The Indo-US nuclear deal

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Meenakshi Ahamed interviews Strobe Talbott and Robert J. Einhorn.

The Bush Administration has ushered in a new phase in Indo-US relations. Not since independence in 1947 has the US made such a positive bid for a firm alliance with India. Cynics view this as a desperate attempt by a flagging Bush administration to chalk up a victory in its foreign policy. Others applaud Bush for recognizing the changing status of India in the world and for seizing the opportunity to place India firmly in its camp.

At the forefront of this new relationship is the ‘nuclear deal’ that President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed on President Bush’s recent trip to India. The deal has been received in the US with mixed reactions. Although the majority of Republicans may go along with the deal, some have joined Democrats in expressing reservations about it. Many in the Washington nuclear establishment, while recognizing the need to accommodate India in some way, find the deal heavily flawed and one-sided.

Strobe Talbott and Robert Einhorn, two of the leading experts on the subject, discuss some of the issues and concerns being debated in Washington.

Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution, was Deputy Secretary of State under President Clinton from 1994-2001. He is also the author of nine books including ‘Engaging India’.

Robert J. Einhorn spent 29 years with the US government working on Arms Control and Non Proliferation issues. He was Assistant Secretary of State for nonproliferation from1999 to 2001.He is currently a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic International Studies.


Meenakshi Ahamed: Let me begin with a cluster of questions about the nuclear deal: This Indo-US agreement is a reflection of the recognition by the US that time marches on and politics and agendas change. The existence of ‘new nuclear states’ is a reality. So wouldn’t this be a good time to restructure the ‘Nuclear Club’ and incorporate nuclear states so they conform to certain safeguards? Isn’t it unrealistic to think that given the constantly changing political condition of the world that the rest of the world will accept the monopoly that five countries exercise on nuclear military production forever?

Strobe Talbott: Let be begin my answer with a couple of points that put the matter in a broader context. It’s important for readers of Seminar to understand what is – and what is not – at issue for me and quite a few other Americans who have raised concerns about the deal. I’ll start with what is not at issue: namely, India’s standing as the world’s largest democracy; India’s importance to the US; the need to strengthen – and broaden – the strategic partnership between the US and India; India’s legitimate claim to a position of global leadership; India’s record of responsible custodianship of its military capabilities, including the nuclear ones that it tested – and thus demonstrated – in May 1998.

Once India, in exercise of its sovereign rights, decided to test at Pokhran and to proclaim itself a nuclear-weapons state outside the NPT, there was neither an attempt by the Clinton administration to ‘pressure’ India back across the threshold it had crossed, nor an illusion that it could do so. Rather, there was an attempt to see if there might be some way to reconcile India’s irrevocable decision and the nuclear posture that flowed from it (‘credible minimum deterrence’) with the imperative of preserving the global nonproliferation regime. The premise on the American side was always that such an attempt was respectful of and compatible with India’s own interests, as explained to us by our Indian interlocutors.

We tried and failed to come up with such an arrangement. I won’t inflict on you and your readers that story, since it’s all in my book.

Now to the Bush administration. For the first several years, there was a high degree of continuity with the policy and objectives of the Clinton administration. One important point of continuity was that because of its decision to remain outside the NPT as a nuclear weapons-state, India could not be treated fully as though it were a party to the treaty and eligible for all the rights and privileges of those states that had foregone the nuclear-weapons option.

That changed with the deal that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush made last year. The US government decided, de facto if not quite de jure, to make an ‘India exception’ to the NPT. The latest deal, struck between the PM and the President in Delhi, merely refines some of the details.


MA: Let me be more direct. Is the NPT a dead or a defunct treaty?

