Michael KreponA Time Out for New NSG Membership

The changing of the guard from the Obama to the Trump Administration might be a good time to pause and reflect on India’s efforts to gain entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. President Barack Obama promised Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help secure India’s membership. In doing so, the goal of India’s entry superseded the goal of constraining proliferation – the NSG’s very reason for existence. Since New Delhi opposed criteria for membership that would impinge on its sovereign right to expand its nuclear arsenal, Washington struggled to devise criteria for India’s inclusion even though they would necessarily come at the expense of the NSG’s mission.

Pakistan’s national security enclave has always viewed India’s inclusion with alarm, both for practical and perceptual reasons. If India were granted entry, Pakistan fears that New Delhi could forever veto its own ascension, given the NSG’s decision-by-consensus rule. On perceptual grounds, too, Pakistan feels compelled to join any nuclear club in which India is accorded membership. India, on the other hand, is deeply ambivalent, if not disinclined, about joining an exclusive club that allows Pakistan membership.

It made perfect sense, then, for China and Pakistan to craft a strategy of linking Pakistan’s entry to India’s. Pakistan’s credentials are far weaker than India’s, as Rawalpindi is expanding its arsenal faster than New Delhi is, while blocking negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty and being sanctioned by Washington for continued proliferation-related imports.

The criteria the Obama Administration lobbied for in Vienna on behalf of India’s membership were framed in terms of the following questions, according to a Bloomberg News report:

“Do “clear and strict separation of current and future civilian nuclear facilities from non-civilian nuclear facilities” exist?

Do documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency identify “all current and future civilian nuclear facilities?”

Is there an adequate IAEA safeguards agreement “covering all declared civilian nuclear facilities and all future civilian nuclear facilities?”

Is there a so-called Additional Protocol in effect giving IAEA inspectors the ability “to detect the diversion of safeguarded nuclear material and to ensure that safeguarded nuclear material is used exclusively for peaceful purposes?”

Is there “a commitment not to use any item transferred either directly or indirectly from a NSG Participating Government” for military purposes?

Is there adequate “commitment not to conduct any nuclear explosive test?

Will there be adequate “support of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty upon becoming” an NSG member?

How will support be given to “strengthen the multilateral nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime by working towards the total elimination of all nuclear weapons and enhancing the peaceful uses of nuclear energy?”

In addition, the United States pursued the following procedural device to address the issue of Pakistan’s inclusion: The understanding that should India eventually gain NSG access, it “would join a consensus of all other Participating Governments on the merits of any additional non-NPT Party applications” like that of Pakistan.

These are all good questions, but an indirect approach for new NSG membership is insufficient, since a candidate could meet all these criteria while still increasing its stocks of fissile material to increase its nuclear arsenal. One key determinant here, which the proposed guidelines sidestep, is the extent of facilities that would be declared to be for military purposes, and thus off-limits to IAEA inspectors. There’s no reason for diversion from civilian to military purposes when New Delhi has already placed so many dual-use Indian facilities in the military column.

The standard for an “adequate” barrier against nuclear testing is also lax. Defining adequacy in terms of a statement of intent not to resume testing unless national security imperatives dictate otherwise would constitute a mere placeholder. Granted, the same standard also applies to states that have signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Treaty signatures are, however, a far more meaningful and formal way to convey adherence to the object and purpose of the CTBT. All other members of the NSG have met this standard. To accept a lower standard for new members would weaken existing non-proliferation norms that would, in turn, weaken the objective and purpose of the NSG.

The Obama Administration’s push for India’s entry was unsuccessful because some members stood up for higher standards, and because China flexed its muscles and gummed up the works by seeking to place Indian and Pakistani entry on the same plane. Pakistan’s belated, parallel candidacy served its intended purpose of further diminishing New Delhi’s chances, which were not great in any event because of Beijing’s veto power. The procedural device regarding sequential entry addresses the possibility of Pakistan’s membership in a creative way. It would not, however, address matters of substance, which matter the most with regard to expanded membership.

One important question is missing from the above list: When disarmament and non-proliferation norms (and the treaties and institutions that backstop them) have become wobbly, does it make sense to weaken the NSG, as well? If the answer to this question is “no,” then a time out for expanding NSG membership seems warranted.

New Delhi has now taken two runs at NSG membership and has come up short. It might be wise for New Delhi to reconsider how much of a priority to attach to its quest for NSG membership, particularly since the civil-nuclear agreements it has negotiated already provide the means to expand its nuclear power sector. The exception India has been granted to the NSG’s rules of nuclear commerce is de-hyphenated from Pakistan. Moreover, this exception is unlikely to be extended to Pakistan, absent significant steps approved by Rawalpindi to improve its international standing. For the Government of India to continue to make high-profile attempts to gain a seat at the NSG’s table would empower Beijing, which retains a veto on new membership, more than New Delhi.

