This week, the Bush administration pulled off the deftest geopolitical maneuver that any U.S. regime has managed in more than a decade. Yet, with the same step, it addled the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with more confusion and peril than at any time in the accord's 35-year history.
The big move, which didn't get nearly the banner headlines it deserved, took place on July 19, when President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a joint statement resolving to "transform" the relationship between their two countries and to "establish a global partnership."
The centerpiece of this grand alliance is a U.S. pledge to provide full assistance to India's nuclear energy sector—in short, to treat India "as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology" that should be allowed to "acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states."
At first glance, this may seem like boilerplate, but it could hardly signal a more radical shift in policy. Through the 1960s and '70s, India was a stalwart ally of the Soviet Union and therefore an implacable U.S. foe. After the Cold War ended, relations warmed somewhat, but they could only go so far as long as India remained a renegade nuclear state. In 1974, India tested a nuclear bomb then built an arsenal of atomic weapons. It had never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a result, no signatory, including the United States, could supply it with any nuclear equipment or supplies—even for civilian purposes.
In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton held out a package of economic and technical enticements if India disarmed and signed the NPT. But India refused and relations cooled.
The startling thing about this week's joint statement is that Bush has agreed to give India everything that Clinton offered, plus some—and India gets to keep, even expand, its nuclear arsenal.
This deal violates not just the NPT but several U.S. laws governing nuclear exports, as well as the international agreement underlying the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an organization of 44 nations that follow standardized rules on importing and exporting nuclear materials.
Changing the rules to make an exception for one country is troublesome, awkward, and unprecedented. But is it necessarily a bad idea?
Consider India. It is the world's largest democracy, with a stable political system and one of the fastest-growing economies. It is poised to be one of the century's global powerhouses—perhaps the Asian powerhouse or, in any case, a country that could offset the rising power of China. India is also naturally inclined toward a partnership with America. Its people speak English; its economy is oriented toward the U.S. market; its interests are fairly well aligned with U.S. interests and values.
For a few years now, India's leaders have obsessed over one issue in their discussions with U.S. officials: that India has huge energy needs; that its big hope lies in nuclear power; that its land is not blessed with uranium or other resources for the task; and so, it wants the United States to help bend the rules on nonproliferation so that India can buy nuclear materials.