Ideally, a state should ring the United Nation’s or the International Atomic Energy Agency’s doorbell if it desires access to peaceful nuclear technology. These bodies have universal or near-universal membership and could respond to these requests with uniform criteria. Instead, a cartel of 48 countries is in charge of regulating the export of these sensitive technologies, and it provides access only to like-minded countries, even if they might not fit the bill of the already subjective criteria.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a voluntary association of states that aims to ensure that nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The group first met in November 1975 in response to India’s first nuclear test, which used fuel illegally diverted from a nuclear reactor that was supplied to India for peaceful uses. The group operates through the principle of consensus and its guidelines are implemented by each participant in accordance with its national laws.
The guidelines regulate the transfer of dual-use equipment, material, and technology that could contribute to unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle or nuclear explosive activities. Membership criteria include the ability to supply items specified in the guidelines, adherence to the guidelines, and enforcement of a domestic export control regime. Additionally, members must be in full compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or another international nonproliferation agreement.
However, membership criteria have been selectively enforced to suit the goals of the existing NSG members. In 2008, as part of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, India was given permission to conduct trade with NSG members after receiving a waiver, despite not being a member of the NPT or allowing IAEA inspections. It is difficult to comprehend how an organization that was created in reaction to India’s proliferation record can bend its so-called principles and allow trade with India.
In exchange for the 2008 waiver, the United States made India agree to work toward the early negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), in a bid to make India commit to stronger nonproliferation norms. However, India still continues to produce fissile material at a very fast rate in its strategic weapons program and is now enriching uranium under the pretense of producing nuclear fuel for a reactor in Rattehali for India’s nuclear submarine program. There are no safeguards on its enrichment program that verify that the material it produces for this reactor is not diverted for the production of strategic weapons. Furthermore, the United States recently agreed to India’s demand that India no longer be obligated to allow tracking of nuclear supplies. This case is another example of how geopolitical aims of great powers can undermine the nonproliferation regime through the selective application of rules.
In order for the nuclear nonproliferation regime to work, it must aim to universalize norms and to enforce them equally. To achieve this, the NSG should build criteria for states that possess nuclear weapons and are not members of the NPT. The new criteria should seek to establish guidelines for domestic export control laws, and grant membership to countries if their domestic export regimes meet established guidelines, regardless of NPT membership. Incorporating these outlier countries would ensure uniform application of the criteria, which would strengthen the efficacy of the regime.
If NPT outliers are made part of regimes like the NSG based on updated criteria – criteria based on a country’s harmonization of domestic export control laws with established guidelines of the NSG and other regimes – such a measure would not only guarantee a uniform application of criteria, but would also help reinforce norms that currently face setbacks because of those outlier countries. The case for India’s membership of the multilateral export control regimes can here serve as an opportunity.
Pakistan is another outlier who would qualify for membership under the new criteria, and has been seeking a criteria-based approach for NSG membership. Pakistan’s control lists and export control practices take NSG guidelines into account. In the recently concluded session of the Pakistan-U.S. strategic dialogue’s Working Group on Security, Strategic Stability, and Nonproliferation, the United States “Pakistan’s efforts to harmonize its strategic trade controls with those of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other multilateral export control regimes” and “emphasized the desirability of continued outreach to integrate Pakistan into the international nonproliferation regime.” This is a welcome step.
More inclusive NSG criteria would encourage outliers to seek membership. Many of these outliers are interested in participating in nonproliferation regimes, as New Delhi’s recent application for Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) membership indicates. However, a status-conscious country like India would not apply for MTCR membership or another arrangement unless it had an assurance that it would not be embarrassed by rejection – this application may therefore indicate that the United States has once again been successful in advocating the Indian case.
Developing new criteria to incorporate outliers into the NSG would bode positively for the universalization of nonproliferation norms, and would also help shape the attitude of outliers regarding nonproliferation norms. History has been witness to the fact that the geopolitical and economic interests of great powers often take precedence over uniform enforcement of criteria. The selective enforcement of membership criteria seriously undermines the efficacy of the nonproliferation regime. If signatories of the NPT and the stalwarts of nonproliferation continue to sideline norms for their own economic and geopolitical interests, the unraveling of the nonproliferation regime is inevitable.