Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Is the Obama administration undermining its own nuclear proliferation policy?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal sounded an alarm over a nuclear energy cooperation agreement being negotiated between the United States and Vietnam. One observer warned that the deal could "drive a stake through the heart of the general effort to rein in the spread of nuclear fuel-making." According to the WSJ, the Obama administration ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Last week, the Wall Street Journal sounded an alarm over a nuclear energy cooperation agreement being negotiated between the United States and Vietnam. One observer warned that the deal could "drive a stake through the heart of the general effort to rein in the spread of nuclear fuel-making." According to the WSJ, the Obama administration is backing away from requiring that Vietnam forego any capability to enrich uranium -- a process that can be used to make reactor fuel or nuclear weapons.  

Such a requirement is central to a similar agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which was widely praised as a model for future cooperation as nuclear energy becomes more widespread. Indeed, in testifying on behalf of that agreement, Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher said, "Other supplier states will hopefully follow our lead and include the no-enrichment/no-reprocessing obligation in their own nuclear cooperation agreements." 

Why would the Obama administration, which boasts a deep commitment to preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, suddenly undermine this key policy?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal sounded an alarm over a nuclear energy cooperation agreement being negotiated between the United States and Vietnam. One observer warned that the deal could "drive a stake through the heart of the general effort to rein in the spread of nuclear fuel-making." According to the WSJ, the Obama administration is backing away from requiring that Vietnam forego any capability to enrich uranium — a process that can be used to make reactor fuel or nuclear weapons.  

Such a requirement is central to a similar agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which was widely praised as a model for future cooperation as nuclear energy becomes more widespread. Indeed, in testifying on behalf of that agreement, Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher said, "Other supplier states will hopefully follow our lead and include the no-enrichment/no-reprocessing obligation in their own nuclear cooperation agreements." 

Why would the Obama administration, which boasts a deep commitment to preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, suddenly undermine this key policy?

 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration offers a weak defense of its apparent about face, "We will take different approaches region by region and country by country." Worse, the argument seems to confirm charges by the Non-Aligned Movement that U.S. nonproliferation policy is discriminatory and riddled with double standards. The reality is less stark. 

Negotiators originally completed the civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the UAE at the end of the Bush administration, but left it to the Obama administration to forward the pact to Congress for final approval.Eager to prove that they were more committed or more competent than their predecessors, the Obama team insisted on modifying the deal. One change was to move a political commitment not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing from the preamble of the agreement to the body of the text, making it binding. Anxious to gain approval for the agreement, and to avoid another embarrassment like the Dubai Ports World fiasco, the UAE readily acceded.

But when U.S. negotiators sat down with other nations, such as Vietnam and Jordan, they were met with implacable opposition to anything that would appear to curtail "the inalienable right of all of the Parties to the [Nonproliferation] Treaty to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination…" In effect, the Obama administration had to back off its fix to the UAE agreement and return to the Bush administration approach.

They rationalized their flexibility by telling the Journal, "If we’re able to have U.S. companies and technologies in play in Vietnam, this gives the ability to exert some leverage. If we shut ourselves out, others may have different standards." This, of course, was exactly the conclusion drawn by Bush administration policy makers in drawing up the original UAE agreement, which sought only a political commitment foregoing enrichment, and in seeking to use it as a model for future deals.

The larger significance of the matter is less about nonproliferation, and more about the administration’s continuing foreign policy evolution. It is another in a series of issues in which reality beggars rhetoric, and oft-denigrated policy from the previous administration is demonstrated to be sensible and realistic.

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was most recently deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

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