Nuclear folly

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 September, 2008, 12:00am

Let's temporarily set aside talk of the US presidential race and reflect on the eight years in office of the incumbent, George W. Bush. There have been few high points and many low ones. Invading Iraq in 2003 without UN Security Council approval would seem the lowest. But, for all its infamy, that was a mere whirlwind compared to the super-typhoon that the administration is concocting in its dying months.

I am not referring to Washington's goading of Russia by supporting Georgia and insisting on missile bases in Poland. Outraging Pakistan by attacking alleged militants without permission is barely a footnote in the book of Bush misdeeds. The one that could be the mother of them all, were the US Congress to approve it, is the nuclear fuel and technology deal with India.

On its face, this would seem harmless. Washington has couched it in glowing terms, contending that it would help India meet rising energy demands in an environmentally friendly way, form a partnership with the world's biggest democracy and bring business to American companies. Were these the only concerns, we could rest easy. But the reality is that the pact has implications that should instead have us voicing loud disapproval.

The deal is about the US gaining a strategic foothold in Asia to keep China, India and Russia in check. But it also blows the doors off efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons: it has the potential to unhinge the vestiges of peace and stability. A defining moment came at the weekend, when the US used strong-arm tactics to force the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to approve the deal. At one stage, China was left hanging on a limb as smaller, fellow objectors gave way to US pressure. The move has widened a rift between Beijing and New Delhi.

The NSG is dedicated to reducing nuclear proliferation by controlling the movement of material that could be used to make weapons. Paradoxically, it was set up in response to India testing a nuclear weapon in 1974. India, like Pakistan and Israel, has refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the centrepiece of world efforts to eliminate atomic weapons. The NSG's authority has been eroded by its granting of a waiver to a non-NPT nation to trade in nuclear materials and technology.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has argued that the deal is good because it gets India into a mechanism where some of its nuclear facilities will be open to inspection. A condition of the NSG waiver is that India pledges not to carry out more nuclear tests. This is success where there was none before, but as Washington-based Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball pointed out, pledges can be easily broken. It would have been better to ensure that India joined the 179 nations that have signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a convention that, when it comes into force, will outlaw nuclear bomb testing by signatory nations.

But lacking legally binding terms is only the beginning of the problem. Were Congress to cave in to the Bush administration, Pakistan and Israel could demand similar treatment. For Israel's Arab neighbours - conscious of Israeli nuclear development but unsure just how far it has gone - a clear signal for proliferation would be sent out. Denying Pakistan the same deal would impel it to increase its weapons development. Throw Iran and North Korea into the mix - nations that have taken advantage of weak NPT enforcement - and non-proliferation efforts become worthless.

There is one hope: that Congress will shoot down the deal. That done, Mr Kimball prescribes a simple remedy for fears of proliferation: the five nuclear weapons states and leading European and non-aligned countries work together to strengthen the tattered non-proliferation system. The first step is to convince the US and Russia finally to make good on promises to dramatically cut their nuclear arsenals.

The problem is not countries seeking nuclear weapons. Proliferation is being caused by the poor example of nations not abiding by the rules they have signed up to. The No1 culprit: the United States and, more specifically, the Bush administration.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor