In an op-ed in last Wednesday’s Washington Post, IAEA Secretary General Mohammad elBaradei endorsed the US-India nuclear deal without reservation. The Secretary makes several good points but he fails to demonstrate his assertion that the deal will help reach his own objectives.
I recognize that many people who are smart and whose opinions I respect are supporting this deal. It is interesting to see how people separate out on this. Those who support the deal tend to focus on India and improved relations with that important nation. Those who oppose the deal tend to look beyond India at a global problem of nuclear weapons. Almost everyone on either side supports both objectives, improved ties to India and reduced global nuclear dangers, and realizes that pursuing one goal might set back the other. So where you come out on this depends on your judgment about the relative importance of your preferred goal, and the benefits that will come to your primary goal compared to the damage done to your secondary goal.
ElBaradei reminds us that he has been calling for new approaches in three areas: (1) a recommitment to disarmament, (2) tighter controls on the nuclear fuel cycle, and (3) bringing India, Pakistan, and Israel into the NPT fold.
These are, obviously, important goals and they should all be pursued but what does the US-India nuclear deal do to advance each one?
ElBaradei’s first goal is most important and the deal not only fails to advance it but, I believe, sets it back. Promoting this deal without addressing the global nuclear picture is, at a minimum, a huge missed opportunity. The Administration is quite clear that it wants a closer strategic relationship with India, to include security and military ties. Whether the notoriously independent Indians will play that role is, at best, uncertain. The Administration is careful not to cast this as an attempt to gang up on China, but everyone knows that a “balance” to China is a big part of this equation. What the Administration does not say explicitly but I believe is consistent with their other actions and statements is that they actually welcome a larger Indian nuclear force to help keep China off balance. The Administration says that the Indians would never agree to a cap on their nuclear forces but notice they don’t say that they negotiated hard for that and failed. They never asked because it is not something they want.
The NPT is in deep trouble and probably can’t survive in its current form. So should we abandon ship and declare “Every man for himself” or should we try to strengthen it? A stronger non-proliferation regime is critical to the world’s safety. It is painfully obvious that the world’s nuclear powers, the United States and Russia in particular, have failed to live up to their disarmament obligations under the NPT. The SORT is virtually meaningless. The United States continues to keep thousands of extremely high yield, highly accurate nuclear warhead mounted atop fast-flying ballistic missiles, many of them forward deployed on ballistic missile submarines. The gap between the public rhetoric and the military reality of nuclear weapons grows ever wider. It is possible that we will drift into a world with ever more nuclear powers. But there are also stirrings, a hint, that some opinion leaders are starting to rethink nuclear disarmament. It no longer is waved off as utopian. Wouldn’t this have been a time to at least begin a dialog between China and India about their nuclear plans? Russia and the US could offer enormous reductions in their nuclear arsenals that would not cost them anything militarily but could have huge symbolic value to the Indians and Chinese. Great idea, but isn’t that opportunity now gone ? Isn’t the deal done? No. Congress still has a lot of leverage. The cart would still be in front of the horse but the US could require some restraint on Indian nuclear systems and at the same time begin the long and complex process of engaging the Chinese and Russians about other restraints and reductions.
The second goal is to install tighter controls on the world’s nuclear fuel cycle. The US-Indian deal does this only in the most superficial, symbolic way. The Indians have placed all of their breeder reactors on the military side of the fence. How future reactors are classified is entirely up to the Indians. This deal does nothing to meaningfully constrain Indian fissile material production and may substantially aid it.
Finally, the third goal is to bring the NPT outliers into the fold. This deal helps do that to a limited degree. But why do we want to bring them in? There is no advantage, per se, to bringing them in. The only advantage of the third goal is if it advances the first two goals, which this deal does not.
ElBaradei’s goals are not the Administration’s goals. I believe the Administration does not see any India/non-proliferation tradeoff because they see a growing Indian nuclear arsenal as a good thing. The only hope for rethinking and restraint now lies with Congress.