The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is the world’s leading rulemaking body for nuclear trade. But what is its mission? Should it be a universal export-control organization incorporating all countries that have nuclear capabilities and materials? Or should it instead be a group of “like-minded” states dedicated to upholding nearly-universal global nonproliferation norms and principles? When the NSG meets for its annual plenary in Seattle next week, much of the discussion about the group’s future will turn on this question.

The NSG was established in London in 1975 by seven advanced nations with similar nuclear fuel cycle capabilities in response to concerns that existing nuclear technology trade rules and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would not prevent proliferation. This concern was not an idle one. The previous year India had flouted its “peaceful-use” assurances to the United States and Canada by using plutonium from a Canadian-supplied research reactor (to which the United States supplied the heavy water) in a nuclear explosive test. At its birth, the so-called London Club did not have a clear identity as either a trade regulator or a nonproliferation group.

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
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But a clearer identity—and an answer to the question posed at the outset—will soon be required as the NSG faces a fork in the road over new membership. The NSG makes all decisions by consensus. That was a relatively simple feat with just seven members, but today, NSG membership has grown to 46 states on six continents. These countries have diverging national interests. Some are nuclear-armed; some firmly oppose nuclear weapons. Half are without nuclear power reactors and no true nuclear industries. Some of the nuclear-powered states are robust nuclear exporters. In the coming years, membership is likely to increase further, taking in nuclear newcomers wary that more export controls will thwart their economic and technological development and potentially curtail the “rights” of all states to peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

In recent years, these differences have threatened the formation of consensus over new guidelines for sensitive exports and over a 2008 request by the United States to lift nuclear trade sanctions against India—three decades after the NSG had been set up expressly to respond to India’s test of a nuclear explosive. The United States now wants India to join the group as a full member, launching an internal debate over criteria for NSG membership. With the United States chairing the group this year, Indian leaders apparently expect Washington to give “final impetus” to Indian membership, at least according to Indian media reporting on the just-concluded U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue.

The NSG participating governments therefore have some serious thinking to do about the identity of the group and, fundamentally, what its mission should be. The debate over Indian membership provoked by Washington comes down to two apparently opposing points of view: that the NSG should reflect the will of a group of like-minded states dedicated to common global nuclear nonproliferation norms versus the idea that the NSG should focus on trade controls and therefore bring into its fold all states that can export nuclear technology, materials, and equipment.

Like-Minded States Dedicated to Nuclear Nonproliferation

At a time when global political will to enforce nonproliferation is faltering, and other multilateral instruments, such as the Conference on Disarmament, have become moribund, the NSG remains a critical body. Nuclear trade controls remain an important barrier to onward proliferation and the NSG is in the driver’s seat in negotiating stronger trade practices. But were India to become a member of the NSG, it would be the only member that is not also a member of the NPT, a nearly universal treaty with 189 members and the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime.

Toby Dalton
Dalton is the co-director and a senior fellow of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. An expert on nonproliferation and nuclear energy, his work addresses regional security challenges and the evolution of the global nuclear order.

In 1995, most of the treaty’s advanced nuclear states succeeded in getting the NPT extended indefinitely just before it was due to expire. Opponents of the extension, cheered on by India and Pakistan, were defeated after the champions for indefinite extension made certain commitments. These included a pledge made individually by all NSG members to condition new nuclear trade agreements on full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, meaning that states outside the NPT would not be eligible for nuclear trade. Since 1995, during NPT review conferences held every five years—most recently in 2010—NSG governments reiterated these commitments and the implicit understanding that the NPT should be the ultimate yardstick for the world’s nuclear exporters.

As a long-time target of the nonproliferation regime, India does not share the sense of mission that other members—especially longstanding NSG members—have embraced. If it were to become an NSG member, India would also be expected to uphold the full-scope safeguards requirement and other trade restrictions it opposed for many years. Little in India’s past behavior suggests it would become an advocate for stronger controls—it’s more likely that India would seek to loosen guidelines for trade. Unlike all other NSG members, India has not signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (the United States and China have signed but not ratified the treaty) and is still producing fissile materials to make nuclear weapons. Most importantly, because of the NSG’s consensus rule, India could block any future initiative in the group to strengthen NSG guidelines or commodity control lists to respond to new procurement or proliferation threats.

