Reckless Improvisation

The announcement on March 3 that President George W. Bush had concluded a nuclear-supply agreement with the government of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was alarming news. What remains of the nuclear nonproliferation regime was already under severe stress from North Korea and Iran. The five-year Non-Proliferation Treaty review last summer failed to make any progress in repairing the imperiled system. India was never a signatory of the treaty. It developed and deployed nuclear weapons outside the system. Under the new agreement, the United States is committed to supply nuclear fuel and equipment for India’s civilian power program and to prevail upon other supplier states to do the same. Meanwhile, India will be permitted to continue to maintain and expand its military weapons program. Eight of its 22 nuclear reactors will still be devoted to military uses, and they will be exempt from international inspection.

The Indian nuclear agreement is the latest and potentially the most dangerous strategic mistake on the part of the president. A rational system of international controls with a momentum toward diminishment of nuclear arsenals, if not their elimination, has been replaced by the worst sort of ad hoc-ism. While it strenuously resists the nuclearization of North Korea and Iran, the United States has done very little to penalize Pakistan for its egregious role in proliferation, including assistance to North Korea and Iran, and now it is rewarding India without requiring any limits on its nuclear weapons program. The administration’s sole standard seems to be friendship with us. Our friends can develop and deploy nuclear weapons; others may not. The nuclear threat is too great for that.


From the beginning, this administration has treated nuclear weapons as just another weapons system. It has formalized plans, for example, for first-use of nuclear weapons and their deployment against nonnuclear threats. It canceled the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and put in place a sham disarmament program with the Russians that requires virtually no elimination of weapons for the 10-year duration of the treaty. There is a vast difference between nuclear weapons and conventional ones in terms of lethality, physical destructiveness and long-term effects on people and the environment. In response to that deadly power, the nonproliferation regime attempted to constrain the spread of nuclear weapons and spur steps for disarmament. With exceptions made for Israel and now India, with Pakistan paying no price for proliferation, and with North Korea having defied the system and Iran attempting to do the same, it is hard to see how the regime will hold together.

The U.S.-India agreement has the potential to make the nuclear threat immeasurably worse. First, it could set off a nuclear arms race in Asia, with India’s neighbors, China and Pakistan, competing to build deterrents against a growing threat. Second, with India having armed itself and then gained from it, containing North Korea and Iran through negotiation will be all the harder. Third, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East has been made more likely. With Israel the only nuclear power in the region and Iran on the edge of a breakthrough, Sunni Arab nations will have more than enough incentive to seek to acquire their own weapons. With more nuclear-armed states in volatile areas of the world, the risk of nuclear accident, nuclear terrorism and, God forbid, nuclear war should be expected to mushroom. So while there are many valid and pressing reasons for the United States, at long last, to befriend India, the nuclear-supply agreement is the worst imaginable makeup gift.

Can anything be done to salvage the international system for control and limitation of nuclear weapons? If we do nothing, we may be caught between waging more preventive wars to deny aspiring states nuclear capacity and watching nuclear arsenals grow. There are at least three steps that can be taken before the N.P.T. completely unravels. First, the weapons-owning states who were signatories of the agreement, led by the United States, can make good on their commitments to reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals. Second, the United States can lend its support to a proposal for a regional nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Reduction and elimination of Israel’s weapons would be a strong inducement for restraint by neighboring nations. Finally, internationally controlled production of nuclear fuel, as proposed in last year’s Proliferation Security Initiative, would remedy the Achilles’ heel of the N.P.T., the inalienable right of the signatory states to carry on nuclear research and refine their own fuel.

The president has failed. Humanity’s future is at stake. Who will save us from nuclear disaster?

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