Asia
Commentary

Negating American Power

in Program

President George W. Bush and his most powerful advisers are fueled by a rare, high-octane mix of hyper-realism and transformational zeal forged in the aftermath of surprise attacks against emblematic targets on US soil.  The administration’s hyper-realism is expressed in deep skepticism about the ability of multilateral institutions and traditional diplomacy to turn back threats posed by the most deadly weapons in the most dangerous hands.  Its transformational zeal is applied to hugely ambitious projects, most notably the remaking of Iraq, which has subsequently been defended in more grandiose terms as a remaking of the Greater Middle East.  This powerful brew of hyper-realism and transformational zeal have also been evident in the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement, which is conceived as part of a grander effort to remake the nuclear order inherited from the Cold War.

In both of these far-reaching initiatives, the President and those closest to him believe deeply that bold maneuvers must not be compromised by the faint hearted, or by cautious bureaucrats, nay-sayers, and second guessers.  This leadership team has not occupied their posts to fiddle at the margins of momentous events. To shape the future, they are prepared to seize the initiative, accept the slings and arrows of critics, and await history’s verdict.  They act on an unshakable determination that they, and not their sworn enemies, will dictate the terms of engagement in a war worthy of America’s blood and treasure.  In their view, the essence of leadership in trying times is the fait accompli.
 
This mix of hyper-realism and transformational zeal may seem contradictory to many. How is it possible for US leaders to be hyper-realistic and extraordinarily idealistic at the same time?  Actually, American national security policy has long reflected both impulses, although not to such an extent, nor so concurrently. The Bush administration manages this merger by refusing to allow its deep skepticism about traditional diplomacy and multilateral institutions to result in a sense of defeatism, which is a totally unacceptable response to the challenges America and others face. Instead, the administration’s inner circle resolves its skepticism by choosing heroic initiatives to defeat evil, promote freedom, and remake the world from a position of unparalleled strength.
 
The fusion of these two impulses will surely be transient for many reasons.  Domestic politics in the United States as well as alliance politics among free nations cannot sustain very many faits accomplis of this magnitude, which in turn generate countervailing steps by those uneasy with or threatened by the extraordinary exercise of US power.  America’s armed forces have been sorely stressed by the Iraq project, and the pursuit of heroic measures by exclusionary means simply does not work for very long in American politics.   Above all, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Iraq project was ill-conceived and ill-planned.  Assessments of the Bush administration’s efforts to remake the nuclear order will follow in due course, but its reprise of familiar tactics suggests that, in this instance as well, the fusion of hyper-realism and transcendental zeal could well have long-term, negative consequences.   
 
Traditional Conservatism abhors transformational zeal and would not attempt to construct grand new architectures of this sort – at least not until something better than the existing order was clearly within reach. But this Bush administration is anything but traditionally conservative – at least as measured by the yardsticks of deficits, limited government, separation of church and state, protecting personal privacy, or the remaking of the international system. 
 
Radicals are willing to go boldly where traditional Conservatives fear to tread. The impulse to change and the vision of a more perfect world tend to override careful planning and expert calculations of how the best intentions could be steamrolled by unintended consequences and downside risks.  The Bush administration’s radical impulses are grounded in the post-9/11 belief that the existing order is not sustainable with half-measures, and that harder choices are required to avoid calamity.  As political scientist Robert Jervis has noted, we are thus presented with the counter-intuitive reality of the most powerful nation in the world rejecting, rather than seeking to affirm, the status quo. 
 
When encountering an administration inclined toward radical change and faits accomplis, it becomes essential for the US Congress and for America’s friends and allies to ask difficult questions ahead of time about the underlying assumptions behind proposed bold maneuvers. Key assumptions behind transformational initiatives may not be sound if they become fixed ideas among a very closed circle, if expertise is not welcome if it’s unsupportive, and if consultation, foreign and domestic, is confined to affirming the administration’s preferences. Those with fixed ideas are also not typically inclined to solicit independent views from the intelligence community. 
 
If, under this closed-loop decision-making process, key assumptions are wildly unrealistic – like assuming that the Iraq project would be a “cakewalk,” that US and allied forces would not be placed in a cruel vice, and that Iraqi oil revenues would remove burdens from US taxpayers – then negative, unintended consequences and downside risks will be substantial and open ended. If Capitol Hill and America’s friends and allies fail to ask hard questions with sufficient insistence ahead of faits accomplis, they might at least seek corrective steps after the fact to limit risk. 
 
The Bush administration, which has bet the ranch on a war in Iraq based on assumptions far removed from ground reality, has, in effect, doubled this bet on the nuclear deal with India.  This time around, the administration is betting that the upside potential of transformed US-India ties is quite high, while the downside risks to proliferation can be contained. If this key assumption is unrealistic, proliferation problems will become considerably worse. 

