Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Do Norms Matter part 2: the N deal

Congress approved the US's nuclear deal with India today. Under the agreement, India will be able get material and technical support for its civilian nuclear program and in return will open up 14 of its nuclear sites to inspections.

This move is note worthy for several reasons:

First, it is a rare victory for the Bush administration's foreign policy, and particularly in a very bad week for the administration. I mean congress actually passed something Bush wanted- weird. Relations with India have been one of very few foreign policy successes of the Bush administration in general so we should take note of this moment.

Second, if you believe the hyperbole, this is a 'tectonic' moment in not only Indo-US relations but also in the development of the nuclear non-proliferation regime itself. Making an exception of India signals many things - it validates the idea that liberal democracies stick together (a variant on the 'democratic peace' thesis), it opens up the pressing question of demonstration effects on other undeclared nuclear states and it recognizes that there is a range of behaviors within the category of nuclear non-proliferation norm violators, eroding the salience and the legitimacy of the non-proliferation regime itself. The deal jolts the shaky foundations of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, while still showing that states want to abide by it. Third, despite the easy passage of the bill, there is much disagreement on the impact and moral salience of the bill. We are not done with this at all.

So, does this mean that nuclear non-proliferation norms have comprehensively failed? Sure looks like it- the US is actually rewarding 'bad' behavior like testing nuclear weapons, right? Not if you read Karthika Sasikumar's fascinating work on India and the non-proliferation order. According to Sasikumar, the 'norms worked' by forcing India to act in regime compliant ways, even as an outsider to the regime. By this interpretation, India should be seen as an exception that proves the efficacy of a set of still stringent rules. It will not be easy for other states to make the same case that India did and thus the standards of acceptable nuclear behavior remain high.

Of course, the counter-argument is the one that will get the most coverage in the next few weeks. This is the argument that the deal sets a dangerous precedent and will encourage other states, including 'rogue' states to also openly violate non-proliferation norms. Rebutting such behavior will be hard to justify, given the preferential treatment given to India.

My take on this: This is a toughie. On the one hand, I agree that India is a special case, given its record which stands out against the behavior of the usual suspects (A Q Khan anyone?). I also understand the benefits that the deal brings in both material and symbolic terms- not the least of which is the promise it holds for India's rapidly growing energy needs. Thirdly, the deal exposes the sham that the structure of the nuclear regime was which was built on the discriminatory premise of freezing into place the power hierarchies of the post second world war period. Out of the weakening architecture of the non-proliferation regime, comes an opportunity to rethink what non-proliferation means in todays day and age.

What I'm concerned about is the reaction from two quarters- the jingosm that I predict in India and the reaction of other undeclared states. I fear that the deal will dilute the already waning nuclear non-proliferation order.

Let me explain. No doubt there will be a lot of celebration in certain quarters in India - validating the enormous expense of developing nuclear weapons programs and the risk that comes with testing nuclear weapons with Pakistan as a neighbor. There are few things I find as disagreeable as Indian jingoism and we will see a lot of it in the days to come, specially from those that will tout India's growing relations with the US as validation of India's arrival as a great power.

Apart from the crude spectacle of excessive nationalism, we should be wary of such self-congratulation for other reasons. Even while acknowledging that India's nuclear record has been exemplary in terms of responsibility in upholding non-proliferation norms, we should worry about the resentment this will breed in the subcontinent. More importantly for me, the deal signals India's growing embrace of 'real politik'. India's great strength in the nuclear non-proliferation order was not its material capability but its ethical argument about the in built discrimination or 'apartheid' of the regime. We should not lose this moral ground by touting our 'power'.

Moving beyond India, the precedent this sets for other undeclared nuclear powers is troubling. Not because the US will be compelled to similarly reward other states (which it won't) but because this decision will erode the 'nuclear taboo' that has held strong for 50 years, despite the flaws of the non-proliferation regime. We should be alert to the demonstration effects the deal will have on other regimes and the arguments that will become 'thinkable'.

To put it mildly, the process of negotiating the deal has been turbulent - it nearly brought the current coalition government down in India when the CPIM bailed out in protest. It has been furiously opposed by left liberals in India and by Democrats in the U.S. This passage is probably not the end of the story - but it is a landmark day in the ongoing saga. It's too early to predict the long-term effects of the deal but that won't stop all of the talking heads ( including me!)

Bottom line: I don't know yet.

Edited 10/02/08 to add: According to the BBC, already Pakistan is arguing that Washington needs to extend a similar deal to Islamabad. Now this is just a bit rich. I'm no Pakistan basher (making fun of lecherous Presidents does not count) but with its rather dodgy chain of command, history of proliferation and you know, just that little matter of A Q Khan, I think this smells of a little boguosity...but, it just underlines the point about precedents set.

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