Symbolism Tops Substance in U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement

Spector, a nuclear nonproliferation expert, discusses the merits of the U.S.-India nuclear agreement and its prospects for passage during the Bush administration.

July 16, 2008

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Leonard S. Spector, a longtime expert in nuclear nonproliferation and head of the Washington office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says there probably is not enough time for the U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement to be approved in the remaining months of the Bush administration. He says the accord has little merit in the nuclear field, but does hold out the possibility of a symbolic improvement in U.S.-India relations.

After many people thought the U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement was essentially dead for this year, the Indian government has resurrected it after the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which had opposed it, pulled out of the governing coalition. There are a series of things that will have to happen before it comes up for approval by the U.S. Congress. Is there time enough for this to happen in the last months of the Bush administration?

It’s best to think of this as a series of steps, as you have. But the intention in each of the steps is somewhat different. In other words, at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there will be a review of the safeguards systems that will be in place as a result of the deal covering facilities India declares to be part of its civilian nuclear program. In the Nuclear Suppliers Group, of course, there has to be unanimity among the supplier countries to change their current rule prohibiting nuclear sales to countries like India, which are in a special category that has been subject to a nuclear embargo by the group since 1992. And the U.S. Congress will consider something still different, which is the American agreement that would authorize nuclear transfers to India under a set of conditions that are specified in a law known as the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006, or Hyde Act for short.  

As to whether or not the agreement will go into effect this year, I have my doubts. Even if it gets through the IAEA, which is expected to consider this in early August, and then moves through the suppliers group perhaps in September, there would be very few legislative days left in this Congress. There will be a heavy agenda of appropriations bills and other crucial business that is likely to crowd the agreement out of what time remains. Given the need for hearings, floor debate, and the like, I don’t think it will make it through the process this year. The chances are that there will simply not be enough time to get the job done.

What are the main advantages of the agreement to India and to the United States?

This is a much debated matter. I would say that for the United States there’s not much inherent to the agreement itself that makes a whole lot of difference. In other words, I believe we’re unlikely to sell many nuclear reactors to India. There are other vendors that are more likely to do so. The Russians, for example, already have a couple of reactors under construction in India. And they’re going to have a leg up for that reason. The French are also very active. Whether the United States will wind up making any such sales is very much up in the air. The real reason for the agreement on the American side, I believe, is to shore up relations with India and to establish our close relationship for the future. The agreement carries considerable symbolism and I’d say that’s even more important than any business that may be obtained by American vendors.

From the Indian standpoint, I actually believe it’s the same thing, even though there is a very strong nuclear establishment in India that has dreams of an enormous string of nuclear power plants dotting the countryside and of nuclear power being an important component of Indian nuclear electric generation. Those aspirations are classic for nuclear establishments. We have them in this country and Russia certainly has them. Undoubtedly, new imported reactors will make some small contribution to the Indian electricity supply. But in the long term, I’m not certain that the deal is going to be so fabulous for the Indian nuclear sector, just like it is not going to be very important to ours.  Nonetheless, that is the Indian’s hope and certainly this has led an important part of the political elite to give support to this deal. And I’d say in the case of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it’s again more of the symbolism of the agreement—having a document that demonstrates the United States is ready to build an enduring and deep relationship.

Some people talk about this being a major strategic agreement because it would offset China’s growing strength in Asia Do you agree?

No, not really, if you are thinking of a strategic military relationship. If you think about where we’re likely to have a clash with China, which is, of course, over Taiwan, what would the Indians do in a case like that? Are they going to make threats against the Chinese to support us? It seems that what we’re doing is seeking to build a strategic relationship in the political sense, but not a military relationship. I believe we will, indeed, build these closer ties with India. The proponents of the deal believe that getting the nuclear deal through will greatly enhance that underlying connection. I think the agreement isn’t needed to make this happen: It’s going to occur just by the nature of the two countries and the way our relationship has been evolving since the end of the Cold War.

There’s been a great deal of criticism of this agreement in the United States. Can you summarize the main arguments are against it?

The principal argument is that we have had a long-standing policy in this country, going back to the 1970s, after India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, which says we will not deal in the nuclear sector with states that are outside the Nonproliferation Treaty like India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, unless they accept international inspections of all their nuclear activities. In other words they would have to renounce nuclear weapons. There seems to be no good reason for ending that sanction. This is the one universal sanction we have that shows our disapproval of states going down the nuclear weapons road. The concept behind the Nonproliferation Treaty, which was open for signature in 1968 and came into force in 1970, was that there should be no more nuclear weapon states beyond the five that were recognized at the time [the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China]. So, this is one way of at least attempting to penalize states that refused to join the treaty and pursued nuclear arms.

