Perspective on the Debate on the US-India Nuclear Deal.

Last week the House of Representatives debated and passed the United States and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006. I think that most of the debate missed what I consider the most important points.

First of all, I should emphasize that every Congressman, even those most strongly opposed to the deal, introduced their remarks with praise for India. I have not yet come across any American commentator anywhere who does not feel that it is natural and desirable for the United States and India to have closer ties. I think that one of the great tragedies of the Cold War was that the United States and India seemed early on to have got their wires crossed because of misjudgments on both sides. The one issue on which everyone seems to agree is that India and the United States should be friends. Some of the Congressional comments in fact went a bit overboard. Congressman Davis of Illinois said, “India is a flourishing democracy that seeks to develop its nuclear program for purely peaceful reasons,” which is, of course, patently false—the purely peaceful part—but never mind, it fit the tone of the debate.

What India has very successfully done is make the international acceptance of India as a nuclear power a surrogate for our acceptance of India into the first rank of nations. For decades, the one thing that has prevented civilian nuclear cooperation has been India’s nuclear weapons program, in this way, civilian nuclear cooperation has become the tacit acknowledgement of the legitimacy of India’s nuclear weapons. That is the real “deal,” if the US wants better relations with India, it has to accept India as a nuclear power. India is willing to hold out on economic ties that would benefit India at least as much as the US to get that acceptance.

The United States is partially responsible for this automatic association between nuclear power and great nation status. Now, almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States still maintains thousands of nuclear weapons, defines superpower status in part in terms of nuclear weapons, and is evolving a doctrine that sees ever increasing utility and feasibility in nuclear use. We have done much to define the cachet of nuclear weapons. Is it any wonder that other nations follow suit?

Because of our position on the US-Indian nuclear deal, I have gotten a lot of attention in the Indian press. As a result, I get lots of emails from India!! Emails are, of course, a totally non-scientific sample so take them with a grain of salt but the comments do show a pattern. One theme is, why should India be discriminated against relative to China? Because we are arguing against the US-India nuclear deal we come across as anti-Indian. But that is just because the US-India nuclear deal is what is on the table right now. FAS has consistently argued against proliferation and a reduction in the world’s nuclear weapons, including US nuclear weapons. One comment on the blog asks, “Where were you when Congress approved the US-China nuclear agreement without requiring a fissile cutoff or even IAEA safeguards?” Well, I can answer that, I was working at the Institute for Defense Analyses supporting the START negotiations. Had I been at FAS, I would have been arguing against that agreement. But, even if I had been, that is a long time ago and who would remember now, I would still appear to be singling India out because the legislation being debated in Congress right now singles India out.

Looking just at India relations in isolation, the deal seems imminently reasonable. All the praise heaped on India is well deserved: It is a vibrant democracy and from America’s perspective a responsible world actor. (Although arguments that India is not a proliferator because it does not export nuclear technology are bizarre. The definition of “proliferation” is the spread of nuclear weapons. India has clearly done that.) But we can’t look at this in isolation.

As Congressman Ackerman of New York said, “The truth be told, had India conducted its nuclear tests earlier, it would have been treated the way we treat France and Britain and Russia and China and ourselves.” This seems completely arbitrary and unfair; if the NPT had been proposed a few years later, India would be in “the club.” What seems even more unfair is that if India had been more aggressive about developing nuclear weapons it might have got into the club; it seems that India is being punished for its restraint.

The cutoff recognized in the NPT seems more arbitrary now than it did at the time. We have to remember that the distinction between the nuclear haves and have nots was going to be temporary. The grand idea of the NPT was that non-nuclear states would forego development of nuclear weapons and, in exchange, the nuclear powers would help them with civilian nuclear technology and work seriously toward nuclear disarmament. The distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear powers was supposed to quickly go away because soon no one would have nuclear weapons at all. The main objective of the NPT was to de-legitimize nuclear weapons. India did not sign the NPT, perhaps because it did not believe the promise made by the nuclear powers and, if that was in fact the reason, India was proved right.

While I oppose the US-India deal, it pains me to be seen as anti-Indian. India’s nuclear weapons ambitions are nothing to be proud of, but the United States and Russia have failed in their promise to rid the world of nuclear weapons. That is and will continue to be the greater fault.

7 thoughts on “Perspective on the Debate on the US-India Nuclear Deal.

  1. Dear Mr. Oelrich,

    I posted the blog comment that you quoted. In retrospect, I now believe that calling you anti-India was quite harsh.

    Unfortunately for all of us, nationalism often causes countries to take decisions that may prove to be unwise in the long term.

    I wish India had the courage in the 1970s to not go nuclear. However, the US, China and the otehr big powers have failed to live up to their end of the NPT bargain and they have essentially lied to the non NWS NPT states.

    There is no reason why the US cannot reduce its nuclear arsenal to a couple of hundred and for the rest of the nuclear powers to make big reductions as well.

    India too should consider unilateral end to n-weapon production. If politically sensitive, India should stop the production of fissile materials and not announce it.

  2. Your argument about disarmament is totally ridiculous. Trust me US, Russia and other nuclear haves will NEVER reduce their nuclear weapons. Total nuclear disarmament is simply too funny to even think about such a scenario.

    I believe in the 10 to 20 years there will be many more nuclear weapon states mostly with Uranium and Plutonium weapons. The most probable candidates will be Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, North Korea etc. There will be many more countries with capability and Plutonium stockpile to make nuclear weapons in one or two weeks. These countries will be Japan, Germany, Brazil, South Africa etc. In this time India will mature its nuclear weapons to thermonuclear capability. Pakistan might consolidate its Plutonium based weapons. Israel will keep whatever the weapons it has. US and Russia might develop space based nuclear weapons.

