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Writing in defence of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is not exactly a situation I had ever envisioned myself to be in. The treaty is merely an expression of the geo-strategic interests of the United States and established an international system of nuclear apartheid. The agreement has proven to be flexible when required, allowing at least two states to acquire nuclear weapons under Washington’s watchful eye; similar understanding was also shown when nuclear arsenals were increased and modernised in contradiction to the sentiments of the NPT.

So why not let the treaty waste away? From the (Waltzian) perspective of Indian strategic interests, Delhi’s failure to sign the treaty will be repeatedly used by those opposed to nuclear energy in general and those specifically against the advancement of the Indian nuclear programme as the litmus test of the sincerity of the country’s profession of peaceful use. At every nuclear negotiation, in multiple fora, Delhi will have to reiterate its commitment to peaceful uses of nuclear energy and reaffirm its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing. This is the proverbial blood in the water for anti-nuclear activists and anti-India lobbyists.

Today, India has attained the status of a de facto nuclear power. It is not a signatory of the NPT but as a member of several other international nuclear conventions and bilateral agreements, it can still very quickly find itself under sanctions if it were to upset the nuclear cart by, say, conducting another series of nuclear tests or cooperating with other states beyond the limitations of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. A defunct NPT will give it greater strategic manoeuvrability should it feel the for such options. So why not let the treaty waste away?

In the ideal world, within the bounds of reality, India would be a member of the NPT as a nuclear weapons state. However, in the foreseeable future, India will remain a nuclear Trishanku, as the price for its delay in crossing the nuclear Rubicon. The Indo-US nuclear deal, however, mitigates many of the inconveniences of this situation: just a few years ago, India found it difficult to buy nuclear reactors and fuel in the international market but vendors are making a beeline to Delhi since as at least two dozen new projects seem to be in the pipeline.

With increasing concern about climate change, the astronomical oil prices over the past ten years, and the need for more energy as India, China, and other economies continue to grow, nuclear power has seen a renaissance despite the (misplaced) fears after Fukushima. With over 65 reactors under construction and at least another 35 in advanced stages of planning, the last time the nuclear industry has seen so many orders was in the 1980s. Although Italy has yet again voted to outlaw nuclear power and Europe’s largest economy, Germany, is phasing it out, China, Russia, and India have embarked on a massive expansion plan. Several states in Eastern Europe have also chosen to expand their nuclear facilities, albeit at a more moderate pace. New countries like Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, and Vietnam and entering into agreements with international nuclear vendors for nuclear training, reactors, and fuel.

Nuclear status

In the absence of the NPT, newcomers to the nuclear club would have more leeway to develop their military programmes. Significant controls may still be imposed via bilateral agreements, close monitoring of nuclear commerce, and unilateral restraint in the sales of dual use items. Yet not all vendor states will be equally scrupulous; for some, geostrategic considerations will motivate the transfer of sensitive technology to other states. Some nuclear vendors, particularly the poorer states, may be swayed by the pecuniary benefits of such trade; others might simply be compelled by competition to make a sale.

Most countries will not proceed towards militarising the atom; the statistical success of the NPT is based on exactly this reality that neither Luxembourg nor Benin nor Fiji nor Costa Rica desire nuclear arsenals. However, there are a few that might consider crossing the threshold or augmenting their nascent capabilities under the right circumstances. After all, India’s nuclear bomb emerged, despite its reluctance, out of a confluence of circumstances and there is no reason to believe other countries would think differently.

Domino theories are usually scoffed at until they happen; there is ample literature on how domino theories are poor predictions of international events and that is largely true. However, dominoes have been known to fall: one instance where it is hard to deny a domino effect is the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union; another is the spread of nuclear weapons from the United States to the Soviet Union, from both the superpowers to China to India and finally to Pakistan. The most obvious region for the next potential domino is West Asia.

Several analysts ridicule the notion that Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia will follow Iran across the nuclear Rubicon. While I agree in the first two cases, the third example is harder to dismiss. It will be very hard under the present nuclear regime for Saudi Arabia to stealthily develop or acquire nuclear weapons but in a world without the NPT, it would not be unthinkable. It is in India’s interest that such a ripple effect be dampened to the fullest extent.

As a Waltzian, I cannot complain about the spread of nuclear weapons; there is no need, however, on my part to encourage it among states one cannot fully trust.  While a Japanese bomb does not threaten India and a Saudi bomb hardly constrains its military operational capabilities, the fear remains that such a shield will allow Riyadh to continue to flirt with non-state actors against Indian interests. Delhi already experiences this with Pakistan to its great cost and would hardly like to see another similar player emerge. Delhi may not even be on Riyadh’s radar but may be injured by shrapnel from the latter’s balance of power game with Tehran.

The scenario above is far-fetched but that is precisely because of the NPT. India has been its victim but it has also been its beneficiary. It is for this reason that despite remaining outside the treaty, India has followed its guidelines admirably and better than some of its members. This is something Indian strategists, lawmakers, and public ought to keep in mind as they keep tabs the goings on at the NPT Review Conference that is in session in New York right now.