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Going it alone

The likely derailment of a US–Indian nuclear deal highlights the limitations of bilateral arrangements.

In March 2006, US President George Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reached an unprecedented agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation between the two nations. In exchange for India opening up a portion of its reactors to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United States would agree to lift sanctions that prevent nuclear trade.

Non-proliferation advocates were critical of the move. A moratorium on nuclear cooperation with India has been in place for decades as a consequence of its failure to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which allows nations access to civilian nuclear technology as a quid pro quo for not developing nuclear weapons. India never signed the NPT and has developed nuclear weapons.

Critics argued that by arranging to sell India nuclear power technology, the United States was undermining the NPT's already shaky foundations. But the agreement was consistent with the Bush adminstration's penchant for pursuing bilateral, one-off deals, which its officials argue are easier to negotiate and more in line with US interests than multilateral treaties.

Supporters said that the IAEA inspections would bring India closer to the norms of the global non-proliferation regime, and that it was better for some of the country's facilities to be open to inspection than none at all.

But on 22 October, the Indian government announced that the treaty would not be approved by the end of this month, as had been hoped — raising fears that it will drift into abeyance. The Communist Party, the third largest party in the Indian parliament, has threatened to pull out of the fragile coalition government if the deal goes ahead. It opposes the deal because it would mean closer ties with the United States, possibly at the expense of relations with China. Meanwhile, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has also voiced opposition, arguing that parts of the agreement would interfere with India's national defence interests.

As a result, this episode could be poised to undermine the international non-proliferation regime on two fronts. Its initiation showed that the world's largest nuclear power was ready, for the first time, to trade with nuclear states outside the NPT. But the current difficulties suggest that international inspections and other benefits to non-proliferation won't be realized from such agreements any time soon.

Bilateral arms-control deals are highly vulnerable to changes in the political climate inside either partner nation, and can undercut the legitimacy of truly international efforts. The latter have many weaknesses, but their basic permanence provides a firm foundation on which relations between nations can be built. It would be better for all involved if countries such as India and the United States eschewed bilateral fixes and got behind the further development of the existing international framework for non-proliferation.

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Going it alone. Nature 449, 948 (2007).

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