Some conservatives and the liberal arms control community have
justifiably opposed the agreement. The conservative opponents
perceptively argue that Iran, North Korea, and other “rogue” nations,
under international pressure to end their nuclear programs, will object
to the double standard of allowing India, which has defied the Nuclear
Non-proliferation Treaty, to build as many nuclear weapons as it wants
with foreign assistance.
Similarly, the arms control community cogently argues that the
U.S.-India deal effectively scraps the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty,
which the world has used to hold Iran and North Korea in line. Although
these arguments are good ones, the Bush administration cares less about
all this than it does the misguided goal of building up a democratic
India as an Asian counterweight to a rising autocratic China.
Underlying the Bush administration’s strategic embrace of India is
the “democratic peace theory”—the premise that democracies don’t go to
war with each other. This theory is widely held in the popular
imagination and among the U.S. foreign policy elite, including that of
the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, but is of questionable
A corollary to the theory is that nuclear-armed democracies are
acceptable, but autocratic atomic powers are a threat. When discussing
the U.S.-Indian nuclear pact, Nicholas Burns, the Undersecretary of
State for Political Affairs, made this corollary explicit: “The
comparison between India and Iran is just ludicrous. India is a highly
democratic, peaceful, stable state that has not proliferated nuclear
weapons. Iran is an autocratic state mistrusted by nearly all countries
and that has violated its international commitments.”
Iran aside, India is democratic, but not “highly democratic,” and is
neither peaceful nor stable, and doesn’t always fulfill its
international commitments. India is a “new democracy” and has been since
its creation in 1947. Elections are held, but it is hardly a liberal
democracy in the Western sense.
Empirical data show that countries in the process of democratizing
are especially prone to go to war. India’s numerous wars with Pakistan,
including a recent near-war, confirm this pattern. Most of the
India-Pakistan wars have been fought over the Islamic area of Kashmir in
Hindu-dominated India, an area that would likely vote to be independent
or part of Muslim Pakistan if it had the referendum that India has long
promised but not delivered. Also, in the past India has been a seething
cauldron of ethnic and religious violence.
If the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, the Boer War, and
World War I, among others, don’t discredit the democratic peace theory
outright, the frosty relations between India and the United States
during the Cold War should give the Bush administration pause. India was
loosely aligned with the Soviet Union during that period and often
hostile to U.S. policy.
In short, selling India nuclear fuel and technology and other weapons
(in the works) in order to develop a regional counterweight to an
authoritarian China may be a risky gamble that blows up in the U.S.
government’s face. Twenty years down the road, India may be more of a
threat to U.S. interests than China. The future is hard to predict and
the United States has not always been good at identifying who the next
enemy will be.
The U.S. Navy was originally created to counter the French in the
Quasi-War at the end of the 18th century, but was actually
first used against the Barbary pirates at the beginning of the 19th
century. As recently as the late 19th century, Britain was
the United States’ most likely adversary, but the United States
eventually made a lasting peace with Britain and actually fought on its
behalf against Germany in World War I.
The United States built much of its Middle Eastern policy on propping
up the Shah’s government in Iran, only to see a revolution in the late
1970s turn that country into a radical Islamic foe. The United States
used Manual Noriega of Panama as an intelligence asset, but he
eventually became an embarrassing antagonist that required a U.S.
invasion to oust. Even after Iraq—with substantial secret U.S.
assistance—won its bloody war in the 1980s against Iran, the United
States continued to support Saddam Hussein right up until he became a
U.S. rival after invading Kuwait.
In the future, many scenarios are possible. China could remain
autocratic or could move down the road to democracy after freeing up its
economy—that is, adopting the same path as Chile, Taiwan, and Singapore.
But as a democracy China would not necessarily be friendly to the United
On the other hand, if China remains an autocracy, it may not be
hostile to the United States. Authoritarian states are not necessarily
aggressive externally—for example, the Burmese junta. In fact, the
nation with by far the most military interventions since World War II
has been a liberal democracy—the United States. Moreover, in the past,
the United States has befriended many despotic regimes to further its
Actively containing the Chinese by building up India, improving
relations with increasingly autocratic Russia, and strengthening U.S.
Cold War-era alliances ringing China may create a self-fulfilling
prophecy—a threatened, hostile China.
The United States would be better off keeping its powder dry and
remaining neutral in the Indian-Chinese competition. Both are rising
nations with rapidly growing economies, but it is now unclear whether
either or both of them will be a future threat to U.S. interests.
If one does rise faster than the other and become a menace, the
United States can always then help the other. But given the poor U.S.
track record of identifying future enemies, it might be a big mistake to
pour a lot of resources into a strategic relationship with India at the
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.