Barack Obama has a golden opportunity next week at Copenhagen in the form of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. If by the end of the conference Obama settles with New Delhi the details to implement the agreement, he will win on three crucial issues: (1) he will please business, (2) he will substantively contribute to international environmentalist efforts, and (3) he will reinforce American friendship with India at a time when the relationship has been strained.
Both India and the United States have applauded the agreement since its passage by both countries’ lawmakers last year, but details to address security, nonproliferation, and liability concerns have kept anything from actually happening on the ground.
The climate-change debate has often pitted economic interests against environmental ones, as the upset in Australia this week has shown. Here’s a chance for Obama to show that the two can be reconciled. The U.S.-India Business Council has said that the agreement will create a $150 billion business for civilian nuclear technologies over the next 30 years. The council’s president predicted the agreement will create up to 27,000 “high-quality” jobs in the United States over the next 10 years. Obama has acknowledged that the agreement increases American exports to India. And the CEO of General Electric has noted that the agreement “opens up prospects for U.S. companies to supply potentially billions of dollars worth of reactor technology, fuel and other services to India.”
Not only does the agreement please business; it also allows India a way to cut carbon emissions. Nuclear power, vastly underused in India, does not let off carbon dioxide, which has long been seen as the leading culprit in global warming. Worst for carbon emissions is coal — which now accounts for more than half of India’s energy. Some estimates even say India could avoid 130 million tons of carbon dioxide per year by switching from coal power to nuclear power — a substantial savings. “For comparison, the full range of emission cuts planned by the European Union under the Kyoto Protocol will total just 200 million tons per year,” wrote David G. Victor in 2006. Demand for energy in India will only grow as it develops. By simply implementing an agreement already approved, Obama can take credit for a significant role in India’s energy future.
Nailing down the details of the agreement accomplishes both economic and environmental goals while also reinforcing good relations with India. And relations with India under Obama have already endured one misstep. New Delhi bristled at a portion of the November U.S.-China Joint Statement that implied greater meddling from Beijing in Indo-Pakistani relations, especially offensive considering the recent border tensions between China and India.
But since its passage under the Bush administration, the nuclear-energy agreement has been hailed as a monumental diplomatic reset. It was the first time the U.S. engaged in nuclear cooperation with New Delhi since India’s first test of a nuclear bomb, in 1974. The former nonproliferation policies toward India did nothing to deter the pursuit of nuclear weapons or lessen Indo-Pakistani tensions. Instead, they isolated India, a crucial country in the region. Both the United States and India have recently emphasized how they are “natural partners,” not least of all because they are both democratic regimes. This agreement is crucial to India’s perception of its relations with the U.S.; in fact, in 2005, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “India has made this the central issue in the new partnership developing between our countries.” By settling the details of the agreement, Obama would show the Indians good faith and prove that they are a priority.
The negotiations over specific details have taken a long time, partly because of justifiable security concerns. But much more procrastination will send the wrong message to India. On the other hand, next week is a prime opportunity for Obama to act on an American promise and also address environmental and economic communities. If he’s wise, he won’t squander it.