Friday, May 05, 2006

The Bush visit and India's burdens of partnership


Sukumar Muralidharan
March 21, 2006

Three days after touching down, U.S. President George Bush left Indian shores, leaving in his wake an aura of general contentment. From deep within his security envelope, Bush had little opportunity to see the seething rage on the Indian street. The constituencies he addressed were the middle and upper strata, anxious to secure a U.S. stamp of approval for India as a partner in global affairs. And for the Indian nuclear establishment and its peers in foreign policy, the agreements forged on the occasion marked the beginning of a new concord. After their unseemly squabbles in the weeks prior, the Bush visit marked a new mutual amity for them, as much as it represented a new beginning between India and the U.S.

India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) had initially resisted the deal that involved a segregation of military and civilian nuclear facilities. For foreign policy ideologues though, complete autonomy in nuclear affairs was not too high a sacrifice for winning U.S. benediction in global councils. Above all, autonomy was not to be confused with autarky, since isolation was no virtue when nuclear fission was potentially a valuable energy source for a rapidly industrialising country and international cooperation, the key to opening these limitless vistas.

If the deal that was finally agreed on day two of the Bush visit, succeeded in calming these quarrels and anxieties, its international repercussions were something else. Stopping in Pakistan on his way back – though not with the same cavalier inattention to local sensibilities that his predecessor Bill Clinton showed in 2000 -- Bush rebuffed any possibility that Pakistan could claim a status akin to that granted India. Two weeks later, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri warned darkly, that the whole Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would “unravel” since it was “only a matter of time before other countries (began) to act the same way.” Since ministers in Pakistan invariably direct their most pointed barbs at India, it may seem axiomatic that Kasuri was referring to the negative example that India had set in terms of global nuclear non-proliferation norms. On closer reading though, his statement seems to bear equal reference to both the U.S. as the patron of this breakout from the NPT norms, and to India as the client.

Tightly bound up in an alliance with the U.S., Pakistan may not have very much latitude to deliver on this threat. Yet, it is striking that India’s new bonding with the U.S., has evoked deep suspicion in even liberal circles, not known to be traditional bastions of hostility. The Guardian in London, for one, commented editorially, that the nuclear agreement between India and the U.S. was “about breaking rules and expecting others to abide by them”. More picturesquely put, it was about “preaching temperance from the barstool”. Indians may well delight in the bargain they had driven, said the newspaper, but there were likely to be some “thoughtful smiles” in Iran and North Korea as the “wider implications” sank in.

In advance of the Bush visit, the New York Times commented that despite all the accompanying froth, the presidential passage to India was “built around a bad nuclear deal”. With the deal consummated, the “newspaper of record” commented rather acidly, that Bush was turning out to be Iran’s best friend. His adventure in Iraq, launched on flimsy and fabricated evidence, had only succeeded in transforming that country into a satellite of the Islamic Republic next door. And his deal with India sent “exactly the wrong message .. just days before Washington and its European allies” were scheduled to “refer Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council for further action”. Iran’s hopes of thwarting a global consensus on restraining its nuclear program rested on “convincing the rest of the world that the West (was) guilty of a double standard on nuclear issues”, commented the New York Times. And in this respect, Bush “might as well have tied a pretty red bow around his India nuclear deal and mailed it as a gift to Tehran”.

The Economist was no less scathing, accusing Bush of favouring a friend rather than sticking to principle. Here he was, insisting in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that Iran should “not be allowed to bend the anti-nuclear rules out of shape to further what are assumed to be its weapons ambitions”. At the same time, he was without the slightest hint of irony, proposing that India, already in possession of nuclear weapons, be allowed to do just that.

