Journalist | Writer | Analyst
The nonproliferation agenda has been a part of the nuclear deal from the start, even as the wider strategic partnership was designed to be the principal goal. The U.S. also knew that some down payment on the foreign policy front might be necessary to guard against India’s tendency to act independently. But getting the balance right has never been easy…
28 August 2008
The American dilemma at the NSG
The nuclear deal is at its most decisive breaking point today. India has shown its willingness to abide by its commitments. Is the U.S. in a position to do the same?
In the face of evidence suggesting the underselling of India’s case at the Nuclear Suppliers Group last week, it is worth asking why the United States invested three years of political capital in a deal only to see it brought to the edge of a precipice where the smallest of nonproliferation ‘conditions’ is likely to knock it over. The answer lies in the contradictory pursuit of strategic and tactical gains lying at the heart of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.
The July 2005 nuclear agreement was the product of a strong strategic urge in Washington to do something dramatic to overcome the reticence the Indian political, bureaucratic and military elites have traditionally shown towards entering into a more profound strategic embrace with the U.S. This embrace was not about turning New Delhi into a military ally, something even the most optimistic advocates of the India relationship in Washington knew was unlikely ever to happen. But it was about allowing the U.S. to shape the strategic choices India was making and help the country become a “responsible stakeholder” of a regional and global system underpinned by American hegemony. The alternative was that India could emerge a spoiler who might bandwagon with other powers and make the exercise of that hegemony more difficult.
The brilliance of Philip Zelikow, who was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s advisor in 2004 and 2005, lay in understanding the seductive potential civil nuclear cooperation held for the Indian elites. The U.S. had wasted five years following the 1998 nuclear tests trying to contain the Indian atomic genie. But as the strategists of the Bush administration surveyed the post-Iraq war world, they asked themselves whether this failure could somehow be turned into the pillar of a new approach. One where India’s obvious military strengths were recognized, including the reality of its nuclear weapons, and an attempt made to harness its abilities so that they could further U.S. interests in the region. If the Iraq fiasco had demonstrated, inter alia, the limits of unilateralist hegemony, could the outsourcing of hegemony to countries like India help transcend those limits?
Not surprisingly, the first branch of U.S. government to realize the promise this new relationship held was the Pentagon. Even during the first four years of the Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld and Douglas Feith had sought to deepen military-to-military ties with the Indians, with the stress first on exercises and interoperability leading eventually to the sale of equipment. But the weakness of this approach became apparent in the summer of 2003 when a determined American push to get India to send ‘peacekeeping’ troops to Iraq ran aground despite winning the backing of most ‘pundits’ in Delhi. A U.S. envoy made a final push with a top Indian official in early July that year. “Future generations of Americans will be grateful for India’s help”, he said. “But what can you do for us now? Are you prepared to lift the restrictions on our civil nuclear programme?” the official asked. The envoy had no answer. He returned empty handed, but the record of that conversation left its mark in the Beltway. And the effect was felt almost immediately. First up, the High Technology Cooperation Group, which had been set up in 2002, got a boost. Later that year, the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership took shape. The Pentagon was already a believer but it was now the Commerce Department’s turn to test the waters. By September 2004, India had agreed to sign the End Use Verification Agreement that Commerce considered a key benchmark of India’s willingness to accommodate American concerns. Somewhere within the State Department, a little light began to flash. And policymakers like Mr. Zelikow began to ask themselves: Could the sop of a nuclear deal become the cornerstone of a grand strategic bargain with India and pave the way for a vastly expanded relationship?
In January 2005, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, who was the French President’s diplomatic advisor at the time, was asked to test the waters in New Delhi by presenting the Indians with a U.S.-France-U.K non-paper outlining a menu of possibilities, including separation of the civil and military programme. Brajesh Mishra as National Security Adviser in the erstwhile Vajpayee government had earlier broached the idea with the French of offering one or two reactors from among the 21 operating (or under construction) for international safeguards provided sanctions were lifted, with a commitment to safeguard all future reactors as well. That proposal was now dusted off and embellished. The Manmohan Singh government vetoed some suggestions but reacted positively to the idea. By March, the U.S. had made up its mind. Ironically, the immediate catalyst was the American decision to provide F-16s to Pakistan. Washington feared India would be offended. So Dr. Rice traveled to Delhi to tell the Prime Minister about the F-16s. And that the U.S. wanted to work towards the lifting of international restrictions on civil nuclear commerce with India. Dr. Singh assented.
