After an eight-year hiatus, the United States has returned to the cause of multilateral nuclear non-proliferation. US President Barack Obama has already declared his dream objective: a world free of all nuclear weapons. This is no surprise: it has been the stated goal of many Oval Office residents ranging from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. The recent testimony of Obama’s nuclear non-proliferation nominee at the State Department and the composition of his non-proliferation team, however, give a better idea of what is Obama’s immediate and more practical non-proliferation agenda. New Delhi will find it is less alarming than some Indian observers have expected.
Washington intends to, first and foremost, focus on nuclear problem states. Hence its talk of shoring up missile defence among its allies, an obvious fallout of North Korean activity. His talk of a global uranium fuel bank is designed to force Iran to prove whether it actually does want just civilian nuclear energy. And pressure is being placed on Pakistan to address the safety of its nuclear arsenal. Obama also plans to strengthen the existing global nonproliferation regulatory system, with tighter export controls and technology restrictions. At the end of this long list lies the difficult task of rebuilding the ramshackle treaty-based non-proliferation regime. While Obama may wish for “global zero” he sees it as the top rung of a ladder whose lower steps includes a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a global fissile material cutoff and the like.
India has often seemed in two minds about non-proliferation. Its security has been the worst-affected by the atomic misdeeds of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan and the missile sales of North Korea. However, years of foreign non-proliferation policies that targeted India’s deterrent have made its polity allergic to multilateral non-proliferation regimes. India has papered over this gap by calling for a nuclear weapons-free world and using it as an excuse to shoot down lesser non-proliferation agreements. However, the Indo-US nuclear deal has changed the country’s status with regard to many of these non-proliferation regimes. The Obama administration’s desire to move forward on this front gives India an opportunity to review its own long-standing prejudices against some of these agreements, like the Proliferation Security Initiative. India should now see them from the perspective of its newfound status as a de facto nuclear weapon state and ask whether they are deserving of support.