It might also be a good time for the Trump Administration to reassess the priority this initiative merits. The United States has clarified its commitment to India’s national security in many ways. More are available that do not weaken non-proliferation norms. Why make a priority of one that would further damage the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime?

A time out would also allow India and Pakistan to reassess their reluctance to take steps to reduce nuclear dangers that existing NSG members have already taken. These steps would improve their candidacy for membership more than shortcuts.


  1. Saad Ali (History)

    Thanks Michael for writing on a very interesting subject.

    You have mentioned that Pakistan’s credentials are weaker than India’s but have not explained how. Let’s judge them both according to the criteria that you mentioned:

    – “Do “clear and strict separation of current and future civilian nuclear facilities from non-civilian nuclear facilities” exist? Do documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency identify “all current and future civilian nuclear facilities?” Is there an adequate IAEA safeguards agreement “covering all declared civilian nuclear facilities and all future civilian nuclear facilities?”

    India is the only state where a large number of nuclear power facilities (PHWRs) connected to the grid are outside IAEA Safeguards. Pakistan already has all of its civilian facilities designated as such and placed under safeguards. One could argue that the separation is more ‘strict’ in Pakistan than India.

    Is there a so-called Additional Protocol in effect giving IAEA inspectors the ability “to detect the diversion of safeguarded nuclear material and to ensure that safeguarded nuclear material is used exclusively for peaceful purposes?”

    Indian AP is the weakest of all APs (covering only exports) and does not cover nuclear facilities. Neither Pakistan nor India meet this condition right now.

    Is there adequate “commitment not to conduct any nuclear explosive test? Will there be adequate “support of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty upon becoming” an NSG member?

    Both Pakistan and India have declared unilateral moratoria on testing. Pakistan has gone a step ahead and declared that it will not be the first one to resume testing and has also offered India a bilateral test ban treaty. Again Pakistan fares slightly better in non-testing.

    It is difficult to make a case that Pakistan would fall short and India would go through if non-discriminatory criteria is worked out in the NSG.

    • Sridhar Kondoji (History)

      Saad: Did you forget your Nuclear scientist Abdul Khadir Khan’s nuclear proliferation?
      That is why, Pakistan’s credentials are weaker.

    • Saad Ali (History)

      I am sorry, are sanctions on scientists/entities due to past incidents is also one of the elements in criteria? If yes, then from 1998 to 2003, the U.S. has imposed nonproliferation sanctions on several different Indian entities and scientists (Dr. C. Surender and Dr. Y.S.R. Prasad) for chemical and biological weapons related transfers to Iraq.

  2. Michael Krepon (History)

    Worth noting: When the Bush administration argued for the civil nuclear deal, one of the talking points was that India’s exception would not only do no harm to the NPT regime, but also strengthen it. I kid you not. You can look up the quotes.

    The Obama administration has not pressed this point with respect to India’s inclusion into the NSG.

    Indeed, a quite different rationale is now being advanced — “calculated altruism” — at least by my colleague, Ashley Tellis, who has been at the forefront of these efforts.

    Here’s Ashley in a new NBR Asia Policy Report: [http://nbr.org/publications/asia_policy/free/03312017/AsiaPolicy23_US-Asia_Relations_January2017.pdf#page=43]

    “Given that what India could become—a power capable of successfully balancing a rising China—mattered more for U.S. interests than what New Delhi did on any other issue, U.S. policy for almost two decades has embodied a calculated altruism whereby Washington continually seeks to bolster India’s national capabilities without any expectations of direct recompense. is approach has been exempli ed by bold U.S. policy decisions to conclude a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India, support India’s candidacy for permanent membership in the UN Security Council, provide New Delhi with expanding access to advanced U.S. defense and dual-use technologies, and champion India’s membership in the governing institutions of the global nonproliferation regime.”


  3. Jon Wolfsthal (History)

    We have a pause now at the request of India but I see that President Trump and PM Modi were scheduled to speak today. I would expect Modi to seek an NSG commitment and to push for a rapid timeline. Therefore, the pause may not be long. Sadly, a pause would help India developed support for membership while a rapid push may undermine their chances and their support.

  4. Cthippo (History)

    The problem with pariah states is that they tend to stick together. By placing India, and to a lesser extent Pakistan, outside the “acceptable” nuclear community, you make them potential suppliers to other states that are on the international s**t list. Much of this discussion focuses on these two nations as consumers of nuclear technology, but they are also states that have developed reactors and weapons and hence are also potential vendors of such tech. The question becomes under which circumstances are they more likely to proliferate: as accepted members of the NSG or as independent actors free to sell to whomever they want?

  5. Cthippo (History)

    Additionally, this feels like a case of the nuclear “haves” dictating who amongst the “have-nots” is worthy of being allowed a piece of the action. I think this perception is more hazardous to the future of the NPT than any proliferator.

