A Dangerous Deal with India

The Bush Administration's recent nuclear accord with New Delhi creates many more threats than it resolves

By Stan Crock

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the U.S. in July, the Bush Administration didn't want an ordinary meeting. As a rising economic power and a partner in peacekeeping and the fight against terrorism, India deserved not only a state dinner -- something denied Chinese President Hu Jintao -- but a breakthrough in Indian-U.S. relations, the thinking went.

The resulting U.S. pledge to provide the world's largest democracy with commercial nuclear technology in return for international inspections of its facilities was bold indeed. What's less clear is whether the blueprint, which requires Congressional approval, was a good idea.

Conservative analysts such as Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, and liberals such as George Perkovich, a vice-president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Studies, question whether the pact serves American interests in arresting nuclear-arms proliferation. They note that it gives India, which has snubbed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), wide latitude in deciding which of its nuclear facilities to let inspectors monitor.

And the accord doesn't require New Delhi to freeze nuclear-fuel production. Such concessions suggest the Administration didn't demonstrate the backbone it has shown in nuclear negotiations with, say, North Korea, which on Sept. 19 seemed to bear some fruit as Pyongyang apparently agreed to give up its nuclear program.


  An Administration insider says the most difficult issues were nailed down at the last minute so that the two leaders would have something significant to announce. "Policy by itinerary," the source quips.

But haste may make nuclear waste. The speed required meant the President and top officials at the State Dept. didn't have the benefit of a proposal that was thoroughly vetted by agency specialists. The result was an accord filled with gaping holes.

It will be tough to fix those flaws now, since a Republican Congress won't want to look as if it's slapping down a GOP President, Perkovich noted in a recent policy paper.

The Administration argues that India is a special case. It never signed the NPT yet has a substantial commercial nuclear capability, and it will need a larger one as its economy grows. The only other countries not to sign the NPT are Israel and Pakistan, so nearly every country's nuclear program operates under the treaty's auspices.


  Of course, it makes sense to recognize India's increasing prominence, economic and military. And the U.S. should acknowledge that: (a) India has been a model in the way it closely guards its nuclear knowhow; (b) New Delhi has a legitimate national security threat (Pakistan) that it thinks nukes can help avert; and (c) since its independence, India has been a nonaligned country, under no one else's security blanket. So it feels it must protect itself. Indeed, the Bush Administration pledged to try to change global rules and U.S. laws to recognize India's status.

Those laws do need to be altered to reflect changed realities, from the nuclear black market to the fact that North Korea, India, Pakistan, and probably Israel have joined the nuclear club. But they should be strengthened, not weakened.

What's needed, among other things, is agreement that countries won't produce more nuclear material. India and the U.S. pledged to work toward a global treaty to achieve that goal, but no one knows if such a deal will ever occur. In the interim, India is under no obligation to stop fuel production, but it should be. Third parties should provide its fuel and take away spent fuel to cap India's ability to make more warheads. And that should be a worldwide approach, not one unique to India.


  The Bush Administration has supported such an approach, but the deal with India raises questions about Washington's seriousness. Indeed, Washington's policy now seems to be if you're a friend (like India, Pakistan, and Israel), you can do almost anything you want, nuke-wise. If you're not (Saddam Hussein, Iran, North Korea), it's a different story.

This is unprincipled policy that won't work and doesn't have any legitimacy. What's needed is a set of international rules that bind all players. But this Administration, at least in its first term, showed utter disdain for international accords that could curb America's ability to maneuver.

Previous Administrations of both parties believed the benefits of the constraints that treaties put on others far outweighed the drawbacks of constraints on the U.S. It was a tradeoff they were willing to make, but this Republican regime has a different calculus.


  The danger is if India is seen as a precedent rather than an anomaly. Rival Pakistan quickly sought equal treatment, which Washington rejected. But other countries that might be tempted to go nuclear -- think Brazil and Saudi Arabia -- see that India's decision to hang tough has paid off.

The same could be said for North Korea, which won the right to have a commercial nuclear program -- something Washington has been saying it wouldn't tolerate. I don't see how the U.S. can say no to other aspiring countries if they want to push ahead.

For them, India is much more of a precedent than North Korea because their relations to Washington are more like New Delhi's than Pyongyang's. But think of what could happen if the Saudis went full bore developing nuclear technology. What a gift that would be for al Qaeda.


  To complete the India deal, the Administration will have to push Congress and some global bodies hard. And India will have to make some huge leaps -- separating its commercial and military nuclear activities for starters.

Both governments face daunting tasks. That may end up being a good thing. If Bush and Singh run into trouble domestically, the deal could crater. Both sides should then go back to the table, fix this flawed deal, and create a precedent we can all live with.

Crock is BusinessWeek's chief diplomatic correspondent

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.