Robert Einhorn: No, it’s not dead. Just because the NPT is not sufficient to deal with the nonproliferation problem doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. For over 30 years, it was always recognized as an incomplete solution that would need to be supplemented. We have done that over the years in many different ways. For example, the nuclear suppliers group was created to strengthen multilateral export controls and ensure that commercial competition among nuclear suppliers would not undermine nonproliferation goals. In 2004, United Nations Security Council 1540 was adopted to deal with the proliferation threat arising from non-state actors, whether nuclear black marketers or terrorist groups. Diplomacy, whether bilateral or multilateral (as in the Six Party Talks over North Korea or the European-Iranian negotiations), has been a crucial tool outside the NPT to promote and enforce nonproliferation norms. Moreover, the NPT provides the legal and normative foundation for achieving international support for steps going well beyond the specific provisions of the NPT – for example, the tough verification regime imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf war or the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict WMD-related shipments. I know people attack the NPT because not everyone has signed it or some have signed but cheated, for example, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and N. Korea. Okay, it is not a panacea. You need to build on it. If the NPT didn’t exist today we would have a huge problem on our hands, and it would be a problem for both the United States and India.


MA: Many argue that the NPT is a discriminatory agreement. It has never been in India’s interest to sign it.

ST: The point, in my mind at least, is not whether the NPT is ‘fair’ to India in that it would exclude India from having nukes while allowing five other countries (notably, of course, China) to possess them. I understand why Indians have complained for decades that the NPT ‘discriminates’ against India. At issue here is whether there is some way to preserve what is valuable – indeed, essential – about the NPT: i.e., its efficacy in averting a global free-for-all as numerous countries acquire nukes, with an ever-increasing danger to global peace.

RE: Most countries recognized that the NPT, by providing that five ‘haves’ may keep their nuclear weapons and others may not acquire them, was discriminatory. But they persuaded themselves that the NPT, despite this discrimination, was still worth having because, on balance, the world was better off and safer with fewer nuclear powers. To make the discrimination more palatable, certain bargains were struck in the ’60s when the NPT was negotiated. In return for giving up their nuclear weapons option, signatories would be entitled to receive the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear technology and the nuclear states would commit to move towards disarmament. Now many non-nuclear countries feel that the bargains didn’t work out because the nuclear states have not taken disarmament seriously and the advanced nuclear states have not been generous enough in helping them fulfill their energy needs through nuclear power. If you abolished the NPT and started from scratch, it would be impossible today to get broad political agreement on a new deal. India has condemned the NPT because of its discriminatory character – its division of the world into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. If the NPT had defined a ‘nuclear weapon state’ as a country that had tested a nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1977 (rather than prior to 1 January 1967) and had therefore included India as one of the ‘haves’, I suspect India would have found the discrimination a lot easier to bear.


MA: Isn’t a country such as India, which didn’t sign the NPT, now being rewarded? Won’t countries such as Iran use this as a justification for their own nuclear ambitions?

ST: Even in the short period since the deal was announced, there have been subtle but unmistakable signals from capitals of NPT-compliant states that they are re-thinking their options.

RE: Iran and India are very different cases. Iran’s nuclear ambitions and programmes began over 20 years ago. Clearly it is not motivated by the recent US-India nuclear deal. But Iran is using the deal to strengthen its case both domestically and internationally. Iran is saying that it is an NPT party but is being unfairly denied nuclear technology, while India rejected the NPT but will receive nuclear technology anyway. Of course, the difference is that India is a responsible country and Iran is not.

Iran’s argument, however flawed, wins some support both from the Iranian people and some countries, especially in the non-aligned world. Iran says the deal shows the US is not really interested in nonproliferation. It’s just playing favorites – rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies.


MA: Doesn’t Iran have a point about a double standard?

RE: Yes, we have double and triple standards. We have all kinds of standards, and I think many of them are justified – such as not treating India the same way we treat NPT cheaters like North Korea and Iran.

I do think, however, that the Bush administration has introduced a damaging notion into the issue of proliferation. Traditionally, Democrat and Republican administrations have taken the stand that they don’t want additional countries to have nuclear weapons because the world becomes more dangerous with every new nuclear state. The Bush administration’s primary focus is not on the weapons, but on the nature of the regime that has the weapons. So an Iran and a North Korea with nuclear weapons is very bad, but a friendly, well-behaved country acquiring nuclear weapons might not be so bad. But there are several problems with focusing just on the nature of the regime. While a ‘good country’ getting nuclear weapons might not seem threatening, it might be surrounded by not-so-good countries that feel compelled to follow suit. Today’s good country, moreover, might become tomorrow’s unstable, irresponsible one. And even a good country might not be able to secure its nuclear materials against theft or seizure by terrorist groups. So I think it’s a risky policy to distinguish between good and bad proliferation. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to find a special accommodation for India in today’s nonproliferation regime. India will not give up nuclear weapons, and we should not ask it to. But that doesn’t mean we should be sanguine about additional friends of the US obtaining nuclear weapons.


