The furore surrounding India’s application at the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s (NSG) annual plenary in Seoul has shades of the fable of the blind men and the elephant. The official word about it, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, is that the government has begun a coordinated effort for India’s entry into the NSG, that the process has begun on a positive note, and that “everything has rules and will accordingly move forward”. Yet the hair-splitting would not seem to stop.
This is in stark contrast to India’s relatively quieter entry in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Was it because the NSG bid is still in the works and may succeed or founder while the MTCR is bland good news? Or, is it because the NSG inherently has much greater appeal and the stupendous diplomacy in the run-up to the Seoul meeting triggered wider interest and concern. Was it because the domestic actors sniffed an opportunity to light up the firmament in anticipation of the geopolitics?
Any perspective in this atmosphere risks being dismissed as narrow or partial. Nonetheless, one can try and begin with the nature of these groupings and the unfolding global order. The climate change meet in Paris last year demonstrated that the era of treaty-making and mutual legal obligations is over. The modus vivendi seems to lie in the endorsement of weakly binding common goals and objectives, tied to voluntary national commitments of parties to promulgate laws which contribute to the overall goals.
The NSG’s importance lies in that it is a long lasting example of the shape of things to come with regard to a world order based on norms of behaviour of sovereign states. The NSG was founded in a short-lived phase of détente during the Cold War, which began with the strategic arms limitations talks (SALT 1) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaties but petered out by the late 1970s. The Soviet Union, though a staunch friend of India, had joined the NSG as a voluntary grouping of seven to supplement and ensure a fledgeling non-proliferation framework (NPT, Tlatelolco Treaty, Zangger Committee etc) against another surprise like India’s 1974 nuclear test. The founding members were the NATO allies led by the US. Cold War thumb rules accommodated eight more by 1978 — three from each side of the divide, plus Austria and Switzerland. At the time, the NSG’s bite was weak and the US enacted stiffer domestic legislation in 1978 for effective export controls. This included comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards to regulate the export to non-nuclear weapon states — these the NSG could adopt only in 1992, after the Iraq shock. The NSG ushered in stricter guidelines and vastly expanded membership after the Soviet collapse.
The expanded NSG has since comprised Russia and the member states of the NATO, EU, OECD as well as important emerging economies from outside these groups. The overwhelming membership of the NSG, by and large, acquiesced to the US leadership. A senior US diplomat in charge of non-proliferation once remarked that he had the special responsibility of presiding over the global non-proliferation order. China arrived there at its own pace in 2004.
In this historical setting sprang the transformation of the Indo-US relationship during the last decade. It was born out of a sustained dialogue and a thorough reassessment by the US of nuclear India’s capability, actions and readiness to conform to the global regime while retaining a strategic nuclear and missile programme. While India’s early outreach with individual members of the NSG was also appreciated, getting the US on board, they said, was critical. Therefore, when the US stepped in to secure India NSG exemption during 2005-08, India was generally optimistic. The 2008 exemption vindicated that optimism and inspired the logical next step, that is the formal entry into the NSG. India’s worthiness has been repeatedly acknowledged since 2010 by President Barack Obama.
This might calm the reductionist refrain that having got the NSG exemption, India’s quest for entry into the NSG was redundant and only for status. Facts, on the contrary, point to India’s record and capacity to add value to the NSG, much unlike some others. The US, Russia, France, UK, Germany, Japan and a very large number of the NSG members sympathise with this differentiated assessment. It is this assessment that calls into question the imposition of a “one size fits all” approach just to hinder India’s entry.
As far as the criteria are concerned, their role should pertain to regulating the exports of nuclear reactors, energy and resources technology, and sensitive material rather than in fixing eligibility among a range of states.
Forcing in this context an arbitrary “non-NPT” category is oversimplified, to say the least. Building trust with individual members of the group is critical to diplomacy. The NSG today comprises more states (48) than the United Nations at its inception. No UN organ or agency with such large membership is inflexible about a consensus rule. The IAEA board of governors, with 35 members strives, in the Vienna spirit, for consensus but allows voting when the situation warrants; ditto in the boards of other UN bodies like the ECOSOC.
However, it is for the NSG members to consider how they strive for consensus, respecting the views of every individual member. While bilateral outreach is necessary to individual members, some might take umbrage to public questioning or second guessing of the NSG’s confidential processes by non-members. Having been at it for years, Indian diplomats at the helm today are familiar with every nuance of this process. Diplomacy’s lexicon since Klemens Wenzel von Metternich has set store by discreetness and politesse in communication, which cannot be derided as yachna or begging. So, the supercilious rants seen in India’s media debates on the Seoul experience hardly help.
In sum, there is no escape from continued engagement to reach the desirable goal. Terms used in the NSG’s carefully drafted public statement do not exclude India’s entry or consideration thereof. There is room for India’s friends and supporters to persevere, but India must also demonstrate its commitment without being presumptive. Most unwise will be the repetition of the sterile ruckus during 2005-08, hindering endeavours towards Indo-US nuclear cooperation.
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