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America’s New Strategic Partner?

Ashton B. Carter writes in Foreign Affairs:

Last summer, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that India and the United States had struck a deal for a far-reaching “strategic partnership.” As part of the agreement, President George W. Bush broke with long-standing U.S. policy and openly acknowledged India as a legitimate nuclear power, ending New Delhi’s 30-year quest for such recognition.

Much of the debate surrounding “the India deal,” as the agreement has come to be known since it was finalized last March, has focused on nuclear issues. Opponents charge that Bush’s historic concession to India could deal a serious blow to the international nonproliferation regime and could set a dangerous precedent for Iran, North Korea, and other aspiring nuclear powers. They also note that the Bush administration obtained no meaningful commitments from New Delhi — no promises that India would limit its growing nuclear arsenal or take new steps to help combat nuclear proliferation and international terrorism. Why, the critics ask, did Washington give India so much for so little?

These detractors are both right and wrong. They are right to say that the deal is unbalanced and seems to have been struck with little regard for some of its implications. But they overstate the damage it will do to nonproliferation — an important cause, without doubt — and their understanding of the deal’s objectives is too narrow. When the nuclear arrangements of the agreement are understood — as they should be — as just one part of a sweeping strategic realignment that could prove critical to U.S. security interests down the road, the India deal looks much more favorable. Washington gave something away on the nuclear front in order to gain much more on other fronts; it hoped to win the support and cooperation of India — a strategically located democratic country of growing economic importance — to help the United States confront the challenges that a threatening Iran, a turbulent Pakistan, and an unpredictable China may pose in the future. Washington’s decision to trade a nuclear-recognition quid for a strategic-partnership quo was a reasonable move.

Critics rightly note, however, a serious asymmetry in the arrangement: whereas the deal is clear about what the United States conceded, it is vague about what India will give in return. India obtained nuclear recognition up front; the gains for the United States are contingent and lie far ahead in the uncertain future. This imbalance leaves Washington at the mercy of India’s future behavior: there is still a chance that India will not deliver on the strategic partnership, especially if cooperating with the United States means abandoning positions it once endorsed as a leader of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) and siding decisively with Washington on a range of security issues. It remains to be seen, for example, if India, once a staunch detractor of the nonproliferation regime, will now become one of its supporters.

The truth is that it is too soon to tell whether the promise of the India deal will be realized. It is too soon to tell even whether the deal will be consummated at all. To take effect, the White House’s nuclear concessions to India must be written into U.S. law. Only Congress can do that, and many of its members are seeking to rebalance the deal in the United States’ favor.

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