Playing With Fire

A week ago, Congress gave its final assent to a deal that would allow American companies to sell nuclear technology to India, a nation with decades of hostile relations with its unstable nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan, and whose decision to test nuclear weapons in 1974 prompted Congress to adopt the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Since then, not only has India declined to join the NPT regime, it has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and has continued to actively acquire nuclear material for its weapons program, despite a few recent concessions to stop unilateral nuclear tests and secure nuclear material.

Many argue that the nuclear deal is necessary in order to provide India with a carbon-free way to feed its enormous and growing demand for energy. But this does not excuse the fact that in adopting the treaty, the United States has effectively given away the bank. Indeed, numerous non-proliferation experts have criticized the deal both because it lacks safeguards, and because its very adoption undermines the international anti-proliferation framework by giving India an unprecedented exemption to the NPT.

While the deal does force India to separate its military and civilian nuclear facilities, it requires no limitations on India’s nuclear weapons program. Analysts indicate that there is virtually no way to verify that technology provided for electricity generation is not diverted to the nation’s weapons program. And even if the fuel provided by the international community is not used directly for weapons, fissile material is, to some extent, fungible. As Henry Sokolski, the director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said, “We are going to be sending, or allowing others to send, fresh fuel to India—including yellowcake and lightly-enriched uranium—that will free up Indian domestic sources of fuel to be solely dedicated to making many more bombs than they would otherwise be able to make.”

Even more troubling is the fact that the adoption of the deal allows India to bypass the NPT framework, which promises nuclear fuel for electricity generation to nations that do not create weapons programs. Allowing India to have it both ways—to receive the benefits of “peaceful nuclear cooperation” despite the fact that the nation has built weapons—creates a double standard that could ultimately undermine U.S. policy toward nations like Iran, where diplomats have been promising to aid Iran’s civilian nuclear program if the nation abandons its quest to build nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the most disappointing part about the passage of this deal, though, is not in the agreement’s specifics or its consequences for the carefully-calibrated NPT regime. It’s the fact that the deal evidences the propensity for a small minority of politically-organized individuals to skew perceptions of the national interest. Indeed, the national interest would almost certainly have been better served had fundamental international security frameworks not been altered.

The passage of the deal is another case where a powerful ethnic lobby—perhaps along with some romantic notions about supporting the world’s most populous democracy—caused yet another foreign policy blunder. Since the Bush administration first negotiated the agreement in 2005, the Indian-American community has organized heavily in order to guarantee its passage. As The New York Times reported in 2006, “Indian-Americans, as well as the Indian government in some cases, have invested heavily in proven political tools that have helped previous immigrant groups break into American politics—hiring lobbyists, organizing fund-raisers and blanketing Capitol Hill with briefings, phone calls and petitions.” Powerful Washington insiders, including a former U.S. ambassador to India, Robert D. Blackwill, and former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, were retained by the Indian government in order to press for the deal’s passage. And this organizing came in the face of virtually no counter-lobbying from the Pakistani-American lobby.

India is an increasingly important global power, one that I am proud to say was my parents' place of birth. The mutual respect that Americans and Indians have for one another should be encouraged and strengthened, especially through robust commerce. According to a 2006 survey by Pew Research Center, Indians remain among the most pro-American people in the world, with 71 percent of Indians holding a favorable view of the United States. But mutual admiration does not change the simple fact that the U.S. and India have different sets of interests. While these sometimes align with global interests, as they have in the war on terror, or just align with each other, as the recent strengthening of alliances in the face of China’s rise, there are other instances when their interests are diametrically opposed.

The U.S.-India nuclear deal evidences the difficulties of pursuing a foreign policy that is best for U.S. and international interests when there is a powerful domestic constituency lobbying on the other side. The solutions require broad-based changes to our political culture—from lessening the influence of money in politics, perhaps through publicly-financed elections, to further tightening rules governing lobbying and ethics. While none of this is easily achievable, the adverse consequences that can result from misguided foreign policy decisions should, at the least, prompt a vigorous debate about how we can best limit the influence of distorting lobbies on the U.S. government. Only then will foreign policy stop reflecting special interests and start reflecting the national one.

—Paras D. Bhayani ’09, The Crimson’s managing editor, is an economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.