So compelling was the logic of a nuclear deal with India that it appealed to the American establishment cutting across institutional, ideological, political and sectoral barriers. Thus, Defence, Commerce and State were fully on board. Neocons, realists and liberal internationalists thought it made sense. The Republicans and Democrats did so as well. And as for American capital, especially on the defence, agribusiness, retail and financial services side, no convincing was needed. One more intermediate but crucial step was still to be taken to focus the American mind, and that was the Defence Framework Agreement of June 2005 which foregrounded defence sales. From there to the historic joint statement of July 18, 2005 (J18) was just a matter of detail.
But details do matter and they did prove devilishly difficult. The game in Washington was still a very tightly held one because Dr. Rice knew so dramatic a policy change might not survive the pushes and pulls that came with the full inter-agency process. Though nonproliferation specialists were kept on the periphery of the drafting process, a generalist like Nicholas Burns knew enough of U.S. policies to try and strive for some tactical icing on the strategic cake. The nuclear deal was premised on Indian nuclear weapons not being seen as a threat (and perhaps even as an asset) by Washington as far as the global balance of power was concerned. But this was so only as long as the Indian weapons programme did not become too ambitious. Thus, Mr. Burns and his colleagues sought to make the nonproliferation agenda an essential part of the nuclear deal, even as the wider strategic partnership was designed to be the principal goal. They also knew that some down payment on the foreign policy front might be necessary to guard against India’s tendency to act independently. But getting the balance right was never easy.
When the first draft of J18 was faxed to the Prime Minister’s plane at Frankfurt en route to Washington, it was so full of nonproliferationism that Anil Kakodkar, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, saw red. A message was immediately sent to the Indian negotiators to stand down and not agree to anything until the PM arrived. What ensued was a bitter fight, first within the Indian camp, and then between the Indians and the Americans. In the end, Dr. Rice and President Bush had to intervene. The strategic goal was not to be sacrificed for tactical gains on the nonproliferation front. Those could always be pressed at a later date. Thus the Indians emerged with a reasonably balanced agreement in which some existing and some new nonproliferation commitments were reiterated or made. And in exchange, the U.S. agreed to lift its domestic restrictions and work with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India.
However, this tension between the pursuit of long-term strategic goals and tactical nonproliferation gains was to recur frequently during the next three years. Each time, the deal was taken to breaking point. Each time, it required President Bush’s intervention to be salvaged. And each time, it required Prime Minister Manmohan to inform Mr. Bush of the gravity of the situation. Throughout these episodes, there were always sections of the Indian establishment that urged the path of least resistance. On foreign policy issues like Iran – where former Under Secretary Stephen J. Rademaker, has admitted India’s vote at the IAEA was ‘coerced’ by the U.S. – the Government tended to lose its nerve. But as far as nonproliferation commitments were concerned, the PMO and the Department of Atomic Energy wanted no dilution of the reciprocal balance contained in J18. They had veto power and they never flinched from exercising it.
Thus it was that the separation talks went to the brink in March 2006 before fast breeder reactors and the damaging notion of ‘grid connectivity’ as a criterion for safeguarding reactors were kept out, and the linkage between safeguards, fuel supply and corrective measures brought in. The nonproliferation camp in Washington struck back with the Hyde Act, helped along by some poor Indian diplomacy which saw merit in hailing the passage of a Bill so riddled with extraneous agendas that it has haunted the nuclear deal ever since. In 2007, India recovered some ground in the 123 negotiations, but not without fighting another battle with the nonproliferationists over the question of reprocessing.
As the deal approached its penultimate but actually most decisive stage – the NSG – the nonproliferationists hoped to try their luck one last time. There is, in American football, a move known as a Hail Mary pass, a play so desperate and foolhardy that it is attempted only at the end of the game in order to score a few extra points. What we saw at the NSG and in the run-up to last week’s meeting in Vienna was the diplomatic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. But it is one in which the Americans seem to have lost control over the ball. Whatever Washington’s internal view or assessment, it was impolitic for Ambassador David C. Mulford publicly and repeatedly to say the waiver would not be “unconditional”. Did you say conditions, sir? Well, we’ve got plenty! New Zealand’s disarmament minister said on Tuesday that NSG states have proposed around 50 amendments. What unfolded in Vienna was not some Machiavellian plot. The script for this farce was in the DNA of the deal.
The pursuit of immediate foreign policy and military payoffs by America over the past three years has made the nuclear deal so suspect in India that future governments will find it politically difficult if not impossible to meet U.S. expectations on a number of fronts. Even so, the Americans are likely to try and exploit divisions within India in furtherance of their strategic agenda. But when it comes to its nonproliferation agenda, Washington will find there is little or no dissonance within the establishment. Dr. Kakodkar said on Monday that India would not be pushed around. It wanted nuclear cooperation, “but not at any cost”. He was speaking with full authority. The final whistle is about to be blown. If President Bush and his top advisers are not able to recover the ball quickly and honour the commitments made in J18, the deal is as good as over.