A merican President George W. Bush has signed legislation that lets his country and India cooperate on civilian nuclear-energy programs. The move is likely to be one of the legacies of Mr. Bush’s presidency: It is the cornerstone of his attempt to forge a new relationship between the two countries.

Unfortunately, the agreement also represents a sharp reversal of nonproliferation policy when the United States has put the fight to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction at the heart of its foreign policy. U.S. policymakers have backed Mr. Bush, but Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may find the domestic political battles sharper, even though the deal will likely be approved in Delhi, too.

India’s determination to maintain its nuclear options has meant that the country remains outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That decision allowed India to develop a thriving domestic nuclear industry and its own nuclear weapons, but it foreclosed cooperation with other countries such as the U.S. and Japan on nuclear issues and limited India’s foreign-policy options more generally.

Mr. Bush was determined to transform the U.S. relationship with India. He had motivation to do so. First, he believed that India was a natural partner for the U.S., as the two countries were the world’s two largest democracies with common values and interests. A partnership would leverage their strengths and enable them to work together on a long list of shared concerns. That India was a natural counterweight to China in Asia was no doubt a factor in his calculations.

Second, Mr. Bush recognized that a deal with India would have to tackle the nuclear issue and its resolution offered a chance to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime. The agreement to put 14 of India’s 22 reactors — responsible for generating half of the country’s nuclear power — under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards is a step forward. A significant number of military reactors remain outside the IAEA’s purview, but the deal somehow strengthens the nonproliferation regime. There is a common-sense argument that it is best to see the deal as “a glass half full”: International isolation has not dimmed India’s nuclear ambitions, nor did it prevent Delhi from exploding a bomb.

Third, Mr. Bush knows that India is eager to modernize its nuclear technology and U.S. companies can now benefit. India plans to expand its nuclear industry, generating as much as $150 billion in business over the next three decades. Warmer relations will open the door to other business deals; for example, U.S. weapons makers are eager to claim a share of the $10 billion in annual purchases India is planning over the next decade.

Critics argue that the agreement sends precisely the wrong signal at a time when the world is trying to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. The governments in Iran and North Korea must conclude that strategic concerns — and “facts on the ground” — are more important than abstract nuclear principles. In short, the U.S. will make a deal with proliferators when it suits its interest. That will surely encourage them to dig in their heels in their ongoing negotiations.

Supporters of the U.S.-India deal counter that the analogies are incorrect: India is a democracy, conducts a responsible foreign policy and has a strong nonproliferation record. Neither Tehran nor Pyongyang qualifies on any of the three points. While the deal has been passed by the U.S. Congress, significant hurdles remain. India must conclude an agreement with the IAEA on safeguards and inspections. That will be difficult given the prickly nationalism that surrounds the Indian nuclear program. Then the U.S. and India must work out a technical agreement on their bilateral nuclear trade; Congress still wants to see safeguards that neither the Bush administration nor Delhi will be pleased to accept. Next, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 45-member consortium of nations that controls the supplies of nuclear technologies, must also agree to trade with India. Japan is an NSG member and it — like many other members — has doubts about the wisdom of the deal.

The final obstacles exist in Delhi. The nuclear program is a source of considerable national pride, and many Indians fear that the country has accepted too many restrictions in its eagerness to make a deal with Washington. They worry that U.S. concerns about proliferation in general, and Iran in particular, constitute an intrusion into India’s foreign-policy autonomy.

Mr. Singh should not be too concerned: The protests will be loud but the protesters cannot stop the deal without damaging their own domestic standing. They too recognize that there are other interests at stake and pragmatic politics will prevail over nuclear principles.

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