This enormous sense of effrontery, this belief that the world will do as it says rather than as it does, is not a new mood in the U.S. But it is certainly so in India. Consistency in standards of international conduct is a virtue valued only by the weak, who seek their security through agreed rules and norms. The powerful have no use for them, as anybody who has witnessed the U.S. attitude of indulgence and abetment towards Israel’s policy of conquest in West Asia would know. But the strong nevertheless are in need of justifying their double standards. Just as Israel’s unending atrocities on the Palestinians are justified by its divinely ordained title to the land and by the redress owed world Jewry for the suffering inflicted by the Nazi Holocaust, India’s great escape from the prison of the non-proliferation regime, stands in need of a rationalisation. An authoritative if not exhaustive justification, one that fortunately, does not venture into the theological realm, is provided by Ashley Tellis, an Indian born U.S. national who has been on the inside track of national security policy in Washington DC, and now serves on the staff of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.[1]

Tellis derives his first rationale from the principle of neoclassical economics, which holds that a public good can be secured only at a price. In a situation of collective action, the fulfilment of this object may be impeded by the conflicting agendas that motivate diverse agents. Absent the capacity to quash the recalcitrant elements, this would require a special subvention being made to those who have the least incentive in obtaining the public good. India in this reckoning is deserving of a special concession. The other two hold-outs in the context of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are Israel and Pakistan, both of which merit special consideration in U.S. aid allocations. India is an exception within the “three-nation problem” that confronts the NPT, gaining neither from access to nuclear fuel and technology, nor enjoying any exceptional benefit from U.S. aid.

This argument might have been halfway convincing if it did not conflict quite so flagrantly with the U.S. agenda on Iran. Successive inspections by the IAEA have found that the transgressions of the NPT by Iran, if any, are borderline in nature. Since the agency was granted access to suspect sites in Iran in early-2003, it has found little material evidence of a nuclear weapons program. The quantity of uranium that has been processed is nowhere near the requirement for a nuclear weapon, and the level of uranium enrichment achieved falls short even of what is needed for energy applications. To make the arduous transition from the 1.7 percent enrichment level achieved to the 95 percent required for one – merely one – nuclear bomb, would take Iran many years, even up to a decade.

Several rounds of inspection have been conducted by the IAEA and despite serious reservations about unwarranted intrusions into sovereign sites, cooperation from Iran has not been lacking. But this has not prevented the IAEA from demanding, first in September last year and then again in February, that Iran should go beyond the formal stipulations of the NPT, to adopt “transparency and confidence-building measures” that may be demanded at regular intervals.

Essentially, India is granted a special dispensation to join the global nuclear imperium as a country allowed to possess nuclear weapons, while Iran is required to submit to greater rigours than even the NPT dictates. This particular anomaly needs an explanation that goes beyond neoclassical economic theories, and to his credit, Tellis does make the effort.

Tellis argues that for one thing, by allowing India to join the non-proliferation regime as a state with an internationally recognised right to bear nuclear arms, the U.S. would be giving it an incentive to “scrupulously control its national capabilities”. This in turn would “choke off” the only real security threat emanating from India.

This assessment, which flatters India’s capacities and misrepresents its intentions, needs to be treated with some scepticism. In Tellis’ analysis though, it is only a brief preamble before the crux of the issue is approached. To bring India on board the counter-proliferation regime would be consistent, he argues, with the Bush administration’s “new policy of advancing India’s economic transformation and growth in national power”. Within this paradigm, attention needs to be focused on how India’s “military resources could be used collaboratively (with the U.S.) to advance the national interests of both countries”.

If there has ever been an instance in the annals of geopolitics, of one country seeking as a matter of declared policy, to enhance the power of another, it would be interesting to define the correspondences and divergences with the situation that the U.S. has adopted today in relation to India. In Tellis’ narration, the crucial point of transition came in early-2005, when the U.S. decided after months of deliberation and much secret confabulations, to clear the sale of an advanced fighter aircraft to Pakistan. The expected outburst of indignation from India was met with the assurance that the “hyphenated relationship” was at an end. No longer would the U.S. assess each policy decision towards one of the adversarial neighbours in terms of the other’s perception. Rather, the new game would explicitly recognise India’s pre-eminence in the region. Beyond this formal acknowledgment, the U.S. would take upon itself the mission of helping India achieve the status of a major world power in the 21st century.

Tellis argues that this would involve multiple benefits for the U.S. Among other things, it would ensure that India’s “nuclear weaponry and associated delivery systems would deter against the growing and utterly more capable nuclear forces Beijing is likely to possess by 2025”. And beyond the necessity of setting up a pivot around which the containment of China could be effected, India also would serve to lend a semblance of stability in a volatile neighbourhood. “The problems of regional order”, Tellis argues, “are unified by an overarching theme: the need to cope with state failure in almost every political entity on India’s periphery”.

