Wrong Ends, Means, and Needs: Behind the U.S. Nuclear Deal with India

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President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a joint statement on July 18, 2005, laying the grounds for the resumption of full U.S. and international nuclear aid to India. Such international support was key to India developing its nuclear infrastructure and capabilities and was essentially stopped after India's 1974 nuclear weapons test. India's subsequent refusal to give up its nuclear weapons and sign the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has kept it largely outside the system of regulated transfer, trade, and monitoring of nuclear technology that has been developed over the last three decades.

The July agreement requires the United States to amend its own laws and policies on nuclear technology transfer and to work for changes in international controls on the supply of nuclear fuel and technology so as to allow "full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India." In exchange, India's government would identify and separate civilian nuclear facilities and programs from its nuclear weapons complex and volunteer these civilian facilities for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection and safeguarding. Yet, as they consider the deal and ways to transform its broad framework into legal realities, political elites in each country have ignored some crucial issues.

Policy analysts in the United States have debated the wisdom of the deal.1 This debate has been rather narrow, confined to proliferation policy experts and a few interested members of Congress, and largely focused on the lack of specific details with regard to the deal, the order of the various steps to be taken by the respective governments, and the potential consequences for U.S. nonproliferation policy.2 The larger policy context of a long-standing effort to co-opt India as a U.S. client and so sustain and strengthen U.S. power, especially with regard to China, has gone unchallenged. There is also little recognition of how the agreement could allow India to expand its nuclear arsenal.

The deal has incited a wider and more intense debate in India on questions of national security, sovereignty, development, and democracy. Some would like to see as few constraints as possible on increasing the future capacity of India's nuclear weapons complex, and others question the extent to which nuclear energy can help meet India's energy needs. Despite the many claims that the social, economic, and political well-being of the people of India will be enhanced by this deal, there has been little attention paid to the issue of whether India needs nuclear weapons at all, the costly failures of the Indian nuclear energy enterprise, and the possible harm for the people of India from a continued expansion of the nuclear complex.

Misplaced U.S. Goals

The nuclear deal has to be seen in the context of efforts over the last 50 years to incorporate India into U.S. strategy in Asia. After the Chinese revolution, the United States came quickly to believe that newly independent India was the only potential regional power that could compete with China for dominance in Southeast Asia. Despite repeated U.S. efforts to use economic and military aid to promote this policy, India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, refused to have his country play this role. He said that a free India would not be a pawn for great powers, and warned that this kind of alliance building by great powers was bad for international relations and could lead to war.3

Still, U.S. hostility toward Communist China led to some extraordinary ideas about nuclear cooperation. In the wake of China's first nuclear weapons test in 1964, senior officials in the Department of State and the Pentagon considered the possibilities of "providing nuclear weapons under U.S. custody" to India and preparing Indian forces to use them. At the same time, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was considering helping India with "peaceful nuclear explosions," which would involve the use of U. …