MA: If you were Indian, with the neighbours that India has (military dictatorships/totalitarian and communist regimes) would you feel justified in pursuing nuclear weapons?

ST: One of the things I learned first as a journalist and then as a diplomat was always to try to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re interviewing or negotiating with – or, in the case of Jaswant Singh, conducting a true dialogue with. Of course I understand India’s concerns about its neighbours. I’ll single out two for comment, and do so in a way to clarify my concerns about the deal.

I’ll start with Pakistan. India and Pakistan were living in a state of mutual nuclear deterrence before May 1998. Everyone assumed both countries had the capability to wreak terrible destruction on each other in the case of another war. So that hasn’t changed. What has changed, as a result of the Bush-Manmohan Singh deal, is that the US is now have an explicit ‘tilt’ toward India on the question of how it will be treated under the NPT (even though it’s not a party to the NPT). I’m using that four-letter word ‘tilt’ advisedly, knowing how it resonates in the minds of all Indians who remember the history of US policy toward their region. What are the long-term implications of this for Pakistan, its policies, and its strategic direction? India is now celebrating that it is no longer ‘discriminated against’ by the NPT. But Pakistan has fresh reason to feel that it is being discriminated against. I wonder if the policy-makers responsible for the deal gave full thought to this point.

RE: I think India’s desire for nuclear weapons has been influenced heavily by political considerations. It wanted the prestige and assumed international clout associated with being a nuclear power. It saw having a nuclear weapons capability as its ticket to being regarded as one of the world’s leading powers. Of course, there were also security considerations. Indians had in mind the border war with China in the early 1960s, as well as the likelihood that China could one day become a military competitor against which an Indian deterrent would be a strategic necessity. And today deterring Pakistan’s nuclear capability has become a strategic imperative (although it is unlikely Pakistan would have had nuclear weapons today if India had not gone first). So, viewing India’s strategic environment today, a compelling case can be made on security grounds for an Indian deterrent. But over the last 40 years, I believe the key driver for India – unlike, say, for Pakistan and Israel – was political.


MA: Will the deal destabilize the region?

ST: There’s a larger issue here having to do with the Islamic world. People in many Muslim countries are looking at the contrast between Bush’s handling of the nuclear issue in Delhi and Islamabad and saying to themselves: ‘Ah ha! Pakistan is the only Muslim country with the bomb, and it’s considered ineligible for the same treatment as India. We get it, and we don’t like it. Maybe we should help Pakistan prove that Muslim countries deserve the same level of respect and acceptance as India.’ (By the way, I’m acutely aware that India is the world’s second-largest Muslim country – but it is, crucially and admirably, a pluralistic, secular democracy, so my point stands.)

Regarding China, depending on how India operationally defines ‘credible minimum deterrence’, it runs some risk, over time, of prodding the Chinese to accelerate their strategic buildup – i.e., exacerbating a Sino-Indian arms race. Fortunately, that’s less likely to happen given the welcome improvement in Sino-Indian relations of late.

However, one thing I’d predict with some confidence: when the Nuclear Suppliers Group grapples with the implications of the Bush-Manmohan Singh deal, China may push for ‘equal treatment’ for Pakistan in a way that will underscore the ill-considered aspect of the ‘India exception’.

RE: The Pakistanis won’t know what to make of this deal. It will worry them. It will disturb them as a political perspective, because it will look as if the United States has now permanently chosen sides. It will bother them strategically, because it gives India the capacity to ramp up its nuclear weapons capability substantially. It would not be surprising if the Pakistanis went to their old friends, the Chinese, and said you’ve got to help us out here. We don’t have the resources to compete with India. So there is potential for instability.

As for China itself, it knows there are some in the administration who believe the main benefit of strengthening relations with India is to contain China. This worries them a bit. But China also knows that India is not prepared to be America’s stooge – to do America’s bidding. They also know that Chinese-Indian relations are currently in pretty good shape. Still, they are probably anxious about the implications of the deal. It may make them wary of the US-India relationship. They will be disappointed that the US did not drive a harder bargain with India to constrain its nuclear weapons capability.


