Nuclear Weapons

Council on Foreign Relations Gets It Wrong on India

06.12.06 | 7 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

The Council on Foreign Relations just released a “Special Report,” U.S.-India Nuclear Cooperation by Michael Levi and Charles Ferguson. Mike and Charles are first rate thinkers but I disagree with almost every aspect of their report.

The report is seductively misleading because many of the recommendations make good sense given the presumptions and context of the report. But the presumptions and context are wrong. So first, we need to step back and examine the context. The authors state early on that “…the Bush administration has stirred deep passions and put Congress in the seemingly impossible bind of choosing between approving the deal and damaging nuclear nonproliferation, or rejecting the deal and thereby setting back an important strategic relationship.” [p. 3] This is true, but the problem is with the deal, not the implementation.

At several points the authors refer to the “strategic” relationship the deal fosters with India. But we must also think strategically about where nuclear policy is headed in the United States, or even foreign relations in general. The authors argue at one point that the threat of congressional interference could be used as a stick to influence Indian behavior and: “To make that work, the administration will have to be a genuine partner, explaining to India that demanding complete deference from Congress, an equal branch of the U.S. government, would be a real gamble. It would, at a minimum, create the perception of undermining congressional authority, risking congressional resistance simply on principle. And taking time to build stronger congressional support, while frustrating now, will benefit the U.S.-Indian relationship in the long term.” [p. 6] This statement, given the background of the agreement, is simply bizarre. The reason we are in a pickle in the first place is that the Bush Administration completely excluded Congress during the deliberations and the drafting of the deal. They made an agreement with a foreign power knowing it was in violation of existing law. They presented Congress with a fait accompli, and are now asking Congress to sign a blank check.

Is it “strategic” for the Congress to acquiesce to these tactics? There is the danger that this deal will encourage future Indias to hang tough in the hopes of eventually being forgiven for nuclear sins. (A danger largely dismissed by the authors.) But there is also the danger that future Presidents will be encouraged to determine long-term policy on the airplane on the way to their negotiations, to negotiate in complete secrecy, and to hold the prerogatives of Congress in contempt. It is a bit late to say that demanding “complete” deference from Congress “would…create the perception of undermining congressional authority.” Even the use of the phrase “create the perception” implies that congressional authority is not already in tatters.

The authors may counter that they are arguing precisely for a reassertion of Congressional authority. Yet, rather than rejecting this fait accompli as an affront, the authors seem at first to grudgingly accept the deal as something to be dealt with but soon it becomes clear that they support it. As a result, what they suggest that Congress actually do is largely cosmetic. I don’t see much difference between accepting the deal in full and the report’s suggestion that: “Congress should accept the basic framework negotiated between the United States and India—including the Indian commitment to its moratorium on nuclear tests and to stronger controls on sensitive exports; the American acceptance that India will not formally cap its nuclear arsenal as part of the deal; the American desire, though not insistence, that future Indian nuclear reactors be placed under inspections; and the Indian desire that future nuclear cooperation be free from potentially onerous annual congressional review—and express that acceptance quickly and formally through ‘Sense of Congress’ resolutions.” By specifically calling out “desire, though not insistence” they signal that India and the President are in charge and Congress is welcome to comment if it does so in respectful whispers.

The authors’ support of the agreement implies a general endorsement of the President’s realpolitik vision of nuclear weapons and their role in the world. More than once they refer to a “rising China” or the potential dangers of a Chinese dominance. This Administration seems determined to turn China into a threat even as the Chinese continue to refuse to play that role. Chinese long-range nuclear missile forces are antique. The missiles are not fueled and the warheads are stored separately. I would be delighted if the United States adopted a nuclear posture that was as non-threatening.

The authors concede that, in its dealings with India, the Administration is not making non-proliferation as high a priority as it should be. Indeed. The Administration’s national strategy includes ever increasing emphasis on the potential use of nuclear forces, including in Global Strike the possibility of pre-emptive nuclear attack against non-nuclear powers. At the last review conference, the Administration showed a general distain for an anachronistic NPT. The Administration makes clear that it does not think that nuclear weapons, per se, are a problem, only nuclear weapons in the hands of regimes it does not like. I believe it is reasonable to think that the Administration, far from making non-proliferation merely a low priority, actually wants to see a significant buildup of Indian nuclear forces as a counter to China. I obviously cannot prove this but that is the interpretation that is most consistent with Administration actions. If this is, in fact, their vision it is not only profoundly stupid but dangerous. How can we possibly think that a nuclear “balance” between India and China can enhance our security?

Given that I disagree almost entirely with the basic assumptions underlying the Council’s Special Report, it is unfair to give a detailed critique of the authors’ specific suggestions. The report contains many recommendations on action for Congress that appear to be practical and moderate. That can be a virtue, but being pragmatic in response to foreign policy blundering is not. The report makes it clear that rejection of the deal will undermine our relationship with India. Yet it is the President who has quite intentionally created that conundrum rather than do the hard work beforehand to build a consensus. The President could have—and should have—found a hundred and one ways to enhance academic, technical, cultural, business, and military cooperation with India. Better relations with India did not demand giving away the store on their nuclear ambitions. It would have been better for the United States, the world, and even India, if we had left that as an area of sharp disagreement. The fact that the Bush Administration gave the Indians what they wanted on their nuclear program reflects the Administration’s priorities as much as it reflects India’s.

I would have hoped that a report from an august body like the Council would help me see context, to step back and see the very grand scale. Instead, this report largely accepts the Administration’s objectives and examines tactical details. But the Administration is trying to move us into a future where nuclear weapons are usable and useful political and military instruments and that is entirely the wrong direction. Tactical suggestions about how to get where we don’t want to be are not useful.

So what should we be trying to do? At a few points the authors do note some of the irony of asking much of the Indians. For example, how can United States ask India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty when the U.S. Senate has explicitly rejected the Treaty and the President has said he doesn’t want it? How can the United States ask for an Indian fissile material cutoff when the only cutoff the United States is willing to sign onto is a toothless declaration with no verification provisions? We have an opportunity for a new grand vision of a new nuclear future. We can move forward into a world with widely expanded use of nuclear power or into a world with many nuclear-armed nations but we can’t do both and survive. The United States, and Russia, have thousands of nuclear weapons that are more trouble than they are worth and are militarily useless. We need something dramatic and profound to shock the world onto a new course. The United States should declare that the one and only use for nuclear weapons is to retaliate against economic and military targets in response to a nuclear attack by another nation. Period. The United States should lead the way in erasing the cachet of nuclear weapon. Nuclear weapons should be de-legitimized the way germ warfare has been. The United States can then, along with Russia if possible but alone if necessary, demobilize and destroy the overwhelming majority of its nuclear weapons. 99% reductions would get us down into the double digits and could provide the stimulus to the world to fundamentally reexamine the role of nuclear weapons. The few remaining weapons would be brought under international inspection (and eventually under international control and then destroyed). Nuclear reactors the world over should be de-militarized and brought under international inspection without exception. If this were the grand strategic vision, then I would be delighted to hear suggestions on tactics.