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Talbott: 'Profound Concerns' About U.S. Nuclear Deal with India

Interviewee: Strobe Talbott, President, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 6, 2006

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Strobe Talbott, as deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, was the lead negotiator who failed to get India to give up its nuclear weapons program. He says he has "profound and persistent concerns" about the agreement announced last week in India by the United States and India by which India separates its military and civilian nuclear programs in return for U.S. help with its civilian program.

Now president of the Brookings Institution in Washington, Talbott says "the consequence of the deal will be to further weaken the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which is already under considerable strain. It will do so because it essentially grants India an exception under the NPT, and there are going to be other countries that will want similar exceptions as the months and years go by."

The United States and India signed a series of agreements last week in New Delhi, but the most important regards nuclear energy. India is allowed to keep its military nuclear program secret while putting its civilian nuclear program under international safeguards. What do you think of this agreement?

I have some profound and persistent concerns about the deal. And what we're talking about here is essentially the deal that President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made last July, when Manmohan Singh made an official visit to Washington. Let me be clear about what my concern is and what it is not.

What it is, is that, without this being the intention of either party—I want to stress that—the consequence of the deal will be to further weaken the Nonproliferation Treaty, which is already under considerable strain. It will do so because it essentially grants India an exception under the NPT, and there are going to be other countries that will want similar exceptions as the months and years go by.

What was the basis of the original NPT treaty?

The original concept of the NPT was an imperfect, but nonetheless very salutary agreement, between the five nuclear weapons states—the United States, Britain, Russia, France, and China—that had tested nuclear weapons at the time of the NPT, and the rest of the world. And the understanding was the following: The five nuclear weapon states would, over time, reduce—perhaps even someday eliminate—their own nuclear arsenals, while the non-nuclear weapon states would have international assistance, including from the nuclear weapon states, to develop civilian nuclear energy.

But India, exercising its sovereign right, decided to stay out of the NPT. And then in May of 1998, it exercised what was also its sovereign right, which was to test nuclear weaponry and to proclaim itself a nuclear weapon state.

How did the United States react?

The two objectives in this case were, one, how to further strengthen U.S.-Indian relations, and, two, how to shore up the NPT.

The Clinton administration's effort to do that, in which I was involved, essentially came down to suggesting some ways in which the Indians could take steps that would be completely consistent with what we understood their policy to be and their nuclear doctrine to be, but would nonetheless make them a little bit more part of the solution and a little bit less part of the problem, of both the threat of nuclear war and of nuclear proliferation.

Did you succeed?

We, the Clinton administration, did not succeed in getting the Indians to take those steps. We made very clear to the Indians that because they had chosen to stay outside of the NPT and not be bound by its restrictions with regard to their nuclear weapons program, they would be under certain restrictions with regard to their eligibility for civilian nuclear assistance.

What did the Bush administration do after it took office in 2001?

The Bush administration stayed with that basic approach, up to July of last year, and then decided that the first consideration—that is, improving U.S.-Indian relations—trumped the second consideration, which was protecting the NPT. That was the agreement that was signed between the president and the prime minister last July. What's happened in the past week is that some details in that arrangement have now been worked out to the satisfaction of both sides. But those details—which now need to be scrutinized by the U.S .Congress and also by the other members of the Nuclear Supplier Group [a group of forty-five nuclear-supplier states that voluntarily controls nuclear exports to non-nuclear countries]—are going to confirm the impression that's been around since last July, that this India exception creates new jeopardy for the viability of the NPT.

Why did the U.S. government last year decide to give improved relations with India priority over the nonproliferation aspects? Because when that agreement came out in July, was a kind of surprise to everybody, as I recall.

I think their position boils down to the following: "Let's not let the best be the enemy of the good." India has proved itself to be a responsible member of the international community. And for all of these reasons, it is more important to accommodate India's desires—and, indeed, insistence on being treated as though it were a NPT-recognized nuclear weapon state—than it is for us to insist India accept certain restrictions because it's not a member of the NPT.

That is the calculation, as best I understand it, on the Bush administration's part. I respectfully disagree with that assessment. I think it would have been possible, over time, for us to continue improving relations with India, and indeed help them in other respects, while preserving the essential arrangement that I've already described under the NPT.

And I want to make very clear what I'm not saying here. There is nothing in my thinking that impugns either the Bush administration's motives or India's responsibility and reliability as a partner, and indeed as a custodian of nuclear weapons. That's not the issue. The issue is unforeseen and unwanted consequences in the future.

The NPT is a little bit like the famous dike that needs a whole lot of little Dutch boys running around putting their fingers in it. The dike is going to break at some point. Of course, the most immediate consequence of India testing its nuclear weapons in 1998 was that Pakistan immediately tested. Now we have Iran to worry about. And over the long run, there are a whole variety of countries—some of which are on very good terms with the United States—which, if they look around themselves and see the entire neighborhood going nuclear, are going to say, "Well, we have to rethink our options, too." I would include in that category countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, maybe Turkey someday, certainly Ukraine.

I noticed in your very, very thorough book on the subject, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb, that there really was a kind of interesting dialogue within the administration between what you called the "functionalists" and the "regionalists," the nonproliferation specialists and the South Asian specialists, over which way to go in the talks. And at some point, I had the feeling that you, personally, really wanted to come up with a deal that would have satisfied everybody.

