Global Risk

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

08.08.06 | 4 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

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.