Nixon to China, Bush to India

There has been remarkably little discussion in the United States of what is perhaps the major strategic initiative of the Bush second term. The administration is pursuing an objective, which, if successful, could bear some similarities to Nixon's opening to China in 1973: a proposed nuclear agreement with India. This might sound like an esoteric issue for policy wonks, but it is a big deal. If successful, it could well alter the strategic landscape, bringing India firmly and irrevocably onto the world stage as a major player, normalizing its furtive nuclear status and anchoring its partnership with the United States. But the policy, which is currently in some trouble, has to succeed. And for that to happen, strategists on both sides will have to prevail over ideologues.

The Bush administration has been farsighted on this issue. With China rising and Europe and Japan declining, it sees India as a natural partner. It also recognized that 30 years of lectures on nonproliferation and sanctions have done nothing to stop, slow down or make safer India's nuclear program. Most important, it recognized that India was a rising and responsible global power--India has never sold or traded nuclear technology--that could not be treated like a rogue state. So the administration has proposed reversing three decades of (failed) American policy, and aims to make India a member of the nuclear club.

The benefits for the United States--and much of the world--are real. This agreement would bring a rising power into the global tent, making it not an outsider but a stakeholder, and giving it an incentive to help create and shape international norms and rules. For example, India is becoming more worried about a nuclear Iran for this reason, and not because it is being pressured to do so by the United States. When India was being treated like an outlaw, it had no interest in playing the sheriff.

Of course, some nonproliferation ideologues in Washington view the administration's shift with great skepticism. For them, it rewards India for going nuclear and sets a bad precedent. But the truth about nuclear weapons is that there has always been an exception for major powers--Britain, France, Russia, China. The only real question is, does India belong in that group? Also, what is the alternative policy toward India that has any chance of changing its status--more lectures on nonproliferation? It is this logic that has apparently persuaded Mohamed ElBaradei, the world's nonproliferation czar, to support this deal once it has been negotiated.

But the agreement would yield far bigger benefits for India. India's nuclear program has grown in total isolation. Now it would get integrated with the world, gaining access to materials, technology, know-how and markets. The agreement would open up new worlds of science and energy. It is not an accident that Jacques Chirac is arriving in India this week, hoping to begin nuclear cooperation with it, if the U.S.-India negotiations succeed.

But India has many more ideologues, who are fighting against its forward-looking prime minister, Manmohan Singh. First there is the Foreign Service bureaucracy, which seems stuck in the 1950s--using stale concepts like nonalignment, colonialism and Third World solidarity. (No, this is not a joke, they really do think this way.) Add to them India's nuclear scientists, who have gotten very comfortable in their cloistered world. As in any protected industry, the scientists don't want to be exposed to international transparency, largely for fear that it would reveal that their products and processes actually are not cutting-edge. Then there are India's communists, who are in some ways stuck in the 1850s, when Karl Marx was writing his tracts on class conflict, for whom reflexive anti-Americanism is still a guiding principle.

There are technical issues that divide the Indian and American negotiating teams, largely relating to the separation of India's civilian and nuclear facilities. But these details can be sorted out. The administration's point man on this issue, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, an excellent diplomat, will visit India this week in the hope and expectation of being able to resolve the differences. "We're 90 percent of the way there," Burns told me last week. "We've got just 10 percent to go. This has been a uniquely complicated negotiation between two equal parties. But we are committed to it. And as long as both of us show flexibility in the details, I'm confident that we will come to an agreement." Many in India are worried about American pressure to take a stand against Iran. I asked Burns about any "linkage." "We're well beyond all that," said Burns. "India joined with the majority of the board of the Atomic Energy Agency [to censure Iran], including a majority of nonaligned countries--like Brazil, Egypt and Sri Lanka--to vote as it did. And we are all now focused on a diplomatic path to address Iran's violations of its treaty obligations."

Indians at the highest level--Burns's counterpart, Shyam Saran, is an equally able diplomat--speak with a similar sense of strategic vision. But on both sides, strategists battle their own ayatollahs. It might be worth remembering all the costs that the U.S. and China had to deal with in 1973. For the U.S., there was the sellout of Taiwan and the reversal of decades of American policy. On the Chinese side, there was the abandonment of the basic ideology and strategic posture of the communist revolution. And yet, both sides saw the benefits and moved forward. And look at how it changed the world. Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com.

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