NSG Membership: Why hesitations of history matter

The art of persuasion works only when the ground is prepared and there is a degree of satisfaction for all parties involved. India’s NSG push violated this sacred principle.

June 29, 2016 01:17 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:13 pm IST

Brexit, a >seismic moment in Europe , came as a blessing in disguise for India as it came on the same day as the setback in Seoul. >India’s miscalculation on the >Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership bid paled into insignificance compared to the British Prime Minister’s >misadventure in holding a referendum on the U.K.’s membership of the European Union. Otherwise there would have been greater criticism of the foreign policy fiasco, which not only resulted in a rebuff to India but also gave a veto to China on India’s nuclear credentials and >hyphenated India and Pakistan . Moreover, we have elevated NSG membership to such heights that it appears more important and urgent than other items on our wish list such as permanent membership of the UN Security Council, signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a nuclear weapon state, and membership of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

Keeping credibility intact The Seoul experience should be a lesson in multilateral diplomacy for India. First and foremost, credibility is the hallmark of success in the international community. Policy changes should appear slow, deliberate and logical. Sudden shifts and turns are viewed with suspicion. India had a fundamental position that our objective is disarmament and not merely non-proliferation. Not signing the NPT and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty arose from the conviction that arms control is not a substitute to disarmament. Distancing ourselves from NPT-centred entities was also part of that philosophy. Rejection of discriminatory regimes and selective controls appeared logical and just. Even after declaring ourselves as a nuclear weapon state, our readiness for nuclear disarmament maintained our credibility.

T. P. Sreenivasan

Our sudden anxiety to join the NSG and other non-proliferation groupings is a departure from the traditional Indian position, particularly since we have not fully utilised the waiver given to us by the NSG. An invitation by the U.S. was not enough to justify our enthusiasm for membership, and canvassing at the highest level in selected countries made matters worse. Having applied for membership only in May this year, we did not allow ourselves time to explain the rationale of our policy change, not only to the NSG members but also the other adherents to the NPT. This explains the hesitation of many friendly countries to support us. Any indication of change in the non-proliferation architecture makes them nervous.

The fact that many Indian initiatives have been successful in the multilateral arena should not lead us into assuming automatic support for our suggestions and requests. Many of our initiatives in the UN in the initial years, such as decolonisation, disarmament, development, human rights and apartheid, were more for the common good rather than for our own sake. Problems arise when we seek advantages and concessions to ourselves, like in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, non-proliferation and Bangladesh or when our positions are perceived as siding with another major power, as in Afghanistan and Cambodia.

Our positions on self-determination and terrorism are not fully appreciated in the international community as yet. It was with patience, persistence and extraordinary diplomatic skills that India had managed to steer clear of embarrassment or rebuff. Approaching multilateralism with an illusion of grandeur or presumption of justice, fair play and reasonableness may be hazardous.

Spreading itself thin Having a powerful nation to pilot matters of importance to us is helpful, but even the U.S. does not always get its way in the multilateral bodies which require a majority vote or consensus. It loses votes in the UN General Assembly not only on substantive issues but also in elections. Since the real power is in the Security Council, the permanent five manage to wield power there, but wherever votes are of equal value, there is no guarantee that they can get support automatically. The votaries of non-proliferation tend to be more loyal than the king and they are aghast that the U.S. appears to be undermining the regime that it had built. In 2008, they went along when the U.S. moved heaven and earth to get India a waiver to secure the nuclear deal, but this time they felt India was overreaching itself. They were not supporting China when they opposed India’s admission but merely proclaiming their faith. Brazil, South Africa, Austria and Switzerland are serious nations with extraordinary commitment to the NPT, which they consider to be the cornerstone of international security.

Another lesson India should have known is the undesirability of pursuing too many objectives at the same time. India’s claim for a permanent seat on the Security Council as part of the exercise to reflect the realities of global power is well understood, though a global compact to accomplish it is still elusive. Our pressing the point in the appropriate forums is considered legitimate, but any effort to press it to a vote to embarrass and pressurise anyone is bound to fail. At one time, India made an attempt to have a vote in the General Assembly to secure a two-thirds majority just to embarrass the permanent members. But the effort failed when the opposition came not from the permanent members, but from the African Group. The art of persuasion works only when the ground is prepared and there is a degree of satisfaction for all parties involved. Our NSG push in the last two months violated this sacred principle.

In bilateral relations, the reality of power is what matters and deals can be struck on the basis of give and take. But the dynamics of multilateral diplomacy depend on equations that go beyond the actual size and power of individual countries. Often, clever use of the rules of procedure alone can bestow extraordinary powers on nations. India has no shortage of experts in multilateral diplomacy to handle such matters, but it appears that they have no say in decision-making. They end up getting impossible briefs and misinformation regarding assurances received from the capitals and operate in a vacuum.

India could have pursued membership of the NSG quietly, without making any claims of support from anyone. It appears that there is a feeling in the U.S. circles of getting India entangled in the non-proliferation net instead of leaving it alone to work on the basis of the nuclear deal and the NSG waiver. We should have handled the issue with dignified detachment and waited for a consensus to emerge among the interested countries. If only we had played by the rules of the multilateral game, the Seoul fiasco could have been turned into a victory.

T.P. Sreenivasan is a former ambassador who has represented India at the United Nations in New York, Nairobi and Vienna.

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