Taking a broader view, Tellis concedes that the special exceptions made for India were likely to excite the jealousy of other aspiring regional powers. And in putting down these expectations, the U.S. needed to learn that consistency in standards was not a particular virtue. The need argues Tellis, is for a “proliferation of counter proliferation strategies”. Each country merited differential treatment, depending upon its “friendship toward and value to the U.S.”

These prescriptions are salutary in their healthy absence of principle. An India that is just a little excited in its self-awareness as an emerging world power, may well be seduced by this robust amorality. But there is a price to be paid for seeking this privileged position within the new global architecture of power. What that price would be is made amply evident in another product from the Carnegie Endowment. Though it predates Tellis’ work, the volume authored by George Perkovich and four associates from the Carnegie Endowment, was published in India at the same time. Its title, Universal Compliance, A Strategy for Nuclear Security, has the same breathless as Tellis’ work. But without being in any way picky, it could be pointed out that the title itself encapsulates a gigantic incongruity, since there are no formulae for security in the nuclear realm, only for relative degrees of insecurity.

Perkovich and his associates (referred to hereafter by the lead author’s name alone), expect in gross disregard of fact or reality, that the U.S. could credibly lead the new global strategic consensus by bringing into effect the commitment to disarmament that is enjoined on it by the NPT. They deserve the benefit of the doubt if only because their book was written before the NPT Review Conference of 2005, which ended in disastrous failure, primarily because the U.S. refused to countenance a final declaration which reaffirmed the “13 practical steps” towards universal disarmament that had been agreed five years prior. Those commitments, entered into by the Clinton administration at the preceding review conference, were deemed just too much of a sacrifice of national security interests by the cabal of hyper-nationalists surrounding Bush.

The 2005 Review Conference effectively put the faltering momentum of global disarmament in reverse gear. To be fair to him, Perkovich could have been hoping for a better outcome when he suggested that the U.S. should, following this event, “orchestrate a summit” involving all the recognised nuclear weapons states, to “clarify the commitments they will make to advance universal compliance with nuclear non-proliferation norms and rules”. Elsewhere, Perkovich points out that the very word “compliance” suggests an asymmetric distribution of rights and responsibilities, leaving far too much coercive power in the hands of a few and enjoining meek obedience upon the many. Though grounded in substantive features of the global architecture of power today, this attitude he argues, need not be either “ignored or indulged”.

Curiously though, Perkovich then proceeds to do just that: ignore the global sensitivities involved in compelling acquiescence to a U.S. scheme for nuclear non-proliferation. He also ignores a sustained track record of contrary behaviour by the U.S., which has seriously vitiated the climate for nuclear disarmament. Thus, the “13 practical steps” – in themselves a concession made by the nuclear weapons states to the growing impatience of the world community about the tardy progress of disarmament -- included the principle of “irreversibility” in arms reductions, and required that the U.S. and Russia, as the principal offenders in the nuclear realm, should preserve the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and hasten the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). All three stipulations had been seriously mauled well before the 2005 Review Conference, and in all three cases, the most serious violations had come from the U.S.

To take just the principle of irreversibility, the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) framework, allowed for a verifiable cutback in deployments of missiles by the two powers, though it was silent on the larger question of eliminating the nuclear warheads. Following a prolonged war of attrition by the right wing of the Republican party in the U.S., Bush transformed this process – with all its uncertainties on the dimension of warhead elimination – into a doubly uncertain one, with cuts in both delivery systems and warheads being potentially reversible. At the same time, he has repudiated the ABM Treaty, to accelerate research and development work on a technologically infeasible and financially profligate missile defence system, whose only enduring contribution would be to trigger an arms race in outer space. And he has shown little inclination to retrieve the CTBT from the legislative limbo into which it was cast by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate in 1999.

All this makes for a rather flimsy moral platform from which to launch an ambitious agenda of “universal compliance”, more so since Perkovich’s blueprint involves an intrusive system of inspections, interdictions and interventions, organised and spearheaded by the U.S. It will involve cutting off access to the nuclear fuel cycle, rigorously inventorying all existing fissile material and placing it under tight custody, diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies, and obtaining sanctions for tough action against violators.