All Nuclear Exporters Focused on Trade Controls

When the NSG was established, one of its primary aims was to include France—a country with nuclear weapons and fuel cycle capabilities outside the NPT—into the international export control regime. At the time France planned to export a plutonium separation plant to Pakistan, a country that was launching a program to develop nuclear weapons. After it joined the NSG, France abandoned its exports to Pakistan and other states seeking latent capabilities. France later joined the NPT.

During the early 2000s, the NSG took a similar forward-looking decision regarding China. Unlike India, China had joined the NPT (as a nuclear-weapon state) but it was a country with a poor nonproliferation history. Nonetheless, the NSG’s members invited China to join the group anticipating that Beijing would honor that invitation by halting its nuclear assistance to Pakistan and other countries reaching for latent nuclear capabilities. Today, China is no longer a willful exporter of nuclear goods to foreign unsafeguarded nuclear programs (its power reactor exports to Pakistan, while not consistent with NSG rules, are at least under IAEA safeguards).

The decision in 2008 to lift nuclear trade sanctions against India had a similar rationale. For nearly half a century, NSG sanctions had failed to prevent India from developing a home-grown nuclear industry including power reactors, breeder reactor technology, a complete nuclear fuel cycle, and nuclear weapons. What’s more, India was preparing to enter foreign nuclear industry markets as an exporter. Especially because India had refrained from exporting nuclear goods to unsafeguarded nuclear programs elsewhere, proponents of the India exception argued that bringing India into the group would firm up India’s export control credentials, bringing it into the nonproliferation “mainstream.”

For the same reasons, NSG countries are mulling the prospect that, at some future time, Pakistan—which failed to halt a massive diversion of its nuclear know-how to foreign clandestine nuclear programs—could join the group. A Pakistan inside the NSG and abiding by its guidelines would be less threatening than a Pakistan outside the global export control regime. Beyond that, if the purpose of the group is to include all nuclear exporters and technology holders, there is also an argument for Iran’s membership, given that it is a holder and potential exporter of uranium enrichment technology.

The NSG’s Future

Is the NSG stronger with non-NPT states like India in or out? Those who want India “in” want the NSG to become a bigger tent. The NSG would be a trade regulation body, not a nonproliferation mechanism, but it might also become less effective. Those who want to keep India (and by extension Pakistan and Israel) “out” believe the NSG is first and foremost about nonproliferation principles and that these principles should not be watered down by admitting states that are not NPT members. There are merits to both arguments and proponents in both corners. Of course, this may not be an either/or issue and a consensus may emerge over time. But the need to consider future membership for non-NPT states provides a useful framework for thinking about the identity and future of the NSG

This issue will not be decided in Seattle as right now there is no consensus among NSG members and most are not keen to force the matter to a hasty conclusion. Because many states are eager to cement relations with a rising India, however, it may ultimately be just a matter of time before India’s critics concede defeat, as they did in agreeing to lift NSG sanctions against India in 2008.

But many NSG members do not want to experience the same level of diplomatic pressure from India and the United States that was applied at that time. They want India itself to make its case on nonproliferation grounds alone. India could do this by providing “incentives” it did not offer in 2008, especially halting production of fissile material for weapons and signing the test-ban treaty, and India could more effectively implement pledges it made in 2008 to obtain the exception, such as the full application of IAEA safeguards. These steps would reduce tension between NSG members and other NPT states.

If India is let in, it will be imperative to prevent political gridlock that may result when changes to export guidelines are considered, and find other means to ensure that exporters and technology holders can effectively respond to future procurement threats and technological challenges. New groupings of states might be formed to identify gaps and formulate stronger practices on, for instance, nuclear safeguards and deterring nuclear hedging by states accumulating all the technology and materials needed for nuclear weapons but without crossing the line.

Whatever the NSG’s role, exporters and technology holders must be able to flexibly respond to an evolving nuclear trade environment. It is therefore better not to rush Indian membership when there is no imperative to do so. Rather, NSG governments should take time to consider the implications of future membership on the effectiveness of the group, to observe whether India’s behavior is broadly “like-minded” on nonproliferation, and to encourage India to demonstrate its case for membership through consistent actions. This is one instance when taking no decision is better than making a snap judgment.