By abandoning many of the nuclear arms agreements negotiated in the last 50 years, the United States has been sending mixed signals to North Korea, Iran, and other nations with the technical knowledge to create nuclear weapons. Currently proposed agreements with India compound this quagmire and further undermine the global pact for peace represented by the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
At the same time, no significant steps are being taken to reduce the worldwide arsenal of almost 30,000 nuclear weapons now possessed by the US, Russia, China, France, Israel, Britain, India, Pakistan, and perhaps North Korea. A global holocaust is just as possible now, through mistakes or misjudgments, as it was during the depths of the Cold War.
The key restraining commitment among the five original nuclear powers and more than 180 other nations is the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Its key objective is “to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology...and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament.” In the last five-year review conference at the United Nations in 2005, only Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea were not participating – the first three have nuclear arsenals that are advanced, and the fourth’s is embryonic.
The American government has not set a good example, having already abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, binding limitations on testing nuclear weapons and developing new ones, and a long-standing policy of foregoing threats of “first use” of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. These recent decisions have encouraged China, Russia, and other NPT signatories to respond with similar actions.
Knowing since 1974 of India’s nuclear ambitions, I and other American presidents imposed a consistent policy: no sales of nuclear technology or uncontrolled fuel to India or any other country that refused to sign the NPT. Today, these restraints are in the process of being abandoned.
I have no doubt that India’s political leaders are just as responsible in handling their country’s arsenal as leaders of the five original nuclear powers. But there is a significant difference: the original five have signed the NPT, and have stopped producing fissile material for weapons.
India’s leaders should make the same pledges, and should also join other nuclear powers in signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Instead, they have rejected these steps and insist on unrestricted access to international assistance in producing enough fissile material for as many as 50 weapons a year, far exceeding what is believed to be India’s current capacity.
If India’s demand is acceptable, why should other technologically advanced NPT signatories, such as Brazil, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Japan – to say nothing of less responsible nations – continue to restrain themselves?
Having received at least tentative approval from the US for its policy, India still faces two further obstacles: an acceptable agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 45-nation body that – until now – has barred nuclear trade with any nation that refuses to accept international nuclear standards.
The non-nuclear NSG members are Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and Ukraine.
The role of these nations and the IAEA is not to prevent India’s development of nuclear power or even nuclear weapons, but rather to assure that it proceeds as almost all other responsible nations on earth do, by signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty and accepting other reasonable restraints.
Nuclear powers must show leadership, by restraining themselves and by curtailing further departures from the NPT's international restraints. One-by-one, the choices they make today will create a legacy -- deadly or peaceful -- for the future.