The Debate

Trust and Leadership: The Art of the US-India Nuclear Deal

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The Debate

Trust and Leadership: The Art of the US-India Nuclear Deal

Learning the lessons of 13 years ago.

Trust and Leadership: The Art of the US-India Nuclear Deal
Credit: White House photo by Paul Morse via Wikimedia Commons

Amid growing fears of a trade war between the United States and India, and potential Congressional sanctions on India for deciding to purchase Russian missiles, policymakers in New Delhi and Washington may very well overlook an important occasion this month.

July 18 marks the thirteenth anniversary of the landmark Joint Statement issued by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in which the United States resolved to achieve “full civil nuclear energy cooperation” with India. In the three years that followed, the U.S. modified domestic law and helped change international law to create a major exception for India as a de facto nuclear weapons state. India for its part agreed to separate its military and civilian nuclear facilities and bring the latter under IAEA safeguards.

The nuclear deal would not have been possible without considerable political leadership and bureaucratic effort on both sides. It is important therefore to appreciate its role in India-U.S. relations and the lessons it might hold for policymakers today.

Clearing a bottleneck

While there is widespread agreement among analysts that the deal was motivated by strategic considerations, few have examined why the Bush administration considered a nuclear deal the most viable method of building a “global partnership” with India. The answer, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has noted in her memoir, is that no progress could have been made on the bilateral relationship without first addressing the nuclear question.

The technology denial regime implemented by the United States following India’s first nuclear test in 1974 blocked most high-technology exports to India due these technologies being “dual use” in nature, i.e. fit for both civilian and military nuclear purposes. This restriction placed a major obstacle in the way of bilateral defense trade and cooperation. In order to develop anything resembling a strategic partnership, the US would have to first address India’s position relative to the international nuclear regime.

Without the removal of export controls and restrictions under the nuclear deal, the U.S.-India defense partnership would not be where it stands today. In the decade before the deal, the United States accounted for an average of 0.2 percent of India’s annual defence imports. In the decade after the deal, this figure jumped to 8.3 percent. While still low—Russia, Israel, and France remain India’s top suppliers—the trend remains upward.

The deal has done much more than boost bilateral defense trade. It has created an unprecedented level of mutual trust between the two countries, facilitating cooperation on a number of fronts including counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, military exercises, defense co-production, and strategic coordination. From a macro-historical perspective, India-US relations are at a historic high.

Building trust

How did the two countries overcome a history of estrangement to actually build the trust required to come to an agreement? The nuclear deal is remarkable because it represents the bridging of a chasm between the United States and India that had lasted through the Cold War and well into the 1990s. Given the state of the relationship following India’s nuclear tests of May 1998, it was virtually unthinkable that just a decade later the United States and India would arrive at an agreement this sweeping in its global ramifications.

Two factors contributed to building trust between both sides.

First, the United States began signalling its desire for better relations after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, which put India firmly in Washington’s sights as a major regional power (in part as a potential counterweight to a rising China). The Talbott-Singh talks in the aftermath of the tests created a deeper appreciation in Washington of India’s security predicament viz. Pakistan and China, and of New Delhi’s stance towards the international nuclear regime. The first sign of tangible change came during the 1999 Kargil War, when President Clinton leaned on Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to sue for peace.

The subsequent change of administration in the United States introduced new momentum in Washington’s outreach to India. George W. Bush, even before he was elected president, heralded “democratic India’s arrival as a force in the world,” one with which the United States should engage. 9/11 accelerated this process, making Washington more sympathetic to India’s own fight against terrorism and more willing to censure Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism on Indian soil (most clearly in the aftermath of the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament). Washington’s public criticism of Islamabad, a crucial ally in the War on Terror, sent a strong signal to New Delhi of U.S. willingness to reconfigure relations with India.

Second, the conviction and leadership of key officials were crucial in overcoming institutional inertia on both sides. Bush and Singh shared a long-term vision for U.S.-India relations undergirded by mutual personal respect. This shared commitment was crucial in forging trust and giving each side’s negotiators the political leeway to face down domestic and international opposition to the deal. Further, the deal had champions holding important positions in the respective bureaucracies. Condoleezza Rice, as NSA and then as Secretary of State, and Shyam Saran, as Foreign Secretary and then as Special Envoy, played vital roles in creating buy-in not only within their own establishments but also in each other’s political systems.

Legacy of the Deal

Admittedly, the nuclear cooperation that the deal promised has failed to materialize. India’s Nuclear Liability Act, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, and the bankruptcy of the Westinghouse Electric Company—a major global supplier of nuclear reactor technology—have caused the deal to fall short of expectations.

Nevertheless, the U.S.-India nuclear deal was about much more than nuclear power. It was a foundational step in the construction of a strategic partnership of global consequence. Policymakers in both countries today have a deep well of mutual trust on which to draw in dealing with bilateral irritants. Yet they should not lose sight of the long-term vision and political leadership required to tend to the relationship. Trump and Modi would do well to remember that trust is painstakingly built but easily lost.

Rohan Mukherjee is an assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College, Singapore. Karthik Sivaram is an independent researcher based in San Francisco.