    Fundamentally this kind of scenario may be good for the World. This scenario will reduce wars and the countries will stop threatening one another (because of mutual destruction). Eventually nuclear weapons will become useless for warfare and that might encourage the nations to reduce the weapons stockpiles.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with your perspective.

    With regard to the India-US deal, going by India’s impeccable record in nuclear proliferation and the fact that the whole process is going to be monitored by the IAEA, one cannot argue that the deal would enable India to bolster it’s nuclear inventory. On the other hand, why this exception for India? Is it because the US in yet another selfish move is opening up a pandora’s box…which might lead other nuclear nations to offer their know how to non-nuclear states.

    There is little surprise in seeing more and more states go the nuclear way (with nuclear energy as cover?). And why not? Seeing the difference in US’ response to the non-nuclear armed Iraqi threat(what threat did they pose anyway?) and the possibly nuclear armed North korean threat, anyone state would be tempted to go the nuclear way and safeguard themselves from hostility.

    Now is the time for the ‘Nuclear Powers’ to get their act together and exhibit their honest willingness to dismantle their nukes.

  4. Why dont you ask France and Britain to give up nuclear weapons. Under US umbrella they dont even have a rationale to keep them. Any one looking at this issue without taking into account the security situation of a country has head stuck in sand. India is the world’s least secure nation with 1000 years of foriegn rule. Every power in the world has made moves against India, including US, UK, Japan, China, Pakistan, USSR, and muslims. No rational Indian government can give up nuclear option. As for fissile cut off, first reduce your pantry to Indian levels and then talk of cut off.

  5. Frankly Dear Mr. Oelrich,

    The problem is that your comments – “FAS doesn’t support Indo – US nuclear deal” – makes the news not the other part of your position. If infact as you say “FAS doesn’t support Indo – US nuclear deal AND US Nukes” that is how you must express it and that is how you must make sure you are reported. The problem is you will NOT be taken seriously if you do that – put into bin of one more naive do gooders. (By the way my position is I support Indo – US nuclear deal OR universal nuclear disarmament NOT NPT.)

  6. As India and the US have now reached agreement on the historic nuclear deal, there has been a huge public debate on it. At the moment, Indian opponents are reacting very strongly. They think the agreement will constrain India’s future nuclear development and national freedom & dignity have been sold out.

    But personally I welcome this Indo-US nuclear deal. Because this deal will help India to reap a lot of economic benefits. Through the deal, the US, strategically, accepts India’s nuclear prowess, thus strengthening India’s geopolitical position. Not only this, the deal is also bound to boost India’s chances to make it to the United Nations Security Council.

    India is the largest democracy in the world that requires capital to build its infrastructure and manufacturing base and also nuclear energy for its development. With assistance of US and Europe, India can attain 8 per cent economic growth over the next decade.

    According to the Planning Commission, India needs to increase its power supply five to seven times to sustain a steady growth of eight per cent per annum till 2031. It is reasonably unlikely that the options available will see India through. The nuclear deal that will help India import Uranium ore and civilian nuclear technology from the developed countries, including the US, can just solve the puzzle of “How to meet India’s growing power needs?”

    So, I think India will get triangular benefits by this deal i.e. Economical, Political, Military.

    I would like to suggest a nuclear deal related article here.

  7. To Whomsoever It May Concern

    After reading this article, one realises, that there is a significant amount of dilemma in the USA about their posturing vis-à-vis India. On one hand they want to show that they are not anti-India, and on the other hand they want to show that they are committed to safeguards.

    The question Iran is unavoidable.

    The USA wants India to do her best to prevent Iran from going nuclear. However, India, in her better judgment cannot do so for the following reasons:
    1. India herself has Nuclear Weapons
    2. NATO invaded Iraq and Serbia in complete violation of UN regulations
    3. Like India, Iran is surrounded by 3 N-States, Russian Federation, (Sunni) Islamic Republic of Pakistan and Israel, and there is indeed a clear cut threat perspective; not to mention the petroleum hungry USA.

    Australia, having a third of the world’s Uranium, has come to become a major player in this game of N-Power (pun intended). If they are to adhere to GNEP, they must take the spent fuel back, which, in a few decades, will turn Australia into Nuclear Dumping Ground. There are strong anti-Nuclear lobbies in the different states of Australia. Even Australia, in her recent moves, has exhibited a dilemma, on whether to engage India, the way they have engaged the Russian Federation and China in Uranium trade.

    Finally, separating the N-Facilities in India into civilian and military sections is prohibitively expensive. Also, India has shown some promise in research in Hybrid reactors using Thorium, which India has in abundance. Moreover, given India’s strategic location and the uncontrolled proliferation of N-Weapons in her neighbourhood, India cannot afford to open up her N-Facilities for safeguard, for obvious reasons.

    As per the Indo-US N-Deal, Hyde Act, which is a domestic US Act, places Indian N-Facilities under it’s jurisdiction, which is unacceptable to India. Also, as I understand, this deal will ensure safeguards from India forever, but will not guarantee uninterrupted N-Fuel supply to her reactors. It might as well happen that India signs the treaty, end up opening up many of her facilities and then the NSG fails to supply her with the required Uranium. India needs vast supplies of Uranium in the nest 4 decades, if not more. Lost can change in that time, and keeping that long term in view, it would not be prudent for India to trust USA, no matter however most US Congressmen praise India.

    Personally, I am against the Indo-US N-Deal.

    Other learned readers may disagree with my humble view.

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