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Obama’s Visit and the Nuclear Conundrum

Rajiv Nayan is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 12, 2010

    The 2010 American presidential visit to India was arguably an economy-dominant event. Admittedly, Pakistan and the endorsement of the Indian candidature for permanent membership of United Nations (UN) Security Council dominated media discussions. Both issues constituted a big thriller before and during President’s address to the Indian Parliament. The Strategic Trade management or export controls issue may fall in the grey area. It has both geo-strategic and geo-political connotations.

    Other than strategic trade management and the nuclear liability bill, the writings and discussions during the visit did not pay much attention to other nuclear or non-proliferation issues. This was highly unusual, if we make comparisons with previous US Presidential visits especially in recent decades. The current Indian diplomacy needs to be complimented for managing to draw attention away from the contentious non-proliferation or nuclear issues before and almost throughout the visit.

    One may also attribute it to a sense of purposelessness of the US non-proliferation community. Surprisingly, the US non-proliferation community and various think tanks working on the subject did not issue any demand list on non-proliferation to make the visit contentious and the relationship tense. True, we heard some occasional noises on the nuclear liability bill and export controls reforms by India.

    The Joint Statement issued at the end of the visit had a reasonable section devoted to nuclear and non-proliferation matters. These issues indicate the kind of relationship India is developing with the US. The relationship between the two countries is also called strategic, though the plethora of joint statements on strategic partnerships is increasingly complicating the phrase. The joint statement on nuclear and non-proliferation issues would point to the struggle the negotiators of both countries may have waged to make it a balanced document.

    In the joint statement, there are some pleasant issues, but these are hardly inspiring for the relationship. The joint statement has talked about “common ideals, complementary strengths and a shared commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.” Indian diplomacy may be congratulated for making the US talk about nuclear disarmament. It seems it was for the first time that the US administration shared nuclear disarmament ideals in an India-US bilateral document.

    Interestingly, the talk of complementary strengths could also be a new experiment for the bilateral agenda. India may delight its Non-Aligned Movement and nuclear disarmament constituency and take the leadership on the issue of nuclear disarmament. This constituency was apparently unhappy with India because of the July 18, 2005 joint statement and subsequent developments. This international force felt that India, the friend and the leader of nuclear disarmament, distanced itself from its long cherished ideal and commitment. The US may have addressed that section of the Western world which is restless about nuclear disarmament.

    India or at least a strong section of the Indian strategic community always has had a nuclear disarmament dream. It dreamt when India won its freedom, kept dreaming during the Cold War and even after it, and more importantly, did not stop dreaming in nuclear India. Needless to say, this dream was shattered. It seems the joint statement intends to do something to synthesize a common dream. Chasing American nuclear disarmament dreams may be soothing, but like any dream would end without producing any result.

    President Obama’s promised the moon during his elections. A campaign pamphlet of the Democratic Party informed that “Obama and Biden will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it. But they will take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons.” Obama’s famous Prague speech made a fleeting landing. Obama told the Prague audience, “I’m not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime.” Afterwards, the American nuclear disarmament dream came to an end. Several disarmament enthusiasts all over the world, including Indians, were utterly disappointed. Global disarmament initiatives were left for brave hearts and lofty idealists.

    Like the Prague speech, the India-US joint statement awakens us to the reality. In the same line in which a world without nuclear weapons has been mentioned, it talks of global efforts for non-proliferation before universal and non-discriminatory global nuclear disarmament in the 21st century. It seems the US priority took over. The struggle continued in the next line. Here it seems Indian diplomacy toiled to incorporate mention of “…the need for a meaningful dialogue among all states possessing nuclear weapons to build trust and confidence….”

    At the press conference, the Prime Minister referred to India and the US as two nuclear weapon countries. This aroused expectations that advancement towards recognition of India’s nuclear weapon status would be made, and the joint statement would use a new formulation recording India’s nuclear weapon status. The 2005 joint statement had alluded to “other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology.” Unfortunately, the joint statement, possibly because of American reluctance, did not refer to India and the US as two nuclear weapons countries. However, for getting the phrase (all states possessing nuclear weapons) used in the joint statement, we must give credit to Indian diplomacy. India may have to consolidate upon this and move forward towards gaining recognition as a nuclear weapons state. Needless to add, the best option would be joining the NPT as a nuclear weapon country.

