A new era in US-India cooperation was unveiled at the White House in July 2005 when President Bush told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he would work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India, despite over a quarter-century of disagreements between the two countries over nuclear issues. The overwhelming bipartisan support for the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement that Bush signed last December reflected the consensus of American foreign policy strategists that India will be one of America's most crucial partners in the 21st century.
Eleven months later that agreement is in political trouble, only barely moving forward. The effort to finalize the deal has foundered in part because of the inertia of a US administration preoccupied by Iraq. More recently it has run into stiff opposition from members of the leftist parties in Singh's ruling coalition who are allergic to any suggestion of outside interference in India's internal affairs, especially by the United States. Opponents in New Delhi and Washington are hoping the clock will expire on a lame-duck Bush administration before it is able to obtain final congressional approval for the agreement.
This would be a most unfortunate outcome. Paradoxically, a nuclear-free world may be one of the casualties.
It has long been a goal of the United States to bring India closer as a partner in global efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons. The civil nuclear agreement is an important step forward in that direction. That is why Mohamed ElBaradei - the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency - says it is "a milestone, timely for ongoing efforts to consolidate the nonproliferation regime, combat nuclear terrorism, and strengthen nuclear safety."
With this agreement, the United States explicitly recognizes India's status as a full-fledged nuclear power and commits itself to a partnership in the realm of civilian nuclear energy. That may open the door to an even broader nuclear agenda the two nations could pursue, one that is attracting increasing international attention.
In an article published earlier this year titled "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn argue that the world is entering a new nuclear era, more dangerous than before, with nuclear know-how proliferating and nonstate terrorist groups seeking to obtain and use weapons of mass destruction. They said a bold new vision is needed to reverse this trend and cited two world leaders as inspiration for their declared goal of a "nuclear-free world" - Ronald Reagan and Rajiv Gandhi.
Both leaders shared an abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Reagan called them "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing." Both leaders proposed their total elimination - Reagan at his summit with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 and Gandhi in a dramatic address to the United Nations in 1988 in which he proposed their elimination by 2010, adding the world must "put a stop to this madness."
Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, Nunn, and others propose a number of urgent steps that would lay the groundwork for a world free of the nuclear threat, including US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and efforts to secure ratification by other key states; providing the highest possible standards of security for all stocks of weapons and nuclear material everywhere in the world; and halting the production of fissile material for weapons globally. But, first and foremost, they say, "is intensive work with leaders of the countries in possession of nuclear weapons to turn the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise."
India is a strong candidate to become part of that global effort.
Last month at the UN, Indian delegate (and member of Parliament) Sushma Swaraj warned about the possibility of terrorists and nonstate actors acquiring nuclear weapons. She said India has long sought the total elimination of nuclear arms backed by an international security system in which states do not feel the need to develop, produce, or stockpile them.
This month, India's external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, reiterated his country's commitment to global nuclear disarmament, "based on the principles of universality, nondiscrimination, and effective compliance."
This could be the beginning basis for a new US-India nuclear partnership, if American officials avoid what Indians referred to in the past as "the three D's" of US nuclear policy - dominance, discrimination, and double standards. In this regard, it would also be appropriate for the United States to lead by example, beginning with further substantial reductions in US nuclear forces, taking nuclear weapons off high alert status (thus reducing the danger of accidental or unauthorized use), and Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
With or without finalizing the civilian nuclear agreement, the United States and India should pursue this new nuclear agenda, but it will have more credibility if that deal is consummated.
Recently Singh said his government remains committed to the deal and that, even with the delays, "We have not reached the end of the road."
Let's hope so.
It could lay the foundation for a partnership between the two countries to seek a nuclear-free world.