One reason for concern is that the Bush administration’s proposed deal helps India to grow its nuclear weapon stockpile as well as its economy.  Friends of India in the US Congress and elsewhere should not have to endorse both at the same time.  The choice between better ties with India over tough controls against nuclear commerce was unnecessary as well as untimely, given pressing concerns over the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. Besides, the US nuclear deal with India was not needed for vastly improved bilateral ties, and may now interfere with them, if the Congress or the Nuclear Suppliers Group attaches prudent conditions to reduce proliferation risks resulting from the agreement. 
 
One significant assumption behind the Bush administration’s initiative is that exceptions to current rules of nuclear commerce can be limited to India. The NSG, a 45-member organization that operates by informal consensus, is a most unusual cartel, in that it seeks to prevent profit taking when proliferation might result. With much prodding by the United States and other key stakeholders in the NPT, suppliers have progressively tightened the rules of nuclear commerce. 

If the consensus rule is loosened by side deals or overridden entirely in order to push the India agreement through, many more “exceptions” could follow.  States that have signed up for tough safeguards but are worried about the shakiness of the NPT regime might seek more freedom to maneuver, alongside states of proliferation concern that step in line for new transactions. Consequently, one essential protection against this significant downside risk is for the NSG to continue to insist that its members adhere to the consensus rule.

The second main proliferation risk of the nuclear deal with India is that it could make the resumption of nuclear testing by New Delhi more likely.  A global moratorium on nuclear testing has been in place for eight years. A number of states might like to test nuclear weapons again, including India, Pakistan, Russia, China, the United States, Great Britain, France, and North Korea.  (If Iran’s nuclear program were sufficiently advanced if and when nuclear testing resumes, it, too, might join in this procession.)  Not all of these countries are likely to test first, thereby providing an opening for others. India has already proven in 1998 that it has the mettle to break a global moratorium on testing.
 
Clearly, the US-India nuclear deal would be short sighted and dangerous if it facilitated a decision later on by New Delhi to resume testing.  Depending on the extent of the resulting cascade of nuclear tests, it could have devastating effects on regional security and global efforts to prevent proliferation – even if testing does not stimulate new regional arms races.    

Regrettably, the deal struck by the Bush administration and the enabling legislation it has asked the Congress and the NSG to endorse make a resumption of nuclear testing by India more, not less, likely.  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 would eviscerate the Bush administration’s insistence that the deal could be broken if New Delhi were to resume testing, because assured fuel supplies constitutes India’s best insurance policy against disruption. 

Hyper-realists in the Bush administration would argue that, if New Delhi decides to test again, Washington would be helpless to prevent it. Moreover, the administration’s catechism holds that the nuclear choices of friends are not worrisome, and that we must instead focus on bad actors.  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. 

These arguments are as suspect as those that preceded the second Iraq war.  The global system of nonproliferation is built upon norms that apply to all.  When the Bush administration seeks to impose a constricting set of rules for bad actors and a lenient set of rules for friends and allies, it undermines the network of constraints on weapons that threaten US primacy. 

Hyper-realists don’t make sense when asserting they are helpless to affect the choices of friends like India while maintaining they have 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, when a cascade of nuclear tests may not be confined to our friends. 

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, and by structuring a choice between the transformation of US-India relations and a significant weakening of the NPT.

While the proliferation risks of the proposed US-India nuclear deal are substantial, prospects for a transformation in bilateral ties will be constrained by India’s national security interests.  Simply put, New Delhi hasn’t sloughed off three centuries of colonial rule to do Washington’s bidding. 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, regardless of Washington’s preferences. Nor is India likely to line up with the United States against China. 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 deal crosses this line.  While the deference of Bush’s inner circle to India’s nuclear ambitions is highly selective, the 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 NPT regime is part of the reason why proliferation has been contained.  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 facilitating a decision by New Delhi to resume nuclear testing after a decent interval has passed.  The subtext of this deal – the administration’s negotiating behavior, proposed legislative amendments, weak separation plan, deprecation of the CTBT, promises of assured nuclear fuel supplies, as well as the deal’s overarching geo-strategic rationale — all point in this direction.

Hyper-realism and transformational zeal have not served the Bush administration or its allies very well in Iraq.  This powerful brew, which is also on display in the US-India nuclear deal, could also make existing proliferation challenges far worse. The two biggest threats to American power in the near term are Islamic extremism and proliferation. Profound misjudgments on Iraq and the nuclear deal with India will heighten the two greatest threats to US security and primacy.     

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices