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Washington and Nuclear Nonproliferation: The Geopolitics between Them

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The proliferation of nuclear weapons and efforts to stem its flow have drawn a great deal of scholarly attention. From analyzing the causes, conduits, and nature of proliferation, to understanding the directions of great powers’ non-proliferation policies, the literature on this set of subjects is rich. The whys and the hows of proliferation are somewhat linked to the non-proliferation policies of great powers. This equation becomes clearer, if one looks at Mathew Kroenig’s power-projection theory, it establishes an inverse connection between nuclear proliferation and the ability of great powers to leverage force as an instrument of influence vis-à-vis allies and adversaries alike. As one of the principal makers of the broader non-proliferation regime, the United States’ non-proliferation efforts cannot be dissociated from the discourse on nuclear proliferation. While a policy commensurate with the power-projection theory could lead to a wholehearted commitment to the norm of nuclear non-proliferation, it will certainly aggravate security fears that, according to a large corpus of literature, give impetus to proliferation. In addition to vitiating the security environment, the entire mosaic of Washington’s strategies of inhibition, as succinctly explained by Francis J. Gavin, affects other instigators of proliferation, to include the normative ones. The good nukes, bad nukes policy, as legalized and streamlined within the landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT), has not only facilitated nuclear proliferation but also constantly dented the non-proliferation regime. That North Korea walked away from the NPT is something that merits a reevaluation of why states go nuclear, and as to why big powers fail to honor their commitments towards non-proliferation. Similarly, the conspicuous inconsistencies in U.S. approaches towards non-proliferation and arms control, partially explained by Kroenig’s political relationship theory, are all but forcing Iran to reassess its commitments towards the three pillars of the NPT.

It is important to mention two of the principal concerns related to nuclear proliferation. One, it is feared that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by one state will lead to a domino effect, with other countries likely to follow suit. Constituted a month after China’s Lop Nor test through the National Security Action Memorandum 320, the Gilpatric Committee worried about proliferation causing a chain reaction. Released in January 1965, the Gilpatric Report noted: “An Indian or Japanese decision to build nuclear weapons would probably produce a chain reaction of similar decisions by other countries, such as Pakistan, Israel, and the UAR.” With that in mind, the Committee recommended stringent non-proliferation measures to arrest the spread of nuclear weapons. Two, doubts are raised about the ability and capacity of nuclear-possessors to handle and secure nuclear weapons, raising the prospect of nuclear use, advertently or accidentally. These views feature prominently in Scott Sagan’s arguments in his famous debate with Kenneth Waltz on the implications of nuclear proliferation.

Both of those misgivings were shunned when the Americans needed Pakistan to fight the Soviet Union in the final showdown of the Cold War. Amendments to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act that generally and specifically applied to Pakistan were bypassed, allowing Pakistan to march ahead with getting a deterrent that it needed for its security.

In ‘The Blind Eye’, detailing the parleys between the officials of the Reagan Administration and the Congress for a Symington waiver for Pakistan in FY 82, Rabia Akhtar writes:

After the witnesses testified before the committee, Congressman Solarz asked Coon and Brown if the administration had sought explicit nuclear assurances from Pakistan in the context of the offer of $100 million in ESF for FY 82 concerning the GOP’s apparent efforts to acquire the capacity to explode a nuclear device. But to the Senator’s surprise, Brown answered that no such assurances were sought from Pakistan instead the administration ‘anticipated’ that if a stable security relationship between Pakistan and the United States was created including the possible provision of assistance, that would help ‘mitigate some of the perceptions of insecurity’ related to Pakistan’s nuclear explosives program.

As the self-anointed leader of the crusade against nuclear proliferation, the U.S. indeed failed, as it turned a blind eye when Pakistan was making meaningful headway towards achieving its ultimate goal: a nuclear deterrent against India. Thus, it is imperative to note that Pakistan’s proliferation odyssey cannot be fittingly explained absent an appraisal of U.S. enforcement failure that stemmed and continues to stem from relegating nonproliferation and prioritizing geopolitical interests. The Cold War was over on a winning note; Pakistan delivered the final punch while, in the process, baring its teeth in 1998, much to the belated chagrin of its benefactor and enabler: the U.S.

Fast-forward to 2005, Washington, despite being one of the makers and parties to the NPT, initiated a process of bringing India into global nuclear commerce. That was not only a reversal of a decades-old U.S. nonproliferation policy but also repugnant to Articles 1 and  III of the NPT that bar Nuclear Weapon States(NWSs) from transferring, helping, and encouraging Non-Nuclear Weapon States(NNWSs) from manufacturing and acquiring nuclear weapons, and sharing nuclear material for peaceful purposes absent full-safeguards implemented by an NNWS, respectively. Back then, U.S. President, George W. Bush, aspiring to treat India as a nuclear have, committed to helping it become part of the burgeoning nuclear trade architecture. True to its promise, the U.S. was able to push through amendments to facilitate nuclear trade with India. According to Section 104 of the Hyde Act that amended the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, any U.S. President is authorized to: “(1) exempt a proposed cooperation agreement with India from AEA requirements for maintenance of IAEA safeguards for nuclear materials in peaceful nuclear activities; (2) waive a certain additional export criterion and procedures; and (3) waive mandatory termination of nuclear exports based upon specified conduct that occurred before July 18, 2005.”

All this was coupled with Washington’s successful efforts to persuade the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to grant a special waiver to New Delhi  for nuclear trade. Ever since then the U.S. has been trying tooth and nail to induct India as a member of the NSG, an eventuality that will harm both the export control and nonproliferation regime. However, Washington’s bid is being resisted by member-states led by Beijing, who believe that, countries who do not sign and ratify the NPT will not be admitted to the cartel.

Admittedly, the U.S. has gone the extra mile because it sees India as its strategic partner, one that is slated to act as a bulwark against China’s rise. While India’s credentials to challenge China are weak, despite US’ mollycoddling, its ability to up the nuclear ante due to the cushion provided by the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal has all but increased. Apart from not putting a lid on India’s fissile material and nuclear weapons stockpiles, the deal does not, in any manner, deter or impede India to use freed-up fissile materials for military purposes. According to  Henry Sokolski,  "We are going to be sending, or allowing others to send, fresh fuel to India--including yellowcake and lightly enriched uranium--that will free up Indian domestic sources of fuel to be solely dedicated to making many more bombs than they would otherwise have been able to make.” For all the talk of India’s counterforce temptations in the academic circles, or strategic stability concerns in the official ones, the U.S., by repeating its historical mistakes  in enforcing nonproliferation policies, is contributing significantly towards India’s nuclear expansion. While Washington’s strategic managers might have forgotten the Gilpatric Report, they have apparently grasped Kroenig’s political relationship theory. As the NPT-based nonproliferation regime comes under pressure from the ever-widening trust-deficit between NWSs and NNWSs and the Ban Treaty, Washington’s bidding of an NNWS further undermine this even-otherwise enfeebled nonproliferation framework.