Commentary Magazine


If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…

Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Indian counterpart Shri Pranab Mukherjee issued a joint statement that their two countries completed negotiations on the long-stalled nuclear pact, known as the “123 agreement.” Under this agreement, the United States will provide nuclear fuel and equipment to India for the first time in three decades. Before it can be implemented, however, the U.S. Congress, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group must approve the arrangement, which was first announced by President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh two years ago this month.

The agreement has aroused the opposition of proliferation experts because it sets a number of troubling precedents. India, for instance, is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Indians will be reprocessing nuclear fuel from the United States, even though Washington is trying to prevent Iran, an NPT signatory, from enriching and reprocessing uranium. And New Delhi has made no promises about not testing nuclear weapons (India detonated a “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974 and five devices in 1998).

So the “123 agreement” marks a turning point: America has apparently given up trying to stop the spread of nukes, and is now trying to counter proliferators by enhancing New Delhi’s nuclear capabilities. Both Beijing and Moscow have stymied Washington’s nonproliferation efforts for decades, and the Bush administration has started playing their own game. The Chinese, of course, will be the big losers: the Indians have been their historic competitors in this arena.

Yet the nuclear deal with India represents much more than a momentous change in American proliferation policy. The pact symbolizes the growing relationship between the world’s largest democracy and its most powerful one. The United States and India could end up as the core of a loose alliance of democratic nations matched against the planet’s authoritarian ones. Which means that his administration’s handling of the “123 agreement” may become President Bush’s most enduring legacy.