MA: If you were an Indian how would you view this deal?

ST: Your question implies that all 1.3 billion Indians have the same view. I follow the Indian press pretty closely, and I know that diversity of views and tolerance for that diversity – a key component of democracy – is alive and well. I’ve seen pieces by M.J. Akbar and Pratap Bhanu Mehta that resonate with some of my own thinking. And, of course, there’s healthy debate among Americans – notably including at Brookings. My colleague Steve Cohen, whom I regard as a guru on matters South Asian, has a different view of the deal than I do.

RE: If I were an Indian, I would be utterly delighted by this deal because my country would have achieved all of its negotiating objectives: acquiring the ability to import uranium and nuclear reactor technology, obtaining recognition for India’s status as a nuclear power, and preserving all of India’s strategic options, particularly the ability to increase substantially its production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.


MA: In the US, the reaction is ‘Bush gave the store away,’ what is your view?

ST: I do not criticize the Indian side for trying to get the best deal it could – and for getting a very good one indeed. (I find bizarre suggestions in the Indian press and political arena that the PM ‘gave away’ too much.) I do, however, question the wisdom of my own government’s agreeing to that deal. Why? Quite simply because I think ‘the India exception’ creates a worrisome temptation and precedent for other countries – including ones about whom there is far less reason to feel confident.

RE: The Bush administration seems to have made the key concessions, but it is trying to put the best face on it. For example, it explains that India has now agreed to put some 65% of its nuclear power programme under international safeguards, but that is strategically meaningless if India can vastly increase plutonium production at unsafeguarded facilities. Administration spokespersons keep repeating that India will place all future civilian nuclear power reactors under safeguards. What they don’t say, of course, is that India will decide unilaterally which facilities it will designate as civilian and could at least theoretically (although not in the real world) devote all future reactors to the production of plutonium for weapons. From the perspective of many in the United States, including strong supporters of the deal and the US-Indian relationship, the main vulnerability of the deal is that it does nothing to constrain the future accumulation of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Back in July, the Bush team tried to get India to stop fissile material production, but dropped the idea when India objected. During the next six months, it tried to limit future fissile material production by seeking IAEA safeguards on most nuclear reactors. When it encountered stiff resistance, it dropped that idea too. It’s now dawning on American observers that the deal doesn’t just accept the reality that India has the freedom to produce more plutonium for weapons if it so chooses. By enabling India to import uranium for its civil programme – thereby freeing up limited indigenous uranium for the military programme – the deal actually helps India increase its weapons capability. That’s ‘the store’ the Bush administration has given away.


MA: What actually happened to make the US yield so much to India?

RE: A week before the president’s visit, Indian senior nuclear establishment officials went public with their concerns about putting Indian facilities under safeguards. Manmohan Singh’s coalition partners on the left were objecting to the deal because it allowed India to get pushed around by the United States – for example on the Iranian nuclear issue and the pipeline from Iran. Manmohan Singh was boxed in by his nuclear establishment. He publicly backed the nuclear establishment’s view in the Lok Sabha, planting his feet in wet cement which dried even before President Bush’s plane touched down in Delhi. So upon arrival, the Bush team already knew they would not be able to persuade the Indians – they realized that Manmohan Singh could not back down from his public statements. So they made a calculation. How important was it to achieve a deal during this summit? They probably said to themselves that our foreign policy record at this point is not looking very good – we don’t have anything really to claim as a big victory. This opening to India is one of our great strategic objectives. It shows our vision. Our foreign policy legacy may be strongly influenced by this initiative and if that’s true we can’t leave Delhi without a nuclear deal. If we do, the summit will be seen as a big failure. The partnership will take a nosedive. So they probably said ‘Look, our partner here is unable to move. Do we walk away or do we accept a position that many in the world will see as an Indian negotiating victory? Manmohan Singh is boxed in politically. We have more room for political manoeuvre with our Republican Congress. We’ll be able to sell the deal to Congress. Everyone wants better relations with India, there is a lot of support for this on the hill. It may be messy but we will prevail.’


