Journalist | Writer | Analyst
America’s inability – or unwillingness – to pilot through the Nuclear Suppliers Group the waiver India needs to allow full civil nuclear cooperation undermines the basis of the July 2005 agreement. If the U.S. is not interested in honouring its commitment, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must walk away…
25 August 2008
Looking beyond the NSG debacle
America’s inability – or unwillingness – to pilot through the Nuclear Suppliers Group the waiver India needs to allow full civil nuclear cooperation undermines the basis of the July 2005 agreement. If the U.S. is not interested in honouring its commitment, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must walk away.
A central premise of the civil nuclear energy cooperation initiative between New Delhi and Washington has been the assumption that the United States is the only major power with both the ability and the motivation to force a change in the discriminatory international rules governing nuclear commerce with India. Earlier Indian approaches to both France and Russia in 2003 and 2004 found the two countries eager to cooperate but unwilling to take the lead. Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Adviser at the time, was politely but firmly told to speak to Washington since it was the U.S. that held the keys to any relaxation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group rules prohibiting sales to India.
Mr. Mishra immediately broached the idea of an agreement with the U.S. but it was not until March 2005 that Washington reverted to New Delhi with a proposal that would eventually be signed by the two countries on July 18, 2005. It has not exactly been smooth sailing since then, but as an American-prepared draft seeking a waiver to the NSG guidelines for India ran aground at a special meeting of the 45-nation cartel on Friday, it is worth asking whether the U.S. over-reached itself three years ago in making a commitment to “adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear cooperation and trade” with the country. Or whether President George W. Bush has pulled a fast one on New Delhi, misleading Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with a false promise then and doing his utmost at the NSG to ensure that what prevails is not the solemn commitment contained in the July 2005 agreement but the extraneous non-proliferation agenda of the Hyde Act.
These are, broadly speaking, the only two ways of analyzing the implications of last week’s debacle in Vienna. While each scenario needs to be carefully assessed, the implications for what strategy India must adopt from now on are the same.
But first the facts. The U.S. and India spent three weeks negotiating the text of the draft waiver granting India an exemption from the NSG’s export rules. The draft took note of all the commitments India had made in July 2005 and stated that in the light of these, the full-scope safeguards requirement was being waived. To protect the concerns of those NSG countries doubting India’s willingness to abide by its commitments in the future, the waiver provided for members to “maintain contact and consult through regular channels on matters connected with the implementation of the Guidelines, taking into account relevant international commitments and bilateral agreements with India”. In other words, any purported violation by India could occasion the convening of a plenary meeting where a decision on how to react could always be taken by consensus.
In Vienna, this reasonable draft came under sustained attack from a small group of states. These included New Zealand, Ireland, Austria, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, all of whom demanded substantive amendments. And then there was a second tier of countries who waded into what became a free for all with suggestions and changes of their own. Bilateral consultations the U.S. delegation held with officials from these countries on the morning of August 22 led not to the latter backing off but to the former agreeing to strive for an amended waiver that would take their misplaced demands on board and push for India’s concurrence with these. If accounts provided to me by European diplomats who were present in the last session of the NSG plenary are correct, the entire draft will now be reworked. On the menu are both ‘prescriptive’ suggestions on the desirability of India eventually acceding to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and, more dangerously, ‘post-conditions’. The latter category consist of ‘periodic review’ and a list of actions by India which might trigger the immediate and automatic termination of nuclear supplies, thereby jeopardising the billions of dollars of investment New Delhi might already have made. There will be no need to meet again and go through the tiresome process of evolving a consensus on whether to end cooperation with India or not, a process which a major nuclear vendor like Russia could well block. In addition, an attempt will be made to limit the scope of cooperation with India to only certain aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle and exclude enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) altogether.
