The Australian Labor Party has just endorsed, albeit narrowly, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s call to lift the contentious policy of the ban on uranium sales to India, although the latter is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

New Delhi’s position is that this is a matter for Australians to decide, Australia’s uranium is not crucial to India’s peaceful nuclear program, but the bilateral relationship can hardly be expected to progress to any sort of strategic level as long as the ban remains in place for India while exports are possible to China.

There is merit to New Delhi’s contention that its record on nonproliferation as a non-NPT signatory is better than China’s as an NPT party.

The conceptual confusion in Australia’s uranium exports to China, but not to India, may thus have been cleared up. But India’s nuclear weapons policy remains confused.

Under founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s formative influence, India’s nuclear policy used to be that of a disarmament champion informed by a strategic vision.

By contrast, its policy as a nuclear-armed state since 1998 has been ad hoc and episodic. As a disarmament crusader, India was the foremost critic of the NPT-centered nuclear apartheid regime. As a non-NPT nuclear armed state, India has been steadily — and at times stealthily — integrating with the global nuclear orders.

As disarmament leader, India was among the first to demand a global ban on nuclear testing. As a non-NPT nuclear-armed state, India refuses to sign the NPT even while maintaining a voluntary moratorium on testing.

Since the end of the Cold War, the risk of total nuclear war between the major powers has diminished, but the prospect of nuclear weapons being used by others has become more plausible. All three legs of the NPT — power for civilian use, nonproliferation and disarmament — are wobbling.

The widening circle of NPT-licit, extra-NPT and NPT-noncompliant nuclear-armed states indicates the extent to which the contradictions and weaknesses inherent in the NPT have ripened and the regime’s weaknesses have taken it close to breaking point. The global governance mechanisms for nonproliferation and disarmament are also in a sorry state.

The policy imperatives in response to the multiple nuclear challenges are to encourage the reduction of nuclear inventories among the nuclear powers, strengthen controls over nuclear stocks and material among them to prevent theft and leakage, delegitimize doctrines of deployment and use, buttress treaty, organizational and technical barriers to proliferation, and minimize the attraction of the nuclear option to those who do not have them.

This poses an interesting challenge to India: Should it work to strengthen or to destroy and replace the NPT as the main treaty and normative bulwark of the global nuclear order?

India’s shift from a strategic to a reactive frame of mind and behavior has left it bereft of any underlying nuclear vision. A doctrine — any doctrine, even one labeled a credible minimum deterrent — requires guiding principles in which action can be anchored.

Before 1998, India refused to let interests come in the way of principles. Since 1998, India has defined national security so narrowly that values are not allowed to “infect” interests.

The single-minded pursuit of engaging the U.S. administration on the nuclear divide eventually paid rich dividends in helping India to integrate with the NPT-based global nuclear regime. Its growing economic and trade footprint — as trade dependent post-industrial societies, more Western nations subscribe to trade promotion than democracy promotion as a core element of foreign policy — has greatly enhanced its global profile and status.

But international politics, like all politics, is a struggle between competing normative orders where triumph and defeat depend on the optimal mix of power, ideals and ideas. If in the heyday of Nehruvian activism, Indian foreign policy promoted a wealth of principled ideas ungrounded in power, more recent decades have seen a flexing of muscle devoid of value-promoting notions of good governance.

This is as true of nuclear as other sectors of India’s diplomacy. India is the proud possessor of nuclear weapons but projects little sophisticated sense of how to use them — for deterrence, defense or compellence — guided by strategic doctrines.

Pakistan has concluded that India’s nonresponse to serial terrorist provocations is the product of nuclear stalemate in the subcontinent, meaning that far from augmenting, nuclear weapons have further limited India’s strategic options.

In the meantime, the poverty of India’s moral leadership is reflected in the near-total lack of nuclear disarmament leadership. Comfortable in the more lazy role of a nuclear norm spoiler, India needs to bestir itself to make the transition to a norm entrepreneur once again.

To do that, India first must decide on a strategic doctrine and then formulate and implement a work plan to turn the vision into reality.

Does India seek nuclear abolition; does it wish to join the five NPT-licit nuclear powers in converting the NPT from a de jure nuclear prohibition into a de facto nonproliferation regime; or would it be happiest with a complete and early collapse of the NPT regime and relaxed at the resulting cascade of proliferation?

Until this question is answered, explained and justified — to the world as much as to Indians — India’s nuclear policy will remain ad hoc, reactive and hostage to events and forces outside its borders and control.

Conversely, the process of debating the merits and achievements of the NPT may also just drive home to India’s policy-makers and strategic analysts alike just how much of a stakeholder India is in the NPT-centered global nuclear order despite not being a signatory itself to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, and a professor in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University. Contact: ramesh.thakur@anu.edu.au apcd.anu.edu.au

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