An opportunity in a deal’s demise

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The nuclear deal between the US and India that President George W. Bush welcomed as a strategic coup when it was announced in 2005 appears to be as good as dead.

If current last-minute efforts to resuscitate the agreement fail, nobody should lament its passing. The motivation behind the deal – a closer relationship between the world’s richest democracy and its most populous – was laudable. But the costs it entailed to efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons were far too high.

The agreement would have weakened nuclear weapons restraint across a wide front.

It would have undermined the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by sanctioning the supply of nuclear materials to a non-member state, in effect forcing the US into a formal violation of the NPT. It would have carved out another exception in the treaty, which already formally discriminates in favour of the five established nuclear powers, by granting India special privileges, apparently on the basis that it is a democracy, a friend of the US, and has, as far we know, a reasonable record in not spreading nuclear technologies to other countries.

It would also have required new arrangements in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a voluntary group of nuclear-capable governments that has hitherto blocked sales to India because of its rejection of the NPT and its refusal to allow international inspections of its nuclear sites.

Four of the five established nuclear powers have a declared policy of not manufacturing more nuclear material, while the fifth, China, is thought to have the same, undeclared, policy.

But India has made no pledge to stop making material for bombs and the safeguards for this deal would have been insufficient to guarantee that material supplied under the agreement could not have been used indirectly to accelerate India’s bomb-making capacity.

India’s current reliance on its indigenous programmes to make nuclear fuel has constrained its ability to build new nuclear weapons. Lifting the constraint – or suggesting to neighbouring Pakistan that the constraint has been lifted – would not be conducive to strategic stability in a volatile region.

The likely failure of the accord should therefore be viewed as an opportunity to reinvigorate and strengthen the NPT. The treaty will be formally reviewed in 2010, when governments can renew a push towards a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons articulated by growing numbers of politicians and intellectuals.

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