Congress should veto George Bush's nuclear agreement with India
The Economist/March 9, 2006
TEN years from now, will George Bush's determination to rewrite nuclear rules for preventing the bomb's spread be judged to have been courageously right or dangerously wrong? In striking his deal with India, allowing it to import nuclear fuel and technology despite its weapons-building, Mr Bush has not for the first time seemed readier to favour a friend than to stick to a principle. He is gambling that the future benefits of accepting a rising India in all but name as a member of the nuclear club will outweigh the shock to the global anti-proliferation regime, already under severe strain from the nuclear dealings of North Korea and Iran. His gamble is a dangerous one. Meanwhile, in his rush to accommodate India, Mr Bush is missing a chance to win wider nuclear restraint in one of the world's tougher neighbourhoods.
New thinking is needed in the anti-proliferation game. North Korea has broken every rule of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and boasts proudly of its bomb. Iran claims to have no use for one, yet demands the “right” to pursue dangerous nuclear fuel-making technologies—as others may do in future unless creative solutions are found to deflect them—that could be abused for weapons-making. This week America and others were insisting at the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran not be allowed to bend the anti-nuclear rules out of shape to further what are assumed to be its weapons ambitions (see article). So why does Mr Bush propose doing just that for already nuclear-armed India?
You have to deal with the world as it is, comes the reply. India needs to import nuclear fuel and technology, hitherto denied it by a combination of the NPT, the informal rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and by American law, to support its fast-growing energy needs. And India is not Iran or North Korea. They signed the NPT and cheated. Like Pakistan and Israel, India never joined the treaty and its weapons-making breaks no laws. India is also a responsible democracy; it does not support terrorist groups or threaten to wipe neighbours off the map, as Iran did recently with Israel. Meanwhile, in return for America's bending the rules of nuclear trade, India will put more civilian nuclear reactors under international safeguards, and stiffen its anti-proliferation resolve.
Leave aside whether nuclear power best serves Indians' needs—that is India's choice, made knowing the anti-nuclear rules it was up against. And while India's nukes broke no laws, in practice it got its start in the weapons business, rather as North Korea and Iran did, by misusing technologies and materials provided for civilian purposes. Mr Bush is nonetheless right that no one expects India to give up its weapons now.
But it is one thing to have as broad and close a friendship with a nuclear India as the anti-nuclear rules allow. That is already in both countries' interests. It is quite another to knock aside the rules for India's sake. To be sure, Mr Bush is not proposing that other nuclear dabblers be given a welcome if they are persistent enough to succeed—though that will be the message Iran prefers to hear this week. Rather, he wants democratic, friendly, law-abiding India to be treated as an exception by Congress, which must first amend America's own laws if the deal is to go through, and by others in the NSG.
The problem here is that India could instead prove the exception that fatally weakens the rules. The devil is both in the deal's troubling detail, and in its likely knock-on effects.
India may not have signed the NPT, but America has. In doing so, it promised not to help other countries with their nuclear-weapons tinkering. It also pioneered the reinforcing principle that only countries that have all their nuclear facilities under international safeguards (India doesn't now and won't in future) should benefit from trade in civilian nuclear technology. If countries were going to sign the NPT and renounce nuclear weapons themselves, they needed assurance that as many others as possible would follow suit. To encourage them, treaty rights—help in enjoying the benefits of civilian nuclear power—were withheld from those that shrugged off or ignored its obligations.
Allowing nuclear trade with India breaks that bargain in a particularly damaging way. The rules had started to bite: India was running short of supplies of uranium for both civilian and military purposes. By allowing it to import nuclear fuel for its civilian reactors, America will be directly easing the bottlenecks in its weapons programme (bizarrely, also agreeing to keep up fuel supplies even if India breaks America's other anti-proliferation laws, as some of its companies have in the past). Worse, India's experimental fast-breeder reactor programme, ideally suited to produce plutonium for warheads though previously claimed to be for civilian purposes, is to be exempted from all safeguards. That will allow India in future to produce scores of weapons a year, not just a handful.
Then add insult to injury. Not only is nuclear-armed India being offered all of the civilian benefits available to countries that have accepted the NPT's anti-nuclear restrictions. It has also accepted few, if any, of the real obligations of the five official nuclear powers recognised by the treaty, America, Russia, China, Britain and France. All at least signed the treaty banning all nuclear tests; India declined. All have ended the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes (only China has yet to say so publicly); India flatly refused America's request to do likewise.
Rule-bending for India is bound to encourage some other countries to rethink their nuclear options too. But less damage might have been done if the non-proliferation gains had been real ones. In particular, India should have been pressed to stop making fissile material as a condition of any bargain. Pakistan, already signalling interest, could have joined such a moratorium. With China—India's preferred measure of its nuclear prowess—having stopped producing the stuff too, there was a good opportunity to try to spin a wider web of restraint.
Both South Asia and East Asia urgently need to explore such ambitious confidence-building measures to take the sting out of dangerous regional rivalries. This one could have acted as a catalyst in the Middle East too. Israel in the past has had a stronger claim than most for its deterrent, surrounded for much of its short history by large neighbours aiming to drive it in to the sea. Yet its nuclear edge is fast eroding. With an American nudge, shutting down its Dimona reactor (it no longer needs its plutonium) could spark new thinking about a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free Middle East that could someday help finesse the Iran problem too.
Instead of a virtuous anti-nuclear cycle, there is now more likely to be a vicious nuclear one. China can be expected to insist on doing for proliferation-prone Pakistan what America wants to do for India, adding to a regional arms race that has led to a cascade of proliferation in the past. Giving India a freer ride is also likely to embolden Iran and North Korea in their defiance, with potential repercussions for the security of all their neighbours, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
No one doubts that the world's richest democracy and its largest one have lots to offer each other as friends and partners. But assisting India's nuclear weapons ambitions ought not to be in Mr Bush's gift. When Congress is asked to change America's anti-proliferation laws, it should say no.