An Agni V missile is shown being launched from Wheeler Island in India. (DRDO / EPA )
"We urge all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear capabilities," a State Department spokesman said last month after India successfully blasted its new long-range Agni 5 missile into the Bay of Bengal. But he quickly softened the admonishment: "That said, India has a solid nonproliferation record."
Washington's oddly relaxed approach to India's nuclear program goes back to 2008, when Congress approved the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. Under it, India agreed to separate its military and civil nuclear facilities and to place the latter under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards in exchange for a U.S. guarantee to work toward full civil nuclear cooperation with New Delhi. Today India is still the only country to have been accommodated in this way since the establishment of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968.
In 2008, as a member of the House who sat on all of the major security committees, I was concerned about the quiet acceptance of India's nuclear activities that the agreement represented. I was one of 59 representatives who opposed it. Four years later, India's missile test leaves me even more troubled by Washington's tacit acceptance of New Delhi's nuclear program.
The timing of the launch was puzzling to say the least. It came just one week afterNorth Korea'sfailed missile test, which cost that country 240,000 metric tons of food aid — estimated to be worth $200 million — that Washington had promised in February.
India has an explicitly stated no-first-use policy and is widely viewed as a U.S. security ally. But that doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye to India's actions. It was noticed around the world that Washington reacted so strongly against one missile test in the region while essentially turning a blind eye to another. Pakistan quickly followed with its own missile test and is believed to be expanding its already large nuclear arsenal at a time when its government is fragile and U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a low point.
These tests also occurred just a month before a second round of talks scheduled to take place between Iran and the U.S., China, France, Britain, Russia and Germany. Why, Iran might wonder, should it dismantle its nuclear program if India, which also once faced tough U.S. sanctions, can now get away with firing a long-range missile?
A North Korean foreign minister made an uncomfortably similar point a few months after the brutal death of Moammar Kadafi. "The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson," the foreign minister said in defense of his country's nuclear program. North Korea's songun ideology of a powerful military was "proper in a thousand ways," he stressed, and the only guarantor of peace on the Korean peninsula.
In other words, leaders be warned: Dismantle your nuclear program in response to international pressure and you'll find yourself dismantled, perhaps at the hands of your own people.
In Tokyo last month, an Indian policymaker told me there was nothing significant about the timing of India's missile test — that New Delhi had been planning it for a long time. It may be that India, and now Pakistan, thinks such conduct, the byproduct of a long-strained relationship, will not affect events outside of their sandbox. This myopic view is dangerous.
In recent weeks, the word "wary" appeared in many reports about New Delhi's missile launch. "India, wary of Beijing, tests nuclear-capable missile," one headline read. Other articles noted that "China and Pakistan reacted warily" and that the U.S. had issued a "wary" endorsement.
But "wary" may not be wise. Just as the killing of Kadafi in Libya may teach that giving up weapons of mass destruction makes you vulnerable, so these tests — without serious responses — may also spur reckless conduct. Wisdom counsels zero tolerance.
Jane Harman is director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was a nine-term congresswoman from California and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee from 2002 to '06.