In 1974, India used a small reactor bought from Canada for civilian research to make plutonium. Its scientists secretly shaped the metal into a bomb and exploded it in what India called "a peaceful nuclear test." (Story continued below...)
President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger knew they had a problem. They swiftly created a new global structure to make it difficult for any other nation to turn civilian technology into nuclear weapons. And their plan worked. If countries wanted to buy reactors and fuel, they had to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), promising to never build a bomb and to open their nuclear sites to inspection. Some cheated, like North Korea and Iran, but they were caught and branded as outlaws. The vast majority of the 183 signatories without nuclear weapons kept their word.
This fall, President George W. Bush blew up this nuclear levee. The U.S.-India nuclear deal exempts India from the NPT's restrictions and permits it to keep its 50 to 120 nuclear bombs and build more. And the United States will start selling India sensitive nuclear technology.
Having inked the pact, Washington then browbeat other nuclear supplier nations into going along.
And on Oct. 2, the U.S. Congress gave its approval to the deal—thus clearing the last major obstacle.
It is hard to overstate what a mistake this was. India has now been granted all the privileges of a recognized nuclear-weapons state but with none of the responsibilities. The other two nuclear-armed nations outside the treaty, Pakistan and Israel, are sure to demand equal treatment; other nations, like Japan, may reconsider their nuclear options. Georgetown University School of Foreign Service dean Robert Gallucci says the deal will "open the door to the true proliferation of nuclear weapons in the years ahead." The dan-ger in South Asia seems especially high.
Why did Washington do it? The answer is money and politics. Mira Kamdar, a 2008 Bernard Schwartz Fellow of the Asia Society, has written that the deal "will generate billions of dollars in lucrative contracts for the corporate members of the U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC) and the Confederation of Indian Industry … This is what the nonproliferation regime, that has kept the world safe from nuclear Armageddon for decades, is being risked for: cash." Kamdar is right. The USIBC estimates that India will spend $175 billion over the next 25 years on nuclear trade, and other deals have already started flowing: India recently paid $1 billion to Boeing for six military airplanes, and U.S. companies will now bid on an estimated $40 billion in other arms sales.
If money greased the skids, politics pushed the deal over the finish line. Some just want to solidify the U.S.-India strategic partnership. Neoconservatives in Washington want India as an anti-China ally. In their view, the problem is not that India has nuclear weapons; it is that India doesn't have enough. When Republicans pushed, Democrats acquiesced. Barack Obama and Joe Biden joined John McCain in praising the deal. Other Democrats seemed most concerned about not alienating Indian-American constituents, now a major voting and campaign-funding bloc.
A few members of Congress took a stand. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Democrat of California) said, "It flew in the face of decades of American leadership" and set "a precedent that will be hard to erase," and Rep. Ed Markey (Democrat of Massachusetts) said, "There are many ways to deepen U.S.-India ties without damaging the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."
But the damage was done, and the next president will now have to dig us out of a deep nuclear hole. The only way to repair damage this severe is to build a whole new security structure.
As candidates, both Obama and McCain pledged they would lead the world on a new campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. Let's hope the president-elect meant it. To succeed, he must make it a top priority, setting an example for the rest of the world by dramatically reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, getting Russia to do the same and then quickly ratifying the nuclear-test-ban treaty and getting China, India and the other holdouts to follow suit. He must then bring all the nuclear-armed nations together in a summit to pledge together to stop producing new weapons, to slash their current arsenals and to act decisively against any new nuclear programs.
If it sounds like a tall order, it is. But should the president fail, future generations may well look back at the U.S.-India deal the way others looked back on the Missouri Com-promise or the Treaty of Versailles: as political power plays that paved the way to war.