Monday, August 13, 2007

Cozying Up to a Nuclear India

I'm a very opinionated person. Question me on just about any topic, and chances are I'll enthusiastically give you my opinion. I'm self-aware enough to acknowledge that this trait extends to subjects about which I am reasonably well informed (politics), less well informed (economics) and completely ignorant (quantum physics). For this reason, I have been surprising myself of late in my inability, despite a decent amount of reflection, to form a strong opinion regarding the U.S. Government's latest proposed treaty with India.

US relations with India have always been complex. India's steadfast refusal during the Cold War to become overtly entangled in the US-Soviet conflict (and its tendency to lean in Moscow's direction on the occaisions that it did), along with US support for Pakistan, India's refusal to join the global non-proliferation regime, American opposition to the creation of Bangladesh, and New Delhi's perceived intransigence on a myriad of less pressing concerns kept bilateral relations cool for much of the last half-century. On the other hand, India has - with a notably short hiatus during the 1970s - maintained itself as a robust and well-functioning democracy in the post-independence era. For a large, desperately poor, poly-ethnic, poly-lingual, poly-religious post-colonial state, that is no small feat, and in the post-Cold War era it has borne fruit.

With the imperatives of Cold War alliances no longer driving American foreign policy, and ossified socialist ideology no longer guiding Indian economic policy, the stage was set during the 1990s for dramatically improved political and economic ties between the two countries. For a demonstration of how far reconciliation had come, one need look no further than America's slap-on-the-wrist response to Indian nuclear tests in 1998. Given America's erstwhile commitment to strict enforcement (with one notable exception in the Levant) of the non-proliferation regime, the fact that such tests did not evoke a stronger response from Washington indicated that the United States was willing to accept, and even welcome, India's ascent to great power status.

The controversy now surrounding the implementation (or not) of the United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act encompasses many of the basic strategic questions that the United States and India face as they seek to more clearly define their relationship in the 21st Century. The deal presents the United States tempting benefits coupled with some vexing strategic drawbacks.

For those arguing against the treaty, the most significant problem lies not at the deal's periphery, but at its very heart: to bring India into the official nuclear club without insisting that it halt the expansion of its weapons program undermines what little credibility remains in the global non-proliferation regime. The US has already allowed an Israel-sized hole to be carved out of the regime's fabric; to cut a similar space for India would send a message to the (unfortunately growing) number of countries which now covet nuclear weapons that "when it comes to nuclear proliferation, Washington's only real policy is to reward its friends and punish its enemies." I would actually take it further than the Times. The message it sends is that nuclear weapons are fine, as long as your country isn't Muslim. At a time when the US is desperately trying to put international pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program, trying to head off weapons development in other areas around the Middle East, and trying to implement a tenuous rollback of North Korean nuclear stockpiles, such a message would be dangerous indeed.

Furthermore, a policy that legitimizes Indian nuclear arms would only make the United States more toxic to the public in Pakistan, a country that remains of high strategic importance. Given the critical nature of the Pakistani government support (whoever may be leading that government on a given day), a policy that elevates Pakistan's chief rival into the nuclear club uncontested, while treating Pakistani nuclear stocks with considerably more apprehension seems tailored to anger precisely the wrong people. In some ways, the instability of Musharaff gives the United States some wiggle room in this regard (to whom else can he turn?); but, it also raises the risk that if his government falls - an eventuality that looks more likely with each passing day - the one that replaces it will try to shore up legitimacy by adopting an anti-American posture.

Thus, it is clear that the proposed agreement carries with it considerable risk. In many other ways, though, the treaty makes sense. Even the skeptical Times editorial board acknowledges that "bringing India... in from the cold is not a bad idea." A populous democracy and budding economic powerhouse, India is precisely the kind of ally that the United States needs in the coming decades, particularly in Asia. India's non-Aligned legacy has left it in a diplomatically flexible position that the United States can leverage to constructively manage relationships with authoritarian capitalist powers like Russia and China, and even erstwhile adversaries like Iran. Xenia Dromandy, writing in the Washington Quarterly, notes that India has made it clear that it will not be a US pawn, and that there are some areas in which Indian and American interests will diverge, but that the two countries have broadly similar, and complementary international goals. Neither government is anxious to see Iran go nuclear. Both countries are threatened by global Islamic extremism. Both governments want to manage China's rise as a responsible international stakeholder and limit its disruptive influence. Both countries have considerable economic and political capital invested in globalization (and both must manage domestic backlashes against it). More than anything, both are democracies, and as such are capable of trusting each others' governments given half a reason to do so.

Despite all this, however, a positive Indo-American relationship is not assured. There are many in India who regard the United States as a bullying, imperialist power intent on reducing India to a suboordinate status. India must, of course, deal with its own considerable Muslim population, which by all accounts shares the loathing of Washington that now prevails in the rest of the Islamic world. Even the relatively light restrictions placed on India's nuclear program by this latest deal have generated a storm of protest from BJP nationalists who are incensed by what they view as an affront to Indian soveriegnty. Failing to shepherd this deal to final approval would be an unabashed insult to the vital center in India that seems eager to play a more engaged and constructive role in world affairs. Given the importance of strengthening the US-Indian alliance in the coming years, such an insult would carry grave strategic costs.

In the end, I give cautious support to this agreement's final approval. While I recognize the damage that the deal will do to what remains of the international non-proliferation regime, I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that those who seek to break out of its strictures will not be persuaded one way or another by a US-Indian nuclear agreement (though they may use it as ex-post-facto justification for their own ambitions). Americans should remember that they, along with the other four nuclear signatories to the NPT, have an obligation to continue reducing their own arsenals concurrent with the obligation of the rest of the global community to forgo their own weapons development. If the United States wants to make a gesture to hold up the NPT, it should start by reducing its own stocks. Overall, given the vital role that India must play in any successful 21st Century American strategy, and given the fact that India has proven to be a relatively responsible nuclear player over the past quarter-century, I believe that this deal's benefits outweigh its costs.

1 comment:

Matt Bondy said...

Great post, R.I.

I am very interested in the geo-political significance of tacitly encouraging India's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

I agree with you that nuclear non-proliferation is not a dream that should yet be declared dead. While it remains unlikely, in my view, that full nuclear non-proliferation will ever be accomplished, surely stemming the tide of both horizontal and vertical proliferation is a good and worthwhile goal.

This topic has been, thankfully, getting some attention in the US presidential election. I believe Governor Bill Richardson, Democrat of New Mexico, has one of the more progressive and aggressive blue-prints for securing nuclear sites throughout the former USSR and getting serious about stemming horizontal proliferation and taking on the black market.

Good work.

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