Are the Basic Assumptions Behind the Bush Administration’s Nuclear Deal with India Sound?

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The Washington Post has recently published two op-eds in support of the nuclear deal with India by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Robert Kagan. Both op-eds frame the right central question about the Bush administration’s bold gamble. The essence of the administration’s latest gamble is that the agreement’s geo-strategic advantages will outweigh whatever costs there may be with respect to proliferation. 

Since the benefits as well as the downstream risks are anticipatory, much depends on the basic assumptions of the questioner. If key basic assumptions are faulty, the answer is also likely to be wrong.  I believe that the answer provided by Secretary Rice and Kagan that, on balance, anticipated geo-strategic gains outweigh prospective proliferation risks, is wrong because some of their key assumptions are wildly optimistic. 

One key assumption by Secretary Rice and Kagan is absolutely right: the scope of the Indo-US partnership needs to be broadened and its pace accelerated. There is bipartisan agreement on these matters, dating back to the second term of the Clinton administration.  To its credit, the Bush administration is taking cooperation with India to a much higher plane, moving smartly forward in a dozen or more areas, including defense and space cooperation, public health, agriculture, trade, investment, and non-nuclear energy generation.  All of which raises the question of whether cooperation in nuclear energy – which has inevitably become the centerpiece of improved bilateral relations – should have been added to this mix.

A second key assumption of the deal’s advocates – that the benefits of the geo-strategic partnership will be profound and will extend to sensitive areas of considerable US interest – requires a hard scrub.  New Delhi has not sloughed off three centuries of colonialism in order to do Washington’s bidding.  The Indian government has gained considerable advantages by bandwaggoning with the Bush administration, but it will continue to make decisions based on its own national security interests.  The long-term energy requirements that prompted New Delhi to seek Washington’s help in this nuclear deal will also require India to remain on good terms with Iran.  Similarly, those anticipating a united front between Washington and New Delhi against China are likely to be disappointed.

The Secretary of State and Kagan disagree about the nuclear agreement being detrimental to nonproliferation.  Here Kagan, who acknowledges risk, is on much firmer ground than the Bush administration, which argues that the deal is worth doing because it brings New Delhi into the “nonproliferation mainstream.”

If the administration had stuck to the principles it promised the Congress to uphold in the negotiations its argument would have more standing.  Regrettably, the deal struck under the deadline presented by the President’s trip to India accepts New Delhi’s place far outside the nonproliferation mainstream.  Administration officials promised Congress they would negotiate a deal in which the Government of India would separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities in a way that would be credible and defensible on nonproliferation grounds.  Such a deal, the administration promised, would require that few power reactors – especially those designed to facilitate production of large quantities of bomb-making material – be placed on the military list; that fast breeder reactors would be designated for civilian purposes; and that civilian facilities would be safeguarded in perpetuity.

On all of these core nonproliferation principles, the administration caved to allow New Delhi to accommodate its bomb lobby.  India’s fast breeder programs that now exist or are under construction will not be safeguarded.  Eight reactors will not be placed under safeguards, including six knockoffs of a Canadian design well suited for bomb making.  The ten new power reactors that would be dedicated to producing electricity (four additional reactors are already subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency) would be subject to a new, “India-specific” type of inspection, meaning that they would be safeguarded only so long as fuel is provided for them.  By promising assured fuel in perpetuity, the administration has managed to meet its promise of safeguards in perpetuity.  The practical effect of this tortured logic would be that if India tests a new and improved nuclear weapon design – as most close observers of New Delhi’s nuclear ambitions expect – then the United States would be obliged to continue supporting India’s nuclear ambitions. 

If this is the new “nonproliferation mainstream” then the NPT is in serious trouble.  Kagan suspects this to be the case, arguing that “the nonproliferation ‘regime’ may now be collapsing.”  If this key assumption is correct, then kicking out a few more struts by catering to India’s bomb lobby won’t matter very much.  Secretary Rice doesn’t leap to this conclusion, but she shares with Kagan another key assumption: that India is an exceptional case, and that whatever down-side proliferation risks that are associated with this deal are manageable.

This is the most critical assumption behind the deal, and the one that warrants the closest scrutiny.  Much depends on whether the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which operates by informal consensus and which has been successfully prodded by the United States and other key stakeholders to put tighter nonproliferation controls over profit, can hold fast with a singular exception for India.  Given the great lengths to which the administration has gone to strike this deal, it is reasonable to expect that it will go to similar lengths in the NSG to help India.  If, in the process, the consensus rule in the NSG is weakened or busted in pursuit of this presumed geo-strategic partnership, Kagan’s prediction of the NPT’s collapse would be on much firmer ground.

No one could seriously argue that the significant advancement of US-India relations would outweigh a significant weakening of constraints against proliferation.  And no admirer of India in the US Congress or elsewhere ought to be faced with this stark choice.  This time, before consenting to another one of the administration’s bold, geo-strategic bets, the Congress needs to dwell on the assumptions behind the initiative.


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