Obama’s Nuclear Evolution And The Indo-US Nuclear Partnership


By Lydia Walker

Over the past four years, US Senator, now President, Barak Obama’s public policies towards nuclear non-proliferation in general and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal in particular have shifted. How and when did Obama change from a critic of the Deal in 2006, to a supporter with reservations in 2008, to an advocate in 2010? Has the translation of a personal commitment to nonproliferation into pragmatic politics hampered the Obama Administration from actively strengthening the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime? Obama’s announcement on Saturday, 6 November 2010, that the US would support India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) indicates that he will continue to work around the NPT legal regime with regard to India.  However, the announcement also confirms a sustained commitment to the NPT normative framework – NSG membership is considered quite important even to a nation for whom it is largely symbolic since it is not a nuclear supplier.

In the run up to the 2008 Indo-US Nuclear Deal, some US Democrats, including (then) Senator Obama, argued against the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement. Obama supported an amendment proposed by Senator Jeff Bingamen (D-New Mexico) which would only allow US nuclear exports to India if New Delhi stopped producing fissile materials. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) called the Bingamen amendment a “killer” precondition as India was certain not to accept it since neither Pakistan nor China had halted fissile material production. When the bill in its entirety came before the Senate, Obama voted for it, but he supported two different revisions (that entered the final deal) which brought the bill more in line with the norms of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.  Obama expressed his reservations: “I have concerns with potential non-proliferation consequences of this agreement…I remain concerned about the issue of nuclear testing. A decision by the Indian government to conduct such a test could trigger an arms race in South Asia that would be extremely dangerous and destabilizing.”

During the 2008 Democratic primary, facing attacks from Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain that he was lukewarm in his support of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, Obama affirmed his support for the deal and admiration for Senator Lugar’s efforts in facilitating its passage. When he was elected, Obama’s top foreign policy picks – Clinton for Secretary of State and Robert Gates for Secretary of Defence – were strong supporters of the Deal. However, lower level administration appointees were not as united in their support. Robert Einhorn was chosen as State’s Special Advisor for Non-proliferation and Arms Control. Einhorn had argued that the second Bush administration “gave away the house” in the Indo-US Nuclear Deal: By making “India an exception to longstanding non-proliferation rules, the Bush administration ha[d] given India virtually all that it wanted and ha[d] run major risks with the future of the non-proliferation regime.” While Einhorn ended up turning down the position, his selection signalled (to some Indian commentators) that Obama Administration was sympathetic to non-proliferation traditionalists who had opposed the Deal.

Alongside with Einhorn, another “non-proliferation hawk,” (former) Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher was named Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.  Tauscher was a harsh critic of the Deal in 2008. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Tauscher said that the (then proposed) Deal would “shred” “the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty …and India’s yearly nuclear weapons production capability would likely increase from 7 bombs to 40 or 50.” However, right before the Spring 2010 NPT Review Conference, Tauscher, speaking as a spokesperson for the Obama Administration, made an about face: “We don’t believe we weakened the NPT in our peaceful civilian nuclear deal with India,” she said at a press conference. With the appointments of both Einhorn and Tauscher, the Obama Administration made gestures that it would place increased emphasis on aggressive non-proliferation. However, with Einhorn’s demurral and Tauscher’s reversal in opinion, these gestures became more evidence of the Administration’s continued commitment to the Deal.

President Obama’s oscillation on the Deal from 2006-2008 foreshadowed a pattern of personal investment in serious non-proliferation undercut by political necessity. In a phone interview immediately following Obama’s Prague Speech in the spring of 2010, Ben Rhodes – deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and the author of the Prague Speech – articulated that the President’s advocacy for non-proliferation was personal and dated from Obama’s student days. The Speech was an opportunity to put long held personal beliefs before an international audience.

On non-proliferation and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, Obama has tried to span the divide between hard-line NPT enforcement and NPT regime evolution over time. He has made a non-proliferation bet that the NPT regime is not a currency that can be debased by adulteration; instead, it is a culture that can be enhanced through diversity.{jcomments on}

Lydia Walker, Research Intern, IPCS, and may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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