A Bad Deal With India

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By Lawrence J. Korb and Peter Ogden
Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Many of the people who are made uncomfortable by President Bush's ideologically driven foreign policy have been pleasantly surprised by his recent decision to supply India with nuclear energy technology. This diplomatic agreement, its admirers eagerly point out, is not rooted in "freedom" or "values" but in a strategic calculation: that providing India with such technology will help balance China's power in the region.

This does appear to be the case. But what they fail to note is that the administration's inexperience with such strategic, non-ideological calculations has caused it to mishandle the negotiations themselves and, in so doing, to damage one of our country's most strategic, effective and "realistic" agreements: the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

First, the Bush administration made two amateurish mistakes in the way it brought this agreement to the world's attention. One was announcing the agreement just days before the resumption of six-party talks over the fate of North Korea's nuclear arsenal. For the past few years, the United States has struggle to convince China that North Korea, its ally, should be punished for violating the NPT. Yet just before the six-party talks began, the Bush administration declared that our ally India would not be punished for its refusal to join the NPT. This clearly undermines our ability to secure China's much-needed cooperation in denuclearizing North Korea.

The Bush administration's second error was announcing its agreement before having secured the necessary congressional approval. The initial reaction from Capitol Hill has not been encouraging: Members of the energy conference committee in the House have already approved a measure that would make it illegal for the United States to export nuclear technology to India, and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has cautiously remarked, "We're going to have a lot of conversations."

Such conversations ought to have taken place before the agreement was made public. The instant we announced our willingness to disregard the NPT, we forever undermined its coercive power. But we will not receive any of the strategic benefits of a strengthened India without congressional approval. Thus, we could end up paying the cost for the agreement without reaping any of its rewards.

Most significant, however, is this: The Bush administration is wrong to believe that the agreement with India will serve our strategic interests better than the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it threatens to render all but obsolete.

The Bush administration has demonstrated over the past five years that it does not believe the treaty to be worth preserving. In May it expressed its disdain by dispatching a low-level State Department official to the important NPT Review Conference. And last year the administration torpedoed a crucial verification provision of a treaty, one that would have reinforced the NPT by banning production of uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty -- which is founded on a simple but powerful agreement that nuclear states will provide access to peaceful nuclear technology to countries that forgo such weapons -- has served the U.S. national interest since it was signed in 1970. When it came into effect, there were five nuclear weapons states, and it was estimated that the number would grow to 25 by the end of the century. Thanks in large part to the NPT, the actual number of nuclear powers in the year 2005 is just nine.

According to Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, more than 40 countries have peaceful nuclear programs that could be retooled to produce weapons. That so many of them have not done so is testimony to the effectiveness of the carrots and sticks in the NPT.

If Congress accepts the logic of the Bush administration and allows our government to help build nuclear energy plants in India on the grounds that it is an ally, what is to stop China from offering the same support to its allies? It is only a matter of days before Pakistan -- another country with nuclear weapons that has refused to sign the NPT and thus has been denied certain types of nuclear technology -- demands to receive the same special treatment that India has.

The final weakness in these negotiations is that the Bush administration secured so little in return. While we were willing to void the most potent nuclear weapons control treaty of the past three decades, India was not even compelled to stop producing fissile material for further weapons. Apparently, in its concern to balance the power of China, the administration forgot to consider whether putting no limits on India's fissile material production might not prompt Pakistan to continue such production itself. Such a development would certainly increase the risk of nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists.

Ultimately, the Bush administration should be commended for its foray into the realm of geopolitical strategy and diplomatic negotiations. But let us hope that next time it manages to strike an agreement more beneficial to the United States.

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, and Peter Ogden are with the Center for American Progress.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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