Faits Accomplis, Complicity, and Nuclear Nonproliferation

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By Michael Krepon – The Bush administration has often been accused of leaping before looking.  This charge is unfair, since the President and his inner circle know precisely what they want.  When bold outcomes don’t lend themselves to consensual domestic or international support, they resort to faits accomplis.  Changing the rules of the game is necessarily a messy business.  The exclusionary means required for game-changing decisions makes for ragged implementation.  But eventually, according to the Bush canon, others will have to accommodate themselves to faits accomplis backed by US power.  History, a subject that may not have interested George W. Bush in the classroom, has become his refuge.  History will judge whether his game-changing moves were worth their costs.

Before leaving office, another game-changing project is being hurried along by the Bush administration, a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India.  This deal has been a very contentious issue within India, partly due to concerns over closer ties to the United States and over potential limits to India’s freedom of action.  The Indian parliament has approved the deal by a narrow margin and International Atomic Energy Agency has approved an India-specific safeguards agreement. Now the Bush administration is urging the Nuclear Suppliers Group to acquiesce as well.

What could possibly go wrong with helping a friendly country – the world’s largest democracy – meet its need for electricity?  Great costs lurk beneath this seemingly benign rhetorical question, which is why the administration minimized consultations with members of Congress, the IAEA, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group before announcing the deal.  All three institutions have helped strengthen global norms against proliferation.  The administration is betting that they will now accept its latest fait accompli.      

As an outlier to the Nonproliferation Treaty, India has enjoyed few of the benefits of civil nuclear commerce while retaining freedom of action to test nuclear weapons, produce bomb-making material, and expand its nuclear arsenal.  The Bush administration obliged India by relaxing commercial constraints without asking for meaningful steps to strengthen global nonproliferation norms, especially India’s signature on the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  Bush’s decision to bring India into the mainstream of nuclear commerce while facilitating its ability to serve as a counterweight to China was a bold, game-changing move.  

Here lies the rub: The upgrading of New Delhi’s nuclear forces will almost certainly require more nuclear testing.  By endorsing the US-India deal, the IAEA has and the Nuclear Suppliers Group could therefore become complicit in undermining nonproliferation norms they were designed to uphold.  The US Congress, which was unable to oppose the political appeal of the nuclear deal, at least sought to erect firewalls to make it harder for a future government of India to resume testing.  The Congress made clear that the benefits it was about to bestow would be cut off if India resumed testing.  Moreover, the Congress endorsed an amendment proposed by Senator Barack Obama expressing US policy against India’s accumulation of a fuel bank to guard against disruption of supply, since the most likely reason for disruption would be a resumption of testing.  Instead, fuel would be provided on an as-needed basis, consistent with safe nuclear power operations.  

The Bush administration and the Government of India have colluded to weaken these constraints.  The “123 agreement” implementing the US–India deal as well as the agreement approved by the IAEA’s Board of Governors include language reflecting New Delhi’s demand for a nuclear fuel bank.  By incorporating this language, the IAEA can do little to prevent the resumption of nuclear testing, first by India, and then by Pakistan.  

The consequences of the US-India deal for the Nuclear Suppliers Group could be even more adverse.  The NSG is the only global cartel ever established to prevent profit-taking — when proliferation would result.  Prior US administrations have worked hard to establish this norm, which is reinforced by a consensus rule for the NSG’s decision making.   This structure could be hollowed out by the US—India deal.  Russian, French and US firms stand to make significant profits providing India with the fuel bank that the Congress has identified as a key problem with the proposed deal.  By placing profits ahead of proliferation, permanent members of the UN Security Council — the most essential guardians of the NPT — will become accomplices to its weakening.

India is a responsible state possessing nuclear weapons.  It has shown great restraint by testing these devices less than ten times.  Just one of these tests was claimed to be a thermonuclear device – a high-yield weapon that would be carried on long-range missiles, like those India is developing to deter China.  It is very hard for a state to perfect a thermonuclear device on the basis of a single test, and the data from India’s lone test suggest that it may not have been a complete success.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been very forthright in stating that the nuclear deal would in no way constrain New Delhi’s right to resume testing.  

India is not a party to the NPT and it is one of only fourteen states that have not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  If India decides to test again, so be it.  But the bulwarks of the global nonproliferation system should not become complicit in this decision.  If so, the negative consequences of another game-changing decision by the Bush administration will be greatly compounded.  The damage arising from this deal can be limited by making it harder for a future Indian government to resume nuclear testing.


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