Giving India a Pass

The Bush administration's recent decision to sell India civilian nuclear technology, announced in July, has set off a predictable firestorm of criticism from nonproliferation advocates. The arguments the critics make are well-known and amply rehearsed: giving such a concession to India will reward irresponsible behavior (i.e., developing nuclear weapons while keeping aloof from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime); it will encourage further proliferation (from states such as Iran, North Korea, Brazil, and Pakistan); and it will spur sales to potential proliferators by other nuclear suppliers (such as China, France, and Russia). Even if familiar and superficially plausible, however, all these criticisms are without merit.

U.S. law has prohibited the sale of civilian nuclear technology to non-NPT member states, including India, since 1978. The nuclear tests that India conducted in May 1998 automatically triggered additional, congressionally mandated sanctions. After those tests, in an attempt to prevent India (and Pakistan) from going further down the nuclear path, then-Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott opened negotiations with the Indian Minister for External Affairs Jaswant Singh. After fourteen rounds of talks, the two men's formal positions remained far apart. Talbott could not persuade Singh to yield on most of the core issues they had discussed, including the things he wanted most -- an end to India's missile tests and the dismantling of India's existing nuclear arsenal. Singh did agree, however, to tighten India's export controls and start a dialogue with Pakistan.

Despite their failure to produce much agreement, Talbott and Singh's negotiations generated considerable personal bonhomie and inaugurated a closer bilateral relationship between the India and the United States during the last days of the second Clinton administration. This did not lead to the lifting of the various layers of US sanctions, however, because the White House was unwilling to push hard for changes in the existing legal regime constraining South Asia policy. For the Clinton administration, in other words, the pursuit of nonproliferation goals and calm relations with Congress trumped the desire for better relations with a rapidly growing and increasingly assertive regional power.

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