With all this, Perkovich disfavours any disarmament initiative on the part of the U.S., arguing that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is an essential safeguard during the transition to a regime of “universal compliance”. He mildly criticises the current thinking in U.S. national security circles, which tilts towards using tactical nuclear weapons to “take out” enemy assets. His reservations on this score are derived not from ethical concerns, but from potential fallibilities of intelligence, as seen in the missile strike against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, and more catastrophically, in the invasion of Iraq.

Perkovich misses the point, so obvious from a non-U.S. perspective, that the threat of aggression, including through nuclear arms, is the worst form of incentive for reluctant nations to sign on to the non-proliferation regime. And when the aggressive instinct is unbridled, as by all accounts, it has with the Bush administration, then the environment is vitiated irretrievably. When forging a consensus however reluctant, becomes impossible, coercion remains the only recourse.

A few days after the Indian nuclear deal was solemnised, an arms control lobby in the U.S., which had always been deeply sceptical about its merits, put out a brief study seeking to debunk one of the platforms on which it had been constructed – India’s supposedly impeccable record in safeguarding sensitive technologies and meeting non-proliferation norms despite being outside the NPT orbit. Taking the instance of India’s uranium enrichment plant near Mysore, David Albright and Susan Basu, two prominent non-proliferation advocates, sought to paint a picture of clandestine procurement from abroad and consistent evasion of import controls by the DAE.

The account was of course, vigorously challenged in the decidedly DAE-friendly Indian media. But that is not perhaps the most interesting point about these exchanges. Rather, what is arresting is that Albright and Basu, sourcing their findings from a variety of published and unpublished accounts, construct a picture of gross under-performance by the DAE facility. Two decades after it was commenced, the project is far from producing enough enriched uranium to fuel a research reactor of fairly modest dimensions. It remains decades behind, in terms of meeting the Tarapur Atomic Power Station’s requirements and the more exacting needs of India’s nuclear submarine project and strategic arsenal.

Alibis of course could be found if needed, but those are of little concern in this context. What is relevant is that India’s modest achievements two decades into a uranium enrichment program should have provided it with quite a realistic picture of the technical constraints faced by Iran’s nuclear research. There was no reason in other words, why India should have bought into the grossly inflated assessment of the U.S., that Iran was menacingly close to acquiring adequate fissile material to assemble a weapon. That it did so is testimony to the fact that the strategic partnership with the U.S., involves not merely a sacrifice of principle, but a quite arrant disregard for facts.

The first down payment on the deal with the U.S. fell due rather rapidly. Within days of Bush’s Indian sojourn, the IAEA met in Vienna to debate the Iranian nuclear research program. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had, just hours before, spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeking to ensure that the debate remained confined within the IAEA. He also upheld India’s belief that Iran should have access to the full range of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes.

A last-minute Russian gambit failed, which would have transferred industrial scale uranium enrichment out of Iran, allowing that country only the limited option of laboratory scale experiments. Rudely flouting the assurance of the NPT that every member-state has the right to access nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes, the U.S. has repeatedly announced that Iran cannot be trusted with any stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. The most recent affirmations – from Vice President Dick Cheney and U.N. ambassador John Bolton -- came at the policy conference of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), which devoted a substantial part of its three-day annual event to Iran.

Using the same platform, Daniel Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., engaged in a rhetorical flourish that could have been taken straight out of any political bigot’s notebook: “While it may be true -- and probably is -- that not all Muslims are terrorists, it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslim”.

India has reason to worry about the company it is getting into. Addressing a carefully chosen audience in the picturesque environs of Delhi’s Purana Qila, Bush announced just before he left, that the U.S. and India are today “closer than ever before”. Indeed, there was no way that the two countries could shirk their common destiny of “leadership in the cause of democracy”. Should India buy into these rather quirky definitions – whether of “terrorism” or “democracy” -- it may well find itself a house divided against itself. And that would be a steep price to pay for the illusory security of nuclear deterrence.


[1] Ashley J. Tellis, India as a New Global Power, India Research Press, Delhi (under licence from the Carnegie Endowment for International Press, Washington DC), 2005, pp 121.

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