Some or all of these changes reflect the unilateral conditions and prescriptions of the Hyde Act, something the Indian negotiating team fought hard to keep out of the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement (the ‘123 agreement’) finalized last July. India was also able to build in to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency the tight linkage between continuity of fuel supplies and continuity of safeguards which was a cornerstone of the March 2006 separation plan and which Hyde sought to undo. Hawks like Congressman Howard Berman and officials from the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN) were never very pleased with what they saw as an Indian attempt to do an end run around the requirements of Hyde and saw the NSG as the battleground where the issue had to be settled once and for all. Mr. Berman introduced a resolution in Congress last fall calling for conditionalities in the proposed NSG waiver. Written assurances to this effect were sought from the State Department and provided to the House Foreign Relations Committee in classified form. When the draft waiver text became known, Richard Stratford of the ISN told a seminar in D.C. that the language had been deliberately kept weak so that tougher provisions could be grafted on in consultation with U.S. allies. And Mr. Berman was reassured that all his concerns would be taken care of at Vienna.
There were three other bad omens which augured badly for India’s chances at the NSG. First, in the run-up to the Vienna meeting, it had become apparent that Washington had done little or no lobbying on behalf of the “clean and unconditional” waiver that New Delhi sought. Where India, which is not even an NSG member, had sent multiple delegations to all NSG capitals led, in each case, by officials of at least Secretary rank, the U.S. deployed officers of such low pay grade as to be almost inconsequential. When an envoy was sent at all, he or she invariably tended to be someone as low down the Foggy Bottom food chain as a principal deputy assistant secretary of state. Second, India’s principal ‘ally’ in the NSG game, U.S. ambassador David Mulford, kept encouraging the NSG naysayers by stating it was unwise for Indians to expect an unconditional waiver. Third, the fact that the U.S. deployed John D. Rood, acting under secretary at the ISN, and a known activist on the nonproliferation front, was the final indication that the meeting in Vienna was not going to go India’s way. Many of the Hyde Act’s provisions began life as declarations of intent in the testimonies to Congress of Robert Joseph, Mr. Rood’s predecessor at ISN. It was only to be expected, therefore, that the Bureau would launch a rearguard action at the NSG in defence of those provisions given half a chance.
While it is true that the U.S. simply lacks the power and authority to push through changes in the international system by itself, a closer examination of its failures suggests America tends to be most unsuccessful where one or more world powers dig their heels in and refuse to go along with Washington’s agenda. At the NSG, however, all world powers were active supporters of the India initiative (Russia, France, Britain), passive supporters (Japan, Germany and Canada) or neutral (China). With this degree of policy coherence at the great power level, there was no way a sincere American effort to deliver a clean and unconditional waiver for India would have run aground. What happened at Vienna, however, was a coordinated attack in which the smaller states were encouraged to do Washington’s business for it.
The Bush administration’s calculation is that with the vote of confidence behind him, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is now so politically committed to seeing the nuclear deal through that he will find it impossible to acknowledge that the Americans have double-crossed him. Indeed, a situation has now arisen where the U.S. may go ahead with the September 4-5 NSG meeting and press the adoption of a diluted, conditional waiver despite Indian pposition in the hope that Dr. Singh will have no option but to submit to this fait accompli.
Thanks to a number of strategic blunders he has made over the past three years – including abandoning the pan-Asian energy grid idea of Mani Shankar Aiyar, going slow on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project and bowing to U.S. sensitivities in not inking the inter-governmental agreement on Koodankoolam for four additional reactors from Russia – the Prime Minister does not have a very strong hand from which to stare down the U.S. But stare he must. As soon as the Americans come to Delhi with new draft language, he must pick up the telephone and tell President Bush that if he cannot uphold his part of the July 2005 agreement, the deal is over. He must also tell Mr. Bush that on the eve of the next NSG meeting he will make a televised address to the nation explaining the betrayal of trust which has led to the collapse of the deal. If the U.S. ignores his appeal, so be it. No government or leader in India will ever be able to justify entering into any agreement with Washington for the foreseeable future. And that will be America’s loss, not India’s.