This opinion piece ran in Newsday on March 12, 2006.
By Vincent Ferraro
The nuclear agreement between the United States and India signals a change in the Bush administration's foreign policy from a unilateralism based upon a sense of strength to one which frankly admits the limits of American power.
The president has agreed to overturn the long-standing U.S. policy of discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons technology by enforcing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty has had a spotty record since taking effect in 1970 -- India itself became a nuclear power without ever having signed it. Nonetheless, it has provided a framework for containing the spread of nuclear weapons in most of the world.
The agreement concedes what the world has known for some time: India is a nuclear power. But legitimating India's status with an end-run around the treaty undercuts one of the treaty's main objectives: to make outcasts of non-signees who test nuclear weapons, subjecting them to sanctions, as India has been since it tested a weapon in the late 1990s.
Why undermine the treaty when we know that Iran and North Korea are clearly intent on developing nuclear weapons, and the world seems to agree that such changes pose unacceptable risks to regional and global stability? The answer was provided by President George W. Bush when the agreement was announced: "things change, times change."
Indian policy, however, had not changed. It was U.S. policy that had changed, to reveal a radically different view of how the administration views the limits of its power in world affairs.
When the Bush administration took office, many within it believed U.S. power had been unjustifiably constrained by international commitments. The neoconservative consensus was that U.S. power should be used to defend aggressively the interests and values of the American people, and that international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and the International Criminal Court, were obstacles to those ends.
This approach was plausible only if American power was sufficient to achieve its goals without international support and if the costs of exercising power were low. This belief underpinned the invasion of Iraq, and was fatally flawed.
American military and financial resources now are strained almost to the breaking point, and the rest of the world has noticed and begun to take advantage of U.S. weakness.
The United States is still extraordinarily powerful, but it is profoundly overcommitted. There are explanations for the over-commitments -- the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush tax cuts - but those explanations do not alter the conclusion: America's ability to act is now severely limited.
The process is similar to the combination of commitments to Vietnam and to tax cuts and Great Society spending under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, in which unfettered aspirations slowly led to strategic and fiscal disasters.
Negotiating with Iran is difficult now because U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are hostage to possible Iranian actions and influence over insurgent elements inside both countries. America's ability to influence Chinese trading practices is constrained by the $810 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds held by the Chinese government. Russian adventurism, Venezuelan bravado, Taiwanese brinksmanship -- all are examples of countries exploiting the vacuums created by U.S. limitations.
With its latest agreement, the administration accepted the reality of Indian power, but received nothing in return. The deal even endorses India's commitment to developing fast-breeder reactors, which are best suited for making plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Bush held the nonproliferation line with respect to Pakistan during his recent visit, but do not be surprised if, at some point soon, that country, which also never signed the non-proliferation treaty, demands a similar deal.
Like the Richard Nixon/Henry Kissinger prescription of realpolitik after the unsustainable foreign commitments made by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the Bush administration has been forced into a less ambitious foreign policy, guided by the more limited and focused tenets of political realism. This is a point of view familiar to Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. Neoconservative ambitions are no longer sustainable in the post Iraq-war world.
Vincent Ferraro is a professor of international politics at Mount Holyoke College.