WASHINGTON — Perhaps nowhere else do American foreign policymakers face more contradictions than in the area stretching from Israel to Korea. There is no country in this expanse that we would not like on our side, whether in the United Nations, regional disputes, or the war on terror. Yet if we try to please one, we alienate another or, more likely, several others.
These multiple dilemmas are strikingly illustrated by a decision the Bush administration made last month when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Washington. The US, President Bush announced, will share civilian nuclear technology with India - something successive American administrations have resisted. This policy shift weakens American nuclear nonproliferation policy, and it puts the US with India in its dispute with neighboring Pakistan. And ultimately it can affect American interests in the war on terror in Pakistan and in the nuclear crisis in North Korea.
US efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons began in the late 1940s. In part this reflected the horror of the weapon, but it was also spurred by the wartime secrecy that surrounded America's own Manhattan Project. That secrecy continues to this day. What it overlooks is that the nature of scientific knowledge is such that it cannot be protected or controlled. If citizens of one country can learn physics, so can citizens of any other country. Given the spread of nuclear weapons, American nonproliferation policy must be called a failure.
To many third-world countries, attaining the status of a nuclear power carries a desirable prestige. To some, it is a religious matter. Once in a meeting in Islamabad, a Pakistani put it this way: "You," he said to me but meaning the United States, "have a Christian bomb. The Israelis have a Jewish bomb. Why can't we have a Muslim bomb?"
He was not satisfied when I told him that most Americans didn't see any Christianity in nuclear warfare. Now he's probably thinking that we are helping India get a Hindu bomb. Hindu or not, India has had nuclear weapons for a number of years; Pakistan has had them for a shorter time. Given the rivalry of these two countries over Kashmir, and their general dislike for each other, this is a dangerous combination.
The national prestige that many attach to nuclear weapons is why US policy - with respect even to peaceful uses of nuclear technology - is so important. And it's especially critical in cases where it's seen to be helping one country over another - as in the US decision to share civilian nuclear technology with Pakistan's biggest rival, India. Within days of 9/11, President Pervez Musharraf pledged Pakistan's support in the war on terror - but how is he supposed to react now that the US appears to be shifting support to India?
The new policy, intended to build up India as a regional counterweight to China, also complicates US-China relations at a time when the US needs China's help in the region on several issues. Most important is China's help in persuading North Korea to drop its own nuclear plans. But another issue of no small significance has to do with trade and the dollar-yuan exchange rate.
If the US strengthens India vis-à-vis China, it will upset the balance of power between India and Pakistan. This comes after more than 30 years during which US policy has tilted (President Nixon's word) toward Pakistan. Ironically, this was in recognition of Pakistani help in arranging Henry Kissinger's secret mission to China to open the way for Nixon's groundbreaking trip.
China has also been courting India and has promised to support a permanent seat for India on an enlarged United Nations Security Council. This is more than the US has done.
One must also ask where this new policy leaves the old US policy of discouraging other nuclear sales, as, for example, from Europe and China to Iran.
There is, however, another side to this problem, and that has to do with the Bush policy of spreading freedom and democracy worldwide. India is the largest democracy in Asia. It has a record of democratic political stability going back to independence nearly 60 years ago.
This can be matched by only a few countries outside Western Europe and North America. There have been many bumps in US-Indian relations during this period; but withal, India is the kind of country that the Bush doctrine says deserves our support.
• Pat M. Holt is a former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.