    Speaking of threats to the NPT, the death knell to it may well come in the form of another US invasion ala Iraq in 2003. If the message goes out loud and clear that you are subject to elective regime change unless you can hold the US under nuclear threat then the advantages to being a NNWS evaporate.

    • Marcus (History)

      For me, I have a hard time coming up with a better example for encouraging proliferation than Libya. They gave up the goodies, and got overthrown. I think that is why the North Koreans are so enamored of nukes, even though they could make life awful in South Korea without them.

    • Cthippo (History)

      I would argue that Libya was more of an internal revolution with some help than an Iraq style regime change, but yeah.

      Let’s take a look at where the members of W’s “axis of evil” are today. Saddam complied with the UN and got regime changed anyway. Iran halted their weapons program and cut a deal with the international community and is still being threatened by the US. North Korea developed their own bomb and delivery system and is now untouchable. On the other side, Ukraine gave up a decent nuclear arsenal and the Baltic states have scrupulously complied with their NPT commitments, but who comes to their defense when threatened by a NWS?

      The end of the NPT is not going to be due to a proliferator, but rather to the NNWS realizing that the treaty no longer offers them any benefits.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Nuclear weapons, at best, only offer deterrence against invasion, not regime change from other sources. They deter invasion at great cost, however, due to increased risk of national destruction from nuclear war. Moreover, the (real or suspected) attempt to acquire nuclear weapons puts a country at increased risk of outside regime change.

      Libya gave up little, because its nuclear program was going nowhere. Iraq chose to “comply” in a manner that was hard to prove before the invasion. North Korea does not need nukes, because it already had invasion deterrence from its capability to assault Seoul. North Korea developing nukes provokes sanctions and possible regime change. Ukraine without nukes suffered a conventional attack from Russia; Ukraine with nukes might have suffered a nuclear attack.

      The security benefits of the NPT are avoidance of nuclear war with one’s regional neighbors. In addition, there is avoidance of nuclear war with the 5 NPT nuclear weapons states, because these 5 states would rather use conventional weapons against a nuclear unarmed state.

  6. Anbukumar K (History)

    Dear Mr. Krepon…

    You are more concerned about the sanctity of global non-proliferation efforts. Awesome. Why don’t you also talk about China’s illegitimate nuclear & missile proliferation support for Pakistan ?(courtesy – Kings College reports, CIA).

    The whole world knows how Pakistan aided N.Korea, Iran, Libya in nuclear proliferation. Also don’t forget that Pakistan is the world’s top “terror factory”. Don’t you recall that the Clinton administration in 1996 was close to declaring Pakistan, a “State Sponsor of Terror”. India has impeccable non-proliferation records.

    If the world is sidelining India, it’s not a loss for India in the long term. Our Indigenous technology will become more robust and vigorous, as India did develop its own Cryo and rocket technologies in the face of technology denial. Now, India is in MTCR.

    • Saad Ali (History)

      Impeccable non-proliferation record of India?

      1974: First country to violate its peaceful use agreement and explodes a device using a CANDU reactor purchased from India

      From 1998 to 2003, the U.S. imposed nonproliferation sanctions on several different Indian entities for chemical and biological weapons related transfers to Iraq.

      In 2005, sanctions imposed on Indian entities for chemical related tanagers to Iran

      India’s reliance on entities in Russia and Western Europe for key missile and dual-related technologies is well-documented involving several incidents.

      It was only in 2011, the U.S. Department of Commence lifted ban from several ISRO and DRDO’s organizations and labs in the wake of good strategic relations between India and the U.S.

  7. Aaron Upright (History)

    Mr Krepon, you spend a whole article avoiding the obvious. A nuclear India is perceived to be in the US National interest (or at least neutral in its effects) while a nuclear Pakistan most certainly is not. Pakistan could adhere to everything to the letter, be more virtuous then Ceaser’s wife was suppose to be and the US still would oppose its entry while its a nuclear weapon state.India can take a hammer to every rule and still get exceptions.

    (Not talking about the wisdom of this, just the fact of it.)
    @Cthippo: I think the experience of The Ukraine has shown exactly how much “guarantees” to NNWS are worth.

    • GSR from Canada (History)

      Agreed. That’s why China will block India rightfully. As India is treated by much of the West as a crony that they can use to counter India. Hence, while the US will provide India with nuclear tech in ways it deems appropriate, Pakistan will obtain the nuclear technology it acquires for its needs via China.

      The US and China are the two most important actors in the global nuclear market and can basically do as they please. ‘Badges, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges’!!!

  8. Rabia (History)

    NSG debate was all to accomplish the hegemonic design of India that needs to be undone in order to halt the intangible arm race as well as security culture in the region. It is necessary for India to more focus on domestic challenges including population influx, extreme poverty, separatist movements and economy. This will automatically lead to the stability in the region.