July 24, 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front

The following article originally appeared in The Indian Express on July 24, 2008.

The stormy proceedings and final outcome in parliament on Tuesday were ample evidence, if needed, of the importance attached to the nuclear agreement in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh risked his government to gain political support for the deal. Washington bureaucrats and Congressional leaders had often expressed frustration with the Indian government for not having done enough to sell the deal at home. The political turmoil and the ultimate result of the trust vote underscored both the political difficulties of enabling the deal in New Delhi, as well as the government’s resolve in pursuing the agreement to its end.

Yet given the importance of the deal to India and the international community more broadly, its importance has been largely overlooked in the United States. In the week leading up to the trust vote, there were only six mentions of the deal in major US newspapers. That the agreement’s significance has been lost on the general public and mainstream media is, in part, understandable. The deal does not affect the average American directly and its complexities render it hard to explain.

More surprising, however, has been the failure to appreciate the deal by members of the American foreign policy community, academics and the elite press: basically those who comprise much of the non-governmental portion of the US policymaking community. Few aspects of the agreement have been discussed in detail other than its supposedly damning effect on the arms control agenda, whose adherents naturally approach the deal from a narrow and unforgiving perspective.

Since the nuclear agreement’s unveiling in 2005, the American mainstream press has viewed the deal primarily through a single arms control-tinted lens. The editorial pages of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times have all been critical of the deal on non-proliferation grounds. Even supposedly pro-Indian figures such as Thomas Friedman and Jimmy Carter have been unsympathetic. Former Economist editor Bill Emmott’s opinion article in The Washington Post two weeks ago provided a rare argument in a major newspaper explaining the potential benefits of the nuclear agreement.

There are two main reasons for the general apathy and skewed media coverage of the deal. The first is capacity. Washington’s policy research institutes are collectively host to less than a dozen full- or part-time South Asia strategic experts, many of whom have concentrated in the past few years on the more immediate problems (for Americans) in Pakistan. Few genuine attempts have been made by the Indian government, the Indian-American community or US business groups to strategically boost the capacity in India-specific expertise in Washington. India and South Asia experts have consequently been vastly outnumbered by the non-proliferation analysts.

The second reason concerns transparency. Both the US and the Indian governments failed to reach out to the American media and experts, and provided them with little access or clear information at each stage of the deal’s enactment. In part this is to be expected. An eagerness to be transparent could have prevented the deal from even having been brokered given the virulent opposition to it from many quarters. But in the age of blogs and 24-hour television news, the refusal by the government to communicate led inevitably to fast-spreading but frequently inaccurate interpretations of events concerning the deal. The number of times the agreement was prematurely pronounced “dead” is staggering.

That said, the lack of transparency should not be overemphasised. Most relevant information concerning the deal could have been gleaned from public source material. Almost every aspect of the deal was examined and dissected in the Indian media and all major documents and agreements concerning the deal were made public at relevant junctures.

However, the combination of opacity and lack of capacity in Washington did have some negative consequences. Among other things, it contributed indirectly to the misplaced fears concerning the India-Iran relationship, the pernicious clauses that made their way into the Hyde Act, and the widespread and frequent non-proliferation scares pertaining to the deal.

Looking further ahead, such deficiencies helped contribute to one presidential candidate’s less than enthusiastic approach to the nuclear deal. While Barack Obama’s interview in Outlook was widely heralded as signalling his approval for the deal, the candidate’s wording should not inspire much confidence. “I had some concerns about the non-proliferation aspects of the original agreement when it was debated in Congress,” Obama said. “I will continue to make sure that our respective strategic, non-proliferation, and energy and environment interests are all advanced by the ultimate deal...The existing agreement effectively balanced a range of important issues — from our strategic relationship with India to our non-proliferation concerns to India’s energy needs. I am therefore reluctant to seek changes.” That hardly reads like a ringing endorsement.

When the histories of the nuclear agreement are written (as indeed some already are), they should note that the difficulties in seeing through the nuclear deal were at least in small part due to such factors.