March 15, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Trusting India

Indignation and furor have erupted over President Bush's agreement with India to permit the country to import U. S. civilian nuclear technology. The president's decision was announced last July, and came despite the fact that India never signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation regime, and long since developed a modest military nuclear capability. The Economist this week, for instance, features Mr. Bush on the cover as Dr. Strangedeal, riding a nuclear bomb like a bronco, waiving his cowboy hat. (Such an original image.) The magazine warns in its leader, that Mr. Bush's "gamble is a dangerous one... in his rush to accommodate India, Mr. Bush is missing a chance to win wider nuclear restraint on one of the world's tougher neighborhoods." To be honest, this argument sounds rather like the District of Columbia's gun laws, which leave handguns in the hands of the criminals, but deny honest citizens the right to own one.

Before getting into the discussion about political calculations and the cost-benefit analysis of nuclear-proliferation regimes, we should consider whether Congress and the president could together not come up with a new formula for our civilian nuclear- export regime. Ideally, it should be one that would strive to make our policy consistent across the board, as we simultaneously work with emerging allies like India to meet their energy needs while at the same time try to deal with the nuclear aspirations of rogue nations.

A new set of legislative guidelines to govern U.S. nuclear exports could, for instance, include such standards as a solid record of democratic governance and a clean record on nuclear proliferation by the importing nation ? in addition to more technical safeguards. In other words, the principle should be that civilian nuclear power in itself is not the problem; the problem is dangerous regimes that will misuse it to develop weapons to threaten their neighborhood. There is a world of difference between India and Iran -- the only similarity being in fact, that both countries begin with an "i."

It is not hard to see how the White House arrived at the conclusion that the agreement with India to lift the U.S. moratorium on nuclear trade is a good idea. In an increasingly uncertain world, the United States needs new allies and partners, and the strategic importance of India is undeniable. India is the world's largest democracy, with over 1 billion people, and within several decades it will surpass its neighbor China as the most populous country in the world. In its region, India serves as a balance against not just China, but Iran. Trade and investment between the United States and India are growing by leaps and bounds. It's the kind of long-term ally we should want to have.

While many in India are leering of getting too close to the United States, India's ballooning energy needs are an undeniable fact. Currently, nuclear power supplies a mere 3 percent of India's electricity, produced by 14 reactors; another 9 are under construction. By 2050, however, nuclear energy is expected to reach 25 percent. Needless to say, the languishing American nuclear industry would like to get in on this market, as would other countries. In June, France signed a similar agreement with India.

In return for becoming eligible for the purchase of U.S. dual-use technology, India commits itself to some supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It would allow inspectors from the IAEA access to its civilian nuclear program, though reserve the right to decide which reactors to designate as civilian. India also commits itself to a moratorium on nuclear testing and to strengthening the security of its arsenals. Given that India has never acceded to the NPT, these steps could be seen as movement in that direction.

The real question is whether by voting down a deal with a promising new ally, India, Congress would make it any easier for the United States to deal with Iran and North Korea. It is very hard to see how that would be the case, as both have declared their determination to acquire nuclear weapons come hell or high water. For the sake of consistency, however, in a crucially important area of foreign policy, the administration and Congress should go the extra mile to craft a new set of across the board standards that fits the world today. Wedding principles to policy can only make the case for India stronger.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First Appeared in the Washington Times