Commentary / World


Has risk of nuclear proliferation risen?

by Michael Krepon

HONOLULU — The nuclear cooperation agreement announced between U.S. President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 18 marked a major shift in U.S. policies aimed at stopping and reversing proliferation. If implemented, it would result in new rules of global nuclear commerce that the Bush administration has previously opposed.

Because the deal was generated from the top down, the deal’s particulars have not been spelled out. The details could mark the difference between an agreement that makes us all safer or more vulnerable to nuclear dangers. Congressional hearings and oversight are needed, and tough questions must be asked.

U.S. efforts to improve ties with India began in a serious way at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency and has significantly picked up speed during the Bush administration. Bush has increased military cooperation with New Delhi, including the offer of advanced combat jets and their coproduction in India. The United States has long been ready to increase trade and investment in India. The Bush administration has also relaxed restrictions on space cooperation, and is working more closely than ever with New Delhi on regional security problems.

In other words, significantly improved ties are being forged without having to relax existing rules to prevent proliferation. So why has the administration proposed to weaken these rules? Does it honestly believe that foreign nuclear suppliers will agree only to make an exception for India and not for other nations?

At a time when Washington is pushing hard to toughen requirements for nuclear commerce to states that have pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons or appear to be seeking them, does it make sense to relax requirements on states that have nuclear weapons?

If the administration is not so naive as to believe that India alone will benefit from relaxed rules of nuclear commerce, why has it proposed this deal? Is it because senior Bush administration officials believe that New Delhi will serve as a strong ally against Islamic extremism or as a counterweight to Beijing?

After 300 years of colonial rule, India will neither follow the beat of a distant drummer nor accept a junior partnership to Washington. Improved ties will therefore be based on common interests, as well as a respect for differences that result when national interests diverge. Washington can therefore expect New Delhi to keep improving ties with Beijing, while striving to avoid choosing sides in the event of a crisis over Taiwan.

Likewise, New Delhi’s approach to Islamic extremism will sometimes coincide and other times differ with Washington. India’s concerns begin with Pakistan, where Washington’s policies have often frustrated India. India’s Parliament passed resolutions against both Persian Gulf wars, and has rejected the Bush administration’s entreaties to provide ground forces in this front of the “global war against terrorism.”

If relaxing the rules of nuclear commerce to help India contributes to a new nuclear future that raises barriers against proliferation, these changes are worth supporting. If, instead, the new rules are likely to result in more proliferation, the deal is contrary to U.S. national security interests.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime is not under stress because of the possession of nuclear weapons by India, Pakistan and Israel. It is under stress because North Korea and Iran have nuclear ambitions that have been aided by Pakistan’s lax export controls; by new concerns of nuclear terrorism that the NPT regime was not designed to address; by opportunistic, state-supported nuclear commerce; and by blocking strategies against regime-strengthening measures by an unlikely group of states, including Egypt, France, Iran, Pakistan, India, and, most regrettably, the U.S.

Therefore, the central question before Congress is whether this deal is good or bad for proliferation. To answer this question, we need to know more about its particulars. We also need to know from the Bush administration whether it is seeking to create a new nuclear order and, if so, what it looks like. Here are three measurements of merit:

Radicals dismember old institutions without serious regard for what will replace them. Conservatives don’t tear down useful institutions unless and until something better will take their place. So what does the Bush administration have in mind? It has suggested some valuable measures against proliferation, many of which have not yet gained traction. It has also opposed measures that are important to build barriers against proliferation, such as ratifying a treaty ending nuclear testing, making intrusive monitoring integral to treaty constraints, and negotiating a verifiable end to fissile material production for nuclear weapons. When relaxed rules for nuclear commerce are added to this mix, what kind of a nuclear future can we expect?

As a responsible steward of its nuclear capabilities, the administration proposes to reward India with the same benefits and advantages of the five nuclear weapon states recognized by the NPT, all of which enjoy permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council. If India is to enjoy these benefits, has the Bush administration received assurances that New Delhi is also willing to accept comparable obligations and constraints as the five permanent members?

All five of the nuclear-weapons states recognized by the NPT have signed the treaty banning all nuclear-weapons tests, thereby accepting the obligation under international law not to defeat the objectives and purposes of this agreement pending its entry into force. At a minimum, has the Bush administration received assurances from New Delhi that it will not be the first to resume nuclear testing?

Most analysts believe that all five of the permanent Security Council members are not now producing new stocks of fissile material for weapons, although Beijing has yet to confirm this publicly. India appears to be increasing its stocks. By this measure, India is moving in the wrong direction. Does the administration now plan to take a proactive and constructive approach to putting in place a moratorium on fissile material production while negotiating a verifiable cutoff agreement?

Are the inventories of the states that possess nuclear weapons growing or contracting. Four of the permanent member states are clearly moving to reduce their nuclear weapons. China is most probably increasing its nuclear arsenal at a modest rate. India’s nuclear arsenal, like Pakistan’s, is also growing. How might the proposed deal with New Delhi affect growing nuclear arsenals in South Asia?