The real reason for the agreement on the American side, I believe, is to shore up relations with India and to establish our close relationship for the future. The agreement carries considerable symbolism and I’d say that’s even more important than any business that may be obtained by American vendors.

When you go down the list of elements of the deal, and then you ask, "What are we getting for ending this embargo?" there isn’t very much.  India’s agreed to continue its moratorium on nuclear testing. That’s fine, but they were doing that already. They’ve agreed to adopt export controls. That’s fine, but that’s already required by UN Security Council Resolution 1540. They’ve agreed to place certain civilian facilities under inspection. That’s nice, but they’re not going to allow inspections of a large group of other facilities. This group includes all of the facilities contributing directly to India’s nuclear weapon program. So from the inspection standpoint you don’t get much. If you want to look at the strategic side of things, you can say, “Yes, the agreement will undoubtedly facilitate closer ties between the United States and India.” But it’s hardly needed for that purpose. We have many other ways to build these ties, and we are using them. The idea that we’re going to have a close military link with India is not something that most people believe will transpire.

What pushed the Bush administration to seek this agreement?

Some officials saw the strategic relationship as vitally enhanced by this, since we would give the Indians something that they valued greatly. There has been a sense of deprivation in India. Being denied access to nuclear energy seemed to be a mark against India as an emerging great power. So the Indians, on political grounds, were very sensitive to the embargo on nuclear goods that had been imposed against them. U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill [2001-2003] and some others in the administration saw lifting the embargo through the agreement as extremely positive from the standpoint of building India as a counter to China, and as not having any negatives. They argued that India already had the bomb, and tested it in 1998, and even earlier of course, in 1974 with the so-called peaceful nuclear explosion. Thus the embargo was not slowing their development of nuclear weapons and there wasn’t much to be lost from ending it. They argued that the rule preventing India from getting nuclear technology from the United States was an artifact of an earlier epoch, which no longer was relevant.

And the arms control community in the United States is not very enthusiastic about this agreement?

That’s right, because of the sense that nuclear nonproliferation rules are being loosened with little gained in return. Now, what emerged as the final U.S. position because of the Hyde Act certainly was a tremendous improvement over where the deal stood when it was announced in July 2005. The Hyde Act built in penalties if there were further Indian nuclear tests and contained other provisions limiting the types and scale of nuclear cooperation India could receive from the United States. If all of these provisions were adopted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, then we’d at least have something in the plus column for nonproliferation. You would have taken a country that had, in effect, been totally free to do as it wished with its weapons, in terms of testing and the rest, and at least put a restrictive framework around it that made it more difficult to take the nuclear weapon program to new levels, such as developing thermonuclear weapons (that is, the H-bomb). I don’t think I would cheer for the deal, if the Suppliers Group adopted these conditions, but I would at least say that there is some more balance to it than when it was as originally conceived.

Just looking ahead, have either Barack Obama or John McCain said anything about this agreement?

My impression is that they have both indicated their support for it. But the matter would be reopened to some degree after one of them became president, assuming the deal does not go through during the Bush term, which seems to be the most likely prospect. There will have to be review by the McCain administration or the Obama administration to see what it wants to do. Do they like the deal in the current form? Do they want to press for some additional concessions? Singh may not be in office either. In fact, if the Hindu nationalist BJP takes power in elections next year India will reject the deal.

And I guess the Indian parliament will approve it because the government has a majority?

At this time, you are right: Singh has a parliamentary majority and wants the deal. But there are other factions strongly opposed to it. They point, for example, to parts of the Hyde Act that call upon India in very strong, although not binding, language to support our policies regarding Iran. And the Indian opponents are distressed that the agreement has been portrayed by the Bush administration as bringing India closer to us—bringing it into our orbit.

This idea that the agreement will make India more likely to do our bidding has led to a very negative reaction from nationalist and leftist factions that don’t want to see India quite so much in lockstep with the United States. They see the nuclear deal as a symbolic commitment to stand by American foreign policy. Some Indian opponents of the deal, I would say they are driven by classic nationalism, but for others it is more a sense of discomfort with the particular paths the Bush administration has followed in recent years. The oil pipeline with Iran, which the United States opposes and India seems to be favoring, is an example of future disagreement, where India wants to set its own course.