MA: What do you think will be the consequences of this deal for nuclear developments in the subcontinent?

RE: The Indian nuclear establishment’s insistence on keeping open virtually all strategic options will raise questions about where India’s nuclear deterrent capabilities are going. Will India use all the strategic flexibility provided for in the deal to expand its fissisle material production? Of course not. Most of its future reactors will be devoted to meeting India’s growing energy needs. But even if India dedicates only a few of its power reactors to generating plutonium for its weapons programme, it will be able to augment its fissile material stocks substantially and quite rapidly. Around the world, many will be asking: what happened to India’s declarations that it seeks only a credible, minimum deterrent capability? What about its statements that India’s requirements are not open-ended, that it doesn’t seek nuclear parity with China or anyone else – only the credible minimum for India’s own needs. India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan, will be asking these questions and, depending on their answers, may decide to adjust their own strategic programmes.


MA: Does this deal with India have a future? Will it pass Congress?

ST: There is going to be a sustained debate over that question in the US, since the deal requires the American Congress to change our laws and the Nuclear Suppliers Group to change its rules. I hope that debate is forward-looking and constructive. I’m hopeful it will be. I doubt it will end in the rejection or repudiation of the deal. I do not advocate such an outcome. Given where we are now, I believe that the Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group should enable President Bush to keep his promise to the PM to permit nuclear cooperation with India. Otherwise, there would be real damage to a burgeoning relationship with an important strategic partner, one that does have pressing energy needs.

But the next stage of the process should be handled on the American and international side – with a high degree of understanding on the Indian side – in a way that deals with the problematic aspects of the deal: namely, that, depending on how it’s implemented, it could, unintentionally, weaken the global nonproliferation regime.

What this means in practice is that the US should continue to maintain a distinction between the nuclear technologies it can sell to NPT parties and those that have not joined the NPT. This would mean withholding enrichment and reprocessing technology.

I’m also uneasy with an India-only exception. I think there needs to be a country-neutral standard for how adjustments to how the treaty and NSG rules are applied.

Finally, I hope Congress will signal strong support for early conclusion of a verifiable ban on the production of fissile material.

RE: Yes, but it will take longer than the Bush administration and the Indian government may have hoped. Congress may put some conditions on the deal, but anything that would kill the deal probably can be avoided.


MA: Are you confident that the Indians will pass this?

RE: If it’s unchanged yes – it’s such a good deal from an Indian perspective. It’s like the Louisiana Purchase! Your readers may not be familiar with the Louisiana Purchase, but it was one of the most advantageous real estate deals ever made.


MA: What would the impact be on Indo-US relations if for some reason the Indian Parliament did not approve the deal? Let’s say if someone wanted to sabotage Manmohan Singh?

RE: If it were clearly a result of Indian politics – internal political considerations, people wanting to embarrass the PM – that would be understandable. But if the deal was rejected because Parliament and the Indian public truly thought it was disadvantageous to India, then the US would be very surprised and people would ask themselves whether this is a strategic partnership that can go anywhere. If the US Congress were to reject the deal – which I don’t believe it will do – I can imagine that Indians would draw similar conclusions.


* * *

The Bush government has staked its legacy on fighting terrorism. Preventing countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction and American security are its hallmark. With mid-term elections around the corner, they will be vulnerable to Democrats who may use this deal against them. We recently saw the Dubai Ports deal collapse. Getting the Indo-US nuclear deal through Congress will be hard work. The Bush administration will also have to convince the international community, especially the Nuclear Suppliers Club, to go along with them. One senior European diplomat in Washington confided that the European community thought that the US acted presumptuously on their behalf. He said that although it was unlikely that they would criticize the Americans publically, they were upset that this agreement was made without them being a part of the process.

The Bush administration has gone out on a limb to accommodate India on the nuclear deal. India may have to return the favour by being more flexible about the amendments that Congress insists on. The US by acknowledging India as a major power and a strategic partner, has finally given India the recognition it has wanted for so long. The onus is now on India to live up to the trust that the Americans have placed in them and show the world that it is a responsible nuclear nation.

This is an opportunity for India to take the leadership of the new nuclear states and unilaterally offer to sign relevant international treaties, accept safeguards and inspections. This would make not only the world, but India as well a safer place.