New Delhi, it would be a relatively simple matter to dispel this misapprehension.  The administration would revise its plans to provide India with assured nuclear fuel supplies and it would actively seek ways to include India within the P-5’s moratorium on new fissile material production for bombs.  New Delhi could also disarm skeptics of this deal by joining the 176 other nations that have signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or at the very least by promising that it would not be the first nation to resume nuclear testing.           

One explanation for why New Delhi has yet to sign the CTBT relates to domestic politics.  During the Clinton administration, the coalition government then leading India said that it could only sign on the dotted line if nuclear exports and other technology denials were loosened.  The Bush administration has now graciously offered these inducements, but India – along with Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Syria – still hasn’t signed the CTBT. 

The political wheel has turned.  India’s previous government is now in the opposition, seeking opportunities to brand those in power with being soft on national security.  Meanwhile, the Bush administration, unlike the Clinton team, is not interested in the CTBT, and has asked very little of India to buttress nonproliferation, while giving away a great deal. 

State Department negotiators promised Capitol Hill that they would insist on a credible, defensible and transparent plan to separate India’s civil and military nuclear programs.  They failed on all three counts, bowing instead to a separation plan acceptable to the Indian nuclear establishment.  That left one last promise by Foggy Bottom to keep: that safeguards would be required “in perpetuity” on designated civilian facilities – even though India’s separation plan would provide negligible safeguards on too few nuclear facilities.  To compound the damage of prior errors, the Bush administration’s negotiators met New Delhi’s demand for assured fuel supplies as the price to be paid for weak safeguards “in perpetuity.”  Even this pledge is hollow, since the Government of India has declared that it would have the right to suspend safeguards if nuclear fuel were disrupted for any reason.           

That the recipient of the Bush administration’s largesse still refuses to sign the CTBT plainly suggests that Indian domestic politics is not the only — or even the controlling — factor at work here.  India’s negotiating strategy with both the Clinton and Bush administrations is entirely consistent with a country that is waiting patiently to test again, and wants no legal obligations to prevent it from doing so.      

In 1998, New Delhi carried out a series of tests, breaking a two-year global moratorium after the CTBT was negotiated.  Pakistan quickly followed suit.  New Delhi has claimed that these tests accomplished all technical objectives, including one test to certify a high-yield device that is presumably required for contingencies relating to China.  Experts who read seismographs for a living are not so sure.  After India’s 1974 test of a “peaceful nuclear device,” there were similar claims of success, which were retracted only after the 1998 test series, when government officials acknowledged problems with design and yield as well as the need to conduct more than a single test to certify a new design.

This thumbnail sketch of India’s nuclear testing to date helps explain why succeeding coalition governments have reaffirmed – but have refused to go beyond — present tense formulations that India has no plans to test again.  Does this narrative also suggest the futility of seeking at least some heavy lifting by New Delhi to help prevent more nuclear testing and proliferation?

Realists would argue that, were New Delhi to decide to test again, Washington’s preferences would have little standing.  Moreover, the Bush administration’s catechism holds that the nuclear choices of friends are not worrisome, and that we must focus on bad actors, instead.  Besides, seeking constraints on nuclear testing would be one of many “deal breakers,” and that the anticipated benefits of this deal should not be held hostage to stale nonproliferation agendas. 

Let us acknowledge that, if a future Indian government concludes that it simply must test nuclear weapons again, it is likely to do so.  But it is also true that New Delhi’s decision making takes into account external factors, especially Washington’s preferences, weigh heavily on New Delhi’s decisions.  To cite one obvious example, a decision by Washington (or Beijing) to break a moratorium on nuclear testing would greatly simplify and accelerate New Delhi’s decision to resume testing. 

The Realist argument is also contradicted by New Delhi’s prior restraint on nuclear testing.  If Realism were the overriding consideration, why did it take New Delhi twelve years to test a nuclear device after being sorely embarrassed in a border war with China in 1962?  And why did it take New Delhi 24 more years for another foray into testing?  Clearly, other factors are in play here, including the anticipated reactions of the United States and other nations.

The Bush administration doesn’t make sense when it asserts it is helpless to affect the choices of friends like India while maintaining that has every intention of changing the calculations of trouble makers like Iran and North Korea.  Nor does it make sense to contend that India’s nuclear choices aren’t our problem, since a cascade of nuclear tests would not be confined to our friends. 

While an accelerated rapprochement between Washington and New Delhi is long overdue and will broaden over time in many areas, the Bush administration has been most unwise to place nuclear cooperation as the linchpin of this process.  It is equally unwise to postulate a choice between the transformation of US-India relations and the Nonproliferation Treaty.  Indeed, a Realist view would strongly suggest the limits of transformation, since India hasn’t sloughed off three centuries of colonial rule to do Washington’s bidding. 

Those with unrealistic expectations of this nuclear deal are likely to be disappointed.  India’s growing energy needs and its large Shia population (second only to Iran) means that New Delhi will seek to remain on good terms with Tehran.  Realism also suggests that, while New Delhi and Beijing will continue to eye each other warily, they will also seek improved relations.   

There is a crucial difference between acknowledging India as a state with nuclear weapons and aiding its nuclear ambitions.  The Bush administration’s proposed nuclear deal crosses this line.  While its deference to nuclear Realism is highly selective, its practical result could well be contagious.  All cases of proliferation are unique, but none are singular.  Instead, one instance of proliferation usually facilitates and presages the next.  

The network of treaties, norms, and ancillary bodies known collectively as the Nonproliferation Treaty regime is part of the reason why proliferation has been kept in check.  So far these mechanisms have succeeded far more than they have failed.  Sometimes they have slowed proliferation down, buying valuable time. 

The NPT regime is now threatened by new entrants to the nuclear club.  Their entry is simplified by relaxed rules of nuclear commerce and certified by nuclear testing.  The Bush administration’s proposed nuclear deal with India loosens commercial constraints, while hinting that New Delhi need not be overly concerned about resuming nuclear tests after a decent interval has passed.  The subtext of this deal – the Bush administration’s negotiating behavior, proposed legislative amendments, weak separation plan, disfavor with the CTBT, promises of assured nuclear fuel supplies, as well as the deal’s overarching geo-strategic rationale — all point to this damaging conclusion.

If India were to break another global moratorium on nuclear testing, it would do so to address a perceived need or ambition, which the architects of this deal seem quite comfortable in nurturing.   There would be no compelling rationale for India – or for Pakistan and China — to resume testing at this point except to improve or diversify their nuclear arsenals.  It therefore matters a great deal whether the United States strongly resists or tacitly encourages New Delhi to test again.  The Realist argument that the United States is helpless to shape India’s nuclear choices conveniently absolves the executive and legislative branches from further responsibility, while inviting more proliferation. 

Make no mistake: The administration’s proposed deal makes it easier for India to resume nuclear testing by stripping the executive and legislative branches of leverage needed to encourage restraint.  If the Congress does not wish to make it easier for India to break another moratorium on testing, it will not help New Delhi to accumulate a nuclear fuel bank.  Instead, each provision of fuel would be predicated on India’s not breaking a global moratorium on testing.


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