A Nuclear Reality Check

Many of the Bush administration's critics argue, with some merit, that it has often pursued a foreign policy based on ideology and fantasy, not the realities of the world. But now the critics are lost in their own reveries. They fantasize that the United States and India will sign a nuclear agreement in which the latter renounces its nuclear weapons. They criticize the Bush

administration's proposed deal with India because it does no such thing. (Instead, India commits to placing 14 of its 22 reactors under permanent inspections, and retains eight for its weapons program.) But this is a dream, not a deal. India has spent 32 years under American sanctions without budging--even when it was a much poorer country than it is today--and it would happily spend 32 more before it signed such a deal. The choice we face is the proposed deal with India or no deal at all.

The nuclear nonproliferation regime has always tempered idealism with a healthy dose of realism. After all, the United States goes around the world telling countries that a few more nuclear warheads are dangerous and immoral--while it has 12,000 nukes of its own. The nonproliferation treaty arbitrarily determined that countries that had nuclear weapons in 1968 were legitimate nuclear-weapons states, and that all latecomers were outlaws. (It was the mother of all grandfather clauses.) India is the most important country, and only potential global power, that lies outside the nonproliferation system. Bringing it in is crucial to the system's survival. That's why Mohamed ElBaradei, the man charged with protecting and enforcing global nonproliferation, has been a staunch supporter of the agreement.

This deal, shorn of all the jargon, comes down to something quite simple: should we treat India like China, or like North Korea? If the former, then we have to accept the reality that it is a nuclear power and help make its program as safe and secure as possible. If the latter, then we'll never stop trying to reverse India's weapons program.

Actually, even if this deal goes through, India will have second-class status compared with China, Russia and the other major nuclear powers. In all those countries, not one reactor is under any inspection regime whatsoever, yet India would place at least two thirds of its program under the eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The inequity with China is particularly galling to New Delhi. China has a long history of abetting nuclear proliferation, most clearly through Pakistan. Yet the United States has an arrangement to share civilian nuclear technology with Beijing. India, meanwhile, is a democratic, transparent country with a perfect record of nonproliferation. Yet it has been denied such cooperation for the past 32 years.

There are some who are willing, grudgingly, to give up their full-blown fantasy and settle for a minor one--a deal in which India would agree to cap its production of fissile material. Jimmy Carter expressed this view in a recent article. But look at a map. India is bordered by China and Pakistan, both nuclear-weapons states, neither of which has agreed to a mandatory cap. (China appears to have stopped producing plutonium, as have the other major powers, but this is a voluntary decision, made largely because it's awash in fissile material.) For India to accept a mandatory cap is to adopt a one-sided nuclear freeze. Would the United States do that? India has declared a commitment to support such a cap when it is accepted by all nuclear states, which is what we should push for.

There is a broader strategic issue for the United States. It has been American policy for decades to oppose the rise of a single hegemonic power in either Europe or Asia. If India were forced to halt its plutonium production, the result would be that China would become the dominant nuclear power in Asia. Why is this in American interests? Should we not prefer a circumstance where there is some balance between the major powers on that vast continent?

The agreement is also a crucial step forward in tackling the problem of global energy. If India and China keep guzzling gas as they grow, any and all Western efforts at energy conservation are pointless. We have to find a way that these two rising giants can satisfy their energy needs, while also reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. Civilian nuclear power can help fill the gap. Indian technology is actually the best in the world in this area because it largely solves the problem of nuclear waste. So while India has much to learn from the United States, the relationship will not be entirely one-sided.

A more workable nonproliferation regime, a more stable strategic balance in Asia--and it's even good for the environment. This is a reality that's better than most fantasies.