Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils. During the Cold War, a variation of this Biblical tale was played out whenever a president was about to engage in summitry with the Soviet Union. Back then, critics of arms control treaties warned that whoever was in the White House would sell out U.S. national security for the momentary glow of a good news story.
Times have changed. The Bush administration doesn’t think too kindly of treaties, and a rare presidential visit to India is fast approaching. The question at hand is not whether President Bush will undermine national security in favor of a treaty, but whether he will undermine both in order to accommodate India’s bomb makers. To put the central question more precisely: How much is the Bush White House, which has gone to greater lengths than most to accentuate false positives, willing to undermine the global rules of nuclear commerce for India’s benefit while seeking to tighten them for other states of proliferation concern?
We have seen before how fixed ideas held by a small group within the administration can override broader calculations of the US national interest in combating proliferation. What is truly odd about this particular fixation is that President Bush does not need a nuclear deal with India to have a successful state visit, and that the more he pursues it, the less successful this trip will be.
The norms and rules against proliferation have been erected with great difficulty by every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. This complex body of standards and regulations is built around the Nonproliferation Treaty, which has two central tenets: states that do not have the bomb should not seek it, and states that have nuclear weapons should seek to get rid of them. The weaknesses, as well as the importance, of the rules designed to prevent proliferation are now evident in the cases of North Korea and Iran. This is an awkward moment, to say the least, for the Bush administration to set a high priority to relax these rules in favor of India.
The NPT was negotiated in 1968, six years before India tested its first nuclear device. The Treaty’s central fault line lies between the nuclear weapon states recognized by the Treaty and nuclear abstainers. One means of relieving pressure along this divide has been to promote “peaceful uses” of the atom, particularly nuclear power plants. But “atoms for peace” have also been diverted to making bombs – a route that India took, and that North Korea and Iran are now following.
The NPT wasn’t designed to accommodate special cases like India. The more previous US administrations succeeded in tightening the rules of nuclear commerce to prevent further proliferation, the more these rules constrained India’s national and energy security requirements. New Delhi has long desired to be an exception to these rules, and in the Bush administration, it has finally found a champion. Working in great haste and secrecy, the state visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington in July 2005 produced an agreement- in-principle to seek changes in US law and nuclear commerce to benefit India. This nuclear initiative, which immediately became the centerpiece of the much-heralded state visit, was undertaken without consultation with Capitol Hill or with key NPT partners.
There was one big catch, however: The Bush administrated predicated it’s willingness to go to bat for India on New Delhi’s ability to produce a credible, defensible, and transparent plan for separating its civil and military nuclear programs. It would be India’s sovereign right to decide which nuclear facilities would be placed on the civil or military side, but a process of consultation would be required for New Delhi to learn whether its preferences met the Bush administration’s three crucial tests. In responding to congressional questions about the nuclear initiative, Undersecrataries of State Nicholas Burns and Robert Joseph pledged that, for the administration to proceed further, all civil facilities must be placed under strict international safeguards in perpetuity, and that India’s breeder reactor programs belonged on the civilian side of the ledger.
The Bush administration adopted the three tests of credibility, defensibility, and transparency for good reason: Nuclear suppliers have been burned before by countries that have diverted fissile material from civil to military uses. And breeder reactors can produce huge amounts of fissile material.
These constraints now appear to be unacceptable to India’s nuclear establishment, which works both on nuclear power reactors and weapons, and which has enjoyed considerable autonomy from governmental oversight. Clearly worried about having to prioritize between electricity and bombs, the head of India’s nuclear enclave, Dr. Anil Kakodkar, offered his personal judgment to an Indian newspaper that India’s breeder program, as well as several power reactors that would “feed” it, must not be placed under safeguards. To do otherwise, in his view, would constrain the growth of India’s nuclear arsenal and energy independence.
Kakodkar’s public views defy logic as well as the central purpose of seeking to change the rules of nuclear commerce for India’s benefit. Safeguards do not constrain the growth of civil nuclear power; instead, they help prevent proliferation while countries attend to their energy needs. And if, as Kakodkar asserts, there is “no way” to accept safeguards on India’s breeder program because it will service the growth of India’s weapon stockpile along with its energy needs, then the Bush administration has not helped New Delhi to make credible, defensible, and transparent choices that support nonproliferation as well as the growth of India’s economy. This deal only makes sense if it helps India choose wisely and not if it helps India boost the size of its nuclear arsenal.
Kakodkar’s public pressure has placed Prime Minister Singh and President Bush on the horns of a dilemma. With Bush’s state visit to India fast approaching on March 1st, a nuclear deal is unlikely unless Singh overrides his nuclear establishment or unless Bush’s fixed idea trumps his own criteria for the deal as well as the Nonproliferation Treaty. A third option – to postpone the breeder issue until later while proceeding with the nuclear deal – would fail all three of the Bush administration’s tests.
The rules governing nuclear commerce have been broadened and tightened with great effort by previous administrations. They are imperfect and yet essential to prevent the unraveling of the NPT. Changing these rules to assist India’s economic growth could be useful if their net effect also strengthens global norms against proliferation. The regime that President Bush boldly seeks to change means a lot more than a bowl of lentils. At issue here is not the President’s birthright, but whether he will squander his inheritance.