Satisfying everybody is an impossibility and a folly, because you end up with something that by definition doesn't satisfy anybody. But yes, there was natural, healthy disagreement within the administration, and I still have it with my own friends and colleagues. I have, for example, at Brookings, a different view on this issue than my very close friend and colleague Stephen P. Cohen, who is our expert on South Asia. He has a different view on this.

I think there are knowledgeable members of Congress, and extremely knowledgeable members of their staffs, who are going to have to grapple with this issue as well. I think it's extremely important for all of us who have skeptical views on this to give our friends in the administration plenty of opportunity to go over exactly what has been agreed and what the implications are.

The administration has taken this very seriously, and I have particular sympathy, I might say, for Nick Burns, the chief negotiator, who worked out the nuclear deal. He was a close colleague of mine in the government, remains a friend, and I can really identify with him and what he has been through over the past number of months. And by the way, I always keep in mind that the book that you referred to is essentially a tale of not bringing home the bacon. I tried for over two years with the Indians to get them to give on this issue, and could not do so, and President Clinton couldn't do so.

Now this agreement, of course, allows India to have complete control over its own military nuclear reactors, and puts its civilian reactors under IAEA safeguards. Did such a formulation come up in your talks?

No, because we weren't prepared to make that distinction, for a reason having to do with logic. If part of the Indian nuclear weapon program is sealed off from international safeguards, then that is the relevant, and I think unwise, concession to the Indian position. The fact that some facilities will be subject to international safeguards means the Indians will have help on their civilian program, and their indigenous ability to produce fissile material for military purposes will be freed up in some way. Now, one of the things we were trying to get and did not get in the Clinton administration was Indian willingness to join in a ban on manufacture of fissile material. I think that is an issue on which I'd hoped the Bush administration would be more persistent.

There's something in the agreement talking about that. It says they will work toward an agreement limiting fissile material.

That is nice to hear, but it's directional and has to do with intent rather than a commitment to support. And on that subject, India's position is not consistent even with the position taken by the five nuclear weapon states, all of which have said they would accept a ban on the production of fissile material.

And they also say they will continue to not have nuclear testing.

But that is, I believe, a unilateral moratorium, which is very different from signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT]. But let's take a moment on the comprehensive test ban. That's a tricky issue. The United States Senate basically cut the legs out from under the Clinton administration on that point when it refused to ratify the CTBT. One of our benchmarks, so called, in dealing with the Indians was to try to get them, along with three other things, to sign and ratify the CTBT. Well when the U.S. Senate said, "Well, we're not going to ratify the CTBT," it was a little hard for us to insist that somebody else do it. The Indians might at least have signed the CTBT. A unilateral moratorium is fine as long as it lasts, but it basically says it can end the minute the Indian leadership decides it should end.

Let's talk about Iran briefly. Of course, we're right in the midst of very important negotiations that may collapse at any moment on Iran. Iran so far hasn't mentioned the Indian deal, but do you think there's a spillover effect here?

One of the problems I have with the Bush administration's approach to this issue is the following: From the late [1940s] up until recently, the American position with regard to treaties and international law generally was more or less equivalent to the position we take in our own society: equality under the law. We have one set of rules that applies to everybody.

And the same has got to be true on an international basis if these arrangements are going to work. And I think the Bush administration moves in the direction of saying, "We're going to divide the world into good and bad countries," or let's put it this way, "good, bad, and ambiguous countries." And if you're a certifiably good country—and they've decided India so qualifies and I support that—then it gets an exception to the NPT. Then President Bush flies to Islamabad, meets with President [Pervez] Musharraf, who says, "We want the same deal." And President Bush's answer comes down to, "Well, we value you greatly and we appreciate the help you're giving us on terrorism and chasing Osama bin Laden and helping us against al-Qaeda, but you're not as good a country as India, and not as reliable a country, and therefore you don't get the same exception." And that difficulty has implications over time for many, many other countries.

But isn't it true that Pakistan has a poor record on allowing the proliferation of nuclear know-how?

It's objectively the case that India has a pretty good record, and I would say even a good record, on export controls, and Pakistan has an abysmal record. No question about that. It's also the case that India is a democracy and Pakistan is not, that India is a highly stable country, and Pakistan is not. So there are objective reasons for distinguishing between the two. But if we start using the kind of good/bad or reliable/unreliable categories to decide who has to abide by the NPT or live with the consequences and who doesn't, then the whole NPT is going to break down. And by the way, this concerns Iran. Iran, of course, is taking the position that much of what it wants to do, and that we're saying it can't do, is allowed under the NPT, with regard to enrichment and all that.

The Iran story is a strange one because we don't have any proof they're developing nuclear weapons. It's just that there is evidence supporting that argument.

Well, it's pretty strong evidence. I certainly don't question the evidence myself on the basis of what I've read since leaving the government and what I knew when I was in government. And there we have another of our favorite countries very much in play, and that's Russia. And that's one of the ironies of the Iranian situation. The Iranian program, both with regard to nuclear weapons and missile technology, is much further along, or at least further along than it would have been otherwise, thanks to assistance it got from Russia during the 1990s. And now, Russia holds about the only card that has any chance of working with the Iranians, which is offshoring or outsourcing enrichment so that's it's done on Russian territory rather than Iranian territory.

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