More than three years after it was first negotiated, the U.S.-India nuclear deal has at last been sent to the U.S. Congress for approval. The agreement is the final stage in a process designed to let Washington provide New Delhi with the civil nuclear technology and fuel that the latter has been denied ever since it first tested a nuclear weapon in 1974. Every hurdle facing the deal—approval by the fractious Indian parliament, the hammering out of a “safeguards agreement” with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and approval by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group—has been cleared save this one. U.S. legislators are the only remaining barrier to greater U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation.
Congressional opponents of the deal—echoing the arguments of many arms-control experts and some leading U.S. editorial pages—passionately insist that the pact brings little value and will blow a hole in the nuclear nonproliferation regime by authorizing nuclear trade with India without requiring that New Delhi abandon its nuclear weapons or forego testing them. But in fact, while hardly perfect, the deal has major advantages and limited downsides, and its rejection by the U.S. Congress could actually undermine the nonproliferation cause by transforming India from an emerging strategic partner into a resentful victim of what it sees as Western double standards.
Washington should remember that whatever it does, the Indians have no intention of giving up the limited nuclear deterrent they’ve possessed since 1974. Barring a global deal on nuclear disarmament—which India, unlike most declared nuclear-weapons states, actually supports—New Delhi will maintain its weapons and has both the technology and the natural resources (uranium) to do so on its own. The issue is therefore not whether the world is going to allow India to keep its bombs, but whether the United States and India are going to reap the considerable advantages the pact would offer. The Indian economy would benefit from the easing of restrictions on dual-use goods, while U.S. companies would get to enter India’s nuclear-energy market. Promoting civil nuclear energy in India as a clean alternative to coal and oil would also help fight climate change. As for the issue of weapons testing—the main concern of the deal’s opponents—the reality is that New Delhi is more likely to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty voluntarily if it feels like its being respected than if Washington tries to make the treaty a condition for nuclear cooperation.
Congress’s passage of the agreement would also be a major boon to America’s burgeoning strategic relationship with India, a rising global power. In a world where nations pursue their interests first and foremost, one shouldn’t overestimate the gratitude New Delhi will feel toward Washington, or the impact this will have on policy. That said, it would also be a mistake to underestimate the degree to which Indians appreciate the Bush administration’s efforts to end what Indians see as deeply unjust nuclear constraints that have been imposed on them. On a mid-September trip to New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, the vast majority of Indians I spoke to voiced real gratitude for Washington’s recognition of their democratic system, growing power, and good nonproliferation track record for more than 30 years. They will not soon forget the outcome of this vote, whichever way it goes.
Rejecting the deal at this point would have the ironic effect of isolating not India but the United States. With the Nuclear Suppliers Group already having voted, at U.S. behest, to lift its restrictions on civil nuclear trade with India, a Congressional rejection of the agreement now, would not end such trade but only deny U.S. firms the opportunity to participate in it—to the great advantage of Russian and French competitors. The only way to change that would be to go back to the NSG and try to persuade it to reverse its recent agreement—a move that would not only almost certainly fail, but also undermine the goal of improving U.S.-India relations.
Opponents of the deal insist that its approval would send the wrong message to other countries that are currently threatening the nuclear nonproliferation regime, such as Iran. In fact, the deal does not signal international indifference to proliferation. The pact shows that the international community is prepared to distinguish between countries that abide by, and are increasing cooperation with, the nuclear nonproliferation regime—like India—and those that defy it. Washington will also be better placed to solicit New Delhi’s cooperation in efforts to contain Iran if the United States consolidates its strategic relationship with India, than it would be if Congress rejected the deal. Walking away now would only revive all the old Indian complaints about “nuclear apartheid” and encourage Indian solidarity with Iran.
In an ideal world, rejection of the nuclear deal would preserve the sanctity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and make the world a safer place. In the world we live in, however, it would do little to prevent nonproliferation and significantly harm India, the United States, and their ability to do good things together.