What with the election and being employed full-time, I haven't been paying much attention to the US/India/Australia uranium dealings. For shame: I missed this important development in the story. Basically, the India-US uranium deal is now on hold, and Australia, never one to be out of lockstep with our great friends across the Pacific, is also reviewing our recently-announced intention to carve out our own uranium trading arrangement with India.
Nuclear power is a complicated issue, and I'm not inclined to indulge in kneejerk leftism on the subject. I don't remember the MAD tensions of the Cold War, and I'm not the kind of greenie who thinks the nuclear power option should be out of the question. But two things seems clear to me: selling uranium to India, which refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, was a poor idea from the outset; and not selling uranium to India on the US say-so is an extraordinary admission of our guiding foreign policy principles.
Nuclear proliferation is one of those international policy arenas in which multilateralism is nothing short of vital. By that I mean true multilateralism, of the UN-respecting, treaty-abiding, hippie peacenik variety, rather than multilateralism of you-scratch-India's-back-I'll-scratch-yours variety our leaders seem to prefer. One of the chief offences of the Bush administration – and it's a crowded field – is his trashing of internationalist principles at every opportunity: refusing to ratify Kyoto, invading Iraq without a Security Council mandate, appointing a UN-hating cowboy as the US ambassador to the UN. Each of these was a mistake. And every step of the way – save the Bolton appointment, which wasn't really a replicable act – Deputy Sheriff Howard has been right there behind him.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is, to be sure, an inequitable instrument, entrenching as it does the nuclear weaponry rights of the recognised states while prohibiting other countries from being allowed the same. But it's an inequitable instrument to which we are nevertheless signatory, in much the same way as the UN is a flawed institution of which we are nevertheless part; and whatever we may think of the terms of the NPT, we can surely agree that less nukes are better than more. India's case against the NPT probably has some merit, but the fact of the matter is that an India testing nuclear weapons close to the Pakistani border is not an India that should receive the imprimatur of international recognition for its nuclear program.
Which brings us to the question of respect for international law. The NPT states quite clearly that signatory nations should not supply uranium to non-signatory nations. There are very good reasons for this provision, not least a general interest in the continuation of life on earth. As the World's Only Superpower, the US is acting irresponsibly when it flies in the fact of international institutions. As a small nation with limited capacity to defend itself, Australia is acting stupidly. The US alliance is indisputably important, but the rule of international law is even more so. If the terms of the NPT didn't stop us from wanting to sell uranium to India, stopping because the US has suddenly developed cold feet is just plain embarrassing. It's tantamount to saying that the current policy of the US government is more important than longstanding multilateral treaties. Which would be a terrible precedent, except that it's not new: it's just an extension of the policy the Howard government has been following all along.
So we might not sell uranium to India after all. But we've lost much of the moral suasion that is the basis for multilateral agreements like the NPT, and in doing so, undermined the entire system. It's not like we weren't willing to bend the rules for the sake of making some extra cash - it's just that it didn't turn out to be convenient after all. How willing do you think the non-signatory nations will be to submit to NPT controls now?