Nuclear Weapons

Through the Indian Looking Glass

08.30.07 | 4 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

In an earlier blog (see below), I discussed how, during the Congressional debate about the US-India nuclear deal, even those members of Congress opposed to the deal bent over backwards to declare their support for closer ties between the world’s two largest democracies. And everyone agreed the deal is generous, opens long-closed doors, and sets minimal and perfectly reasonable expectations of India.

So what are we to make of the brouhaha in New Delhi? According to reports in both the Indian and western press, the US-Indian nuclear deal is being denounced, mostly by the communist and allied parties, as an unacceptable constraint on Indian sovereignty. (I want to thank Leonor Tomero for her extremely helpful India news summary.)

We are about to witness yet another Bush foreign policy train wreck. It is going to start when Congress returns after the August recess. Americans have a self-image of good guys, we are generous, and, most importantly, we expect other people to appreciate just what fine folks we are. (As just one example, the average American believes that one fifth of the Federal budget goes to foreign aid; the actual number is less than one twentieth of that.) While the U.S. president and Indian prime minister hatched this scheme between them, both neglected their legislatures. Now the U.S. Congress, patting itself on the back for being so accommodating to the Indians, is about to be snubbed and the Indians are about to appear ungrateful, something that never sits well with Americans; even when we invade other countries, we expect them to understand that we are doing it for their own good. Indian Prime Minister Singh might try to finesse some of the commitments, for example, claiming for his parliament that India can test nuclear weapons anytime it wants while telling the Americans that he cannot foresee wanting to do so. This will please neither legislature but might work. Alternatively, the prime minister could make public statements for one side’s consumption while giving secret reassurances to the other side. It is difficult to count the number of ways that strategy could blow up.

This is all profoundly ironic. India was being courted by the United States and rightfully judged that it was in the stronger negotiating position. The Indians set as the condition for greater cooperation de facto recognition by the U.S. of India as a nuclear power. The Bush administration seems to actually want India to build up its nuclear arsenal to counter China, so India met no resistance there. But by making this one issue, nuclear recognition, the symbolic keystone of the whole Indian-U.S. strategic partnership, there is a real risk that the Indians have created what engineers call a “single point of failure”; if nuclear recognition crashes, it could undermine the entire strategic relationship. Had the U.S. and India simply put nuclear issues aside as an area where they agree to disagree, they could have laid a solid foundation for future cooperation.

I know the dangers of making predictions but here goes: The U.S. went into this deal primarily to bring India on board as an ally but there has to be some expectation of a commercial quid pro quo. The U.S. nuclear reactor industry is moribund and the Bush administration is pushing hard to revitalize it. The administration has said nothing publicly but they must expect that at least some of the Indian reactor orders will go to U.S. firms. At the same time, the dramatically different views of the Indian and American legislatures are going to cause bruised feelings, even anger and a sense of betrayal, on both sides. Since there is no explicit quid pro quo, the U.S. is still obligated to help India diplomatically with nuclear imports whether we get any of the business or not. So now that the U.S. has opened the gates for India, indignation will erase any sense of obligation on the part of the Indians and the world’s leaders in reactor technology, the French and Japanese, and the Indian’s old friend Russia, will get the reactor orders instead. And next we will see Pakistan going to China using the same arguments, which, however unconvincing in the case of Pakistan, may be good enough to provide political cover. And all this is enough of a mess without the consequences of a nuclear arms race between India and China.

I have written several entries on this topic so thought it was time for a review. Here are the links:

Proposed Legislation

Not Opposing India

Nobel Letter

Council on Foreign Relations


House Vote

The Debate

President Signs Hyde Bill

India Gets a Deal