February 27, 2006

February 27, 2006 | Commentary on

Outreach to India: W's Atomic Pickle

President Bush finds himself in a bit of a "proliferation pickle" as he begins an historic visit to South Asia this week. The United States wants to deepen strategic relations with India, while New Delhi wants Washington to overlook its nuclear-weapons program.

The challenge for Bush is to advance ties between the world's largest democracies while holding together the tattered U.N. system for limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and technology, especially the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

First, a little background: During Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington Last July, the two sides agreed to expand cooperation in a number of areas, including defense and space. Surprisingly, the meeting also proposed nuclear collaboration.

Under the agreement, America would supply India with civilian nuclear technology; India would place its civilian nuclear facilities under international (i.e., International Atomic Energy Agency) monitoring.

But that announcement caused tremors, especially in Congress, because U.S. law prohibits sharing nuclear materials/technology with nations that haven't signed the NPT or possess nukes. (India hasn't signed, and has 150-200 nuclear weapons).

Plus, the agreement wouldn't put India's nuclear-weapons facilities - or its prototype fast-breeder reactor - under international safeguards. (Fast-breeders aren't great for electricity, but are top-notch for producing plutonium for weapons.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a well-known nonproliferation advocate, said: "If India is allowed to have a nuclear program that is half safeguarded and half not, it will be ridiculed as half-baked and would make a mockery of the IAEA and the NPT."

So why did the president sign off on such an accord, knowing he'd face opposition from Congress, proliferation experts - and standing American law?

Chalk it up to good, old-fashioned (proliferation) pragmatism. Bush can't put the Indian nuclear genie back in the bottle - at least for the moment. And a futile drive to try anyway - which current U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy would seem to dictate - causes problems for other U.S. national interests.

U.S. security policy, while not abandoning the NPT (which bans the spread of nuclear weapons, not nuclear energy), must also recognize a nuclear Iran or North Korea poses different dangers than does democratic, peaceful India.

Moreover, improving relations with India will assist U.S. efforts to stabilize South Asia, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, fight global terrorism and balance China's growing might. But a couple of other policy issues are at play as well.

Energy: India's population is 1.1 billion. Like China, it has an insatiable - and growing - energy appetite. Today's high U.S. pump prices have as much to do with spiking Indian/Chinese demand as anything else.

India also produces significant greenhouse gases. India (and China's) continued fossil-fuel use thus threatens global ecological disaster. Clean, safe, economical nuclear energy for India makes sense for all of us.

Iran: India buys billions of dollars in Iranian oil and natural gas, refines 40 percent of Iran's domestic gasoline and still craves a proposed $7 billion Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.

While India supported the U.S. earlier this month at the IAEA in reporting Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council, New Delhi's continued collaboration isn't guaranteed. Nuclear-energy assistance could help India kick its Iranian energy habit, further isolating intransigent Tehran.

Naturally, there are downsides, too. For starters, Pakistan sees a zero-sum game in relation to its great rival - i.e., anything that rewards India, punishes Pakistan. Islamabad, also a nuclear weapons state and NPT non-signatory, is clamoring for equal treatment.

Treating Pakistan differently could drive Islamabad further into the Beijing's arms - and away from the West. But Pakistani nuclear cooperation is more problematic - the country has a serious problem of domestic Islamic radicalism/terrorism, and has made only halting progress toward democracy. (India, of course, is the world's largest democracy.)

And don't forget: Iran and North Korea will also be watching how the Indian deal is cut.

So Bush has his work cut out for himself on his South Asian sojourn. He has to convince the Indians that they must join the international nuclear mainstream, fully separating its peaceful and military nuclear programs.

Then the White House will have to convince Congress that altering longstanding nuclear-nonproliferation law is essential to managing relations in the new security environment. Getting Congress on board is doable, but no small task.

Some Indian skeptics, suspicious of Washington in general, will also belabor the deal from the New Delhi-side, so implementing any nuclear agreement will likely be slow.

It's all worth it, though. Strengthening ties with India, a nation of growing importance in Asia - and globally - will pay dividends for American interests well into the 21st century.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. His book, "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States," is just out.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post