On July 18, 2005, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced their commitment to a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement at the White House. The Bush administration pledged to take the lead in persuading the 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group to make an exception to its restrictive rules so as to allow nuclear commerce with India. In return, the deal’s backers expected profits, jobs and a transformed U.S.-India partnership to help counter China’s rise. Job creation became the top-line argument; geopolitics was subtext. The presumed utility of the deal for counter-balancing China’s rise was never an explicit part of the argument, in deference to prickly Indian sensibilities.
Prior U.S. administrations had worked hard to beef up the NSG by persuading its members to operate by consensus and by trying to condition nuclear commerce to the acceptance of full-scope safeguards and tougher inspections. India couldn’t possibly meet these tests, given its nuclear weapon programs. The Bush administration judged that the potential benefits of making an exception for India were worth the risks to the NPT and the NSG, the only cartel ever designed to prevent profit-taking.
The deal’s Svengali was Ambassador Bob Blackwill, who ventured off to India in June 2001 with thoughts of Kissinger going to China. High policy was Blackwill’s forte. He lobbied behind-the-scenes for a “bold and brave nuclear deal,” belittling the complaints of nonproliferation advocates as “nagging nannies.” For help with the particulars, he chose Ashley Tellis, an immensely gifted, productive and broadly versed Indian-American strategic analyst.
Bob Blackwill left his ambassadorial post in July, 2003. In November 2004, he became the president of Barbour Griffith & Rogers International, a lobbying firm. In August 2005, the Government of India hired Barbour Griffith & Rogers International to promote the deal.
Industry opened its checkbooks and heavy hitting geo-political thinkers backed the proposed deal. Skeptics were mostly confined to “nonproliferation ayatollahs,” to use the parlance of Indian pundits. The irony of this epithet was lost to those who could see no connection whatever between trying to tighten nonproliferation screws for Iran while loosening them for India.
Here are the arguments that were used six years ago against the deal:
1. By giving preferential treatment to a country outside the NPT, it would become harder to set tougher standards for treaty adherents.
2. Two other outliers, Pakistan and Israel, might also seek special deals that, if granted, would further compound damage to the NPT, given Pakistan’s history of illicit nuclear commerce and the sensitivity of Israel’s nuclear program in the Middle East. A civil nuclear deal between China and Pakistan seemed especially likely.
3. The deal would almost certainly weaken the NSG’s practice of consensual decision making.
4. By granting Indian demands for the right to enrich and reprocess spent fuel under safeguards, the United States and the NSG would find it more difficult to put the brakes on national enrichment and reprocessing programs elsewhere. (The Obama administration and the NSG recently reeled this one back in.)
5. By meeting Indian demands for assured fuel supply reserves, the NSG would have far less leverage on future deliberations in New Delhi on whether to resume nuclear testing. (Moscow cashed in with a sale even before the NSG’s approval.)
6. The proposed deal would heighten Pakistan’s sense of insecurity and likely raise its requirements for bomb-making fissile material and weapons.
These arguments fell on deaf ears. During President Bush’s second term, helping a friendly country trumped proliferation concerns. Administration officials were, in any event, deeply unenthusiastic about convincing New Delhi to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to accept a voluntary cessation of new fissile material production for weapons – the two steps that could best dampen down-side risks and compensate for the exceptional treatment they proposed to grant India.
The Bush administration’s facile talking point was that the nuclear deal would bring India into the “nonproliferation mainstream.” Nannies warned that if the mainstream now included a state that refused to sign the CTBT and continued to produce fissile material for bombs, then, Houston, we have a problem. These qualms couldn’t pay the bills. The smart money lined up behind the deal.