    The other half of the same line talks about “reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and security doctrines.” This is quite significant. India has a ‘no first use policy’ in its nuclear doctrine. In the run up to the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, many countries as well as inter-governmental and non-governmental groupings campaigned for no-first use. An idea of a no-first use treaty was also floated. However, nothing came of it.

    The Indian government and its diplomacy must build on this US commitment, and mobilize American think tanks working on nuclear issues. It could be the first practical step towards reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in the nuclear doctrines of all nuclear weapon countries - declared and undeclared. Other components may be taken up later.

    India seems to prefer countering nuclear terrorism with the US framework. The joint statement mentioned the Nuclear Security Summit and the documents produced at the summit. The US has a somewhat different approach towards Pakistan on terrorism in general and nuclear terrorism in particular. Through the summit, it has tried to project Pakistan as a responsible actor. Moreover, the US deals with Pakistan unilaterally and hardly shares information with other countries.

    The US’ ambivalent approach towards Pakistan is reflected in the joint statement on illicit nuclear trafficking. This is a major security issue not only for India but also for the US. Pakistan and AQ Khan do not figure in the joint statement. America’s own allies complain about Washington not sharing information about the proliferation network. India should insist on highlighting Pakistan’s involvement. Non-governmental organizations may underscore the role of Pakistani diplomacy in managing the fallout of its nuclear proliferation network. Help from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Interpol and the nuclear security summit framework has been mentioned. The Indian government should make maximum use of these institutions.

    The US government and a section of its policy making community saw the Indian civil nuclear liability bill quite negatively. They demanded changes in the provision which made suppliers responsible for supplying defective items that may cause an accident. If an Indian operator finds that the accident has been caused due to defective equipment supplied by a supplier, it has the right to ask for compensation from the supplier under the passed bill.

    The joint statement seems to have tried to address American uneasiness. It has secured a level playing field for American companies. US sceptics would do well to remember that there are many Indian suppliers for the Indian nuclear industry. The bill nowhere discriminates between an Indian private supplier and a foreign supplier. It seems the government of India has taken an extra step on the Convention on Supplementary Compensation which has been recorded in the joint statement.

    There are other significant nuclear issues in the joint statement. First is the information about the Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation in the Indian Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership. During his recent visit to Tokyo, the Indian Prime Minister agreed to work with Japan for development of this Global Centre. The future challenge for Indian diplomacy would be to make the Centre an important hub of nuclear energy and nuclear security activities. It could do well by becoming more transparent.

    The joint statement has also talked about Iran. The formulation on Iran is quite positive. Obama began his Presidency and indeed conducted his election campaign by promising to use the diplomatic framework to manage the Iranian nuclear issue. In the last few months, he and his administration seem to have moved away from the diplomatic approach to confrontational and worse, military approach. In the joint statement, the emphasis on diplomacy to deal with the Iranian puzzle has been made. At the same time, the statement has urged Iran “to take constructive and immediate steps to meet its obligations to the IAEA and the UN [United Nations] Security Council.” Quite interestingly, any reference to its treaty obligations is missing. It seems the allusion to IAEA and UN Security Council indirectly addresses the issue.

    Quite terribly, some superfluous issues haunted the joint statement. For example, the unnecessary mention of the Indian commitment to unilateral and voluntary moratorium and the American commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty could have been avoided. It is well known that the changed US Congress and the American security establishment would not allow the ratification of the treaty.

    In sum, the visit witnessed several positive developments on the nuclear front. The joint statement on nuclear issues reflects the joint endeavour of the two countries to find a new common ground. Yet, the final outcome reflects the struggle of the traditional contending approaches of the two countries. The synthesis of the two approaches tries to paper over old differences, but is becoming manifest at most of the places in the joint statement. In the future, these wrinkles need to go.

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