Politics & Policy

America’s Nuclear Vietnam

The Obama administration has botched its atomic negotiations with Hanoi.

In Washington, government officials rarely (if ever) admit to making policy mistakes, even when they’ve clearly botched things up. Take Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent decision to bless a formal civilian nuclear-cooperation agreement with Vietnam.

Secretary Clinton endorsed the deal in Hanoi without demanding — as Washington recently did with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — that Vietnam forswear making nuclear fuel, a process that can bring states within days or weeks of acquiring nuclear weapons.

This immediately raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Just months before, State Department officials had pitched the UAE agreement as the new “gold standard” for nuclear-cooperation pacts worldwide. After getting briefed on the Vietnam deal, Hill staffers on both sides of aisle feared Foggy Bottom was throwing in the towel on nonproliferation.

State could have taken its points and sent U.S. diplomats back quietly to get the tougher UAE conditions. Instead, supporters of the Vietnam accord dug in their heels.

First, they claimed that the deal in no way changed U.S. policy. Washington, they argued, never intended to push the UAE conditions outside of the Middle East.

In fact, the U.S. struck the UAE deal in pursuance of a country-neutral approach to sharing civilian nuclear technology that President Bush and Russia’s Vladimir Putin announced back in July 2007. Their joint declaration aimed to promote civilian nuclear cooperation globally while trying to convince states lacking nuclear weapons to forgo making nuclear fuel.

Throughout 2008, U.S. diplomats offered nuclear-power deals and sought no-nuclear-fuel-making pledges, not only from the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, but also from Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Taking this international approach helped address Arab concerns that the U.S. had one nonproliferation standard for them and another for everyone else.

Which brings us to the second official defense of treating Vietnam differently. “Given . . . the genuine threat of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” a senior State Department official told the Wall Street Journal, “we believe the U.A.E. . . . agreement is a model for the region,” but “these same concerns do not specifically apply in Asia.”

How’s that? Last month, Secretary Clinton blew the whistle on North Korea’s possible assistance to a covert Burmese nuclear-weapons effort. Also, since 1990, the U.S. and its allies have pressed Pyongyang to give up its nuclear-weapons activities, lest those activities goad South Korea or Japan to go nuclear.

Seoul, which U.S. officials have caught covertly attempting to make nuclear weapons at least twice, now wants to produce its own nuclear fuel. Japan already does produce its own fuel and has stockpiled at least 1,000 bombs’ worth of plutonium. Further south, Taiwan tried covertly to acquire nuclear weapons at least once and is now developing a missile than could hit Beijing. As for China, it keeps modernizing its nuclear-weapons forces under a dark cloak of secrecy.

All of this suggests that pushing one nonproliferation policy for the Middle East and another for a “quiescent” Asia is delusional. More important, no one’s buying it: Middle Eastern officials resent the double standard, and the Chinese — who view Vietnam as a potentially hostile vassal state — are taking offense.

That brings us to Foggy Bottom’s final defense of the deal: Washington, our diplomats argue, must work with the world as it is, not as it wishes it to be. Vietnam wants nuclear-power reactors. France, Russia, Japan, and China are vying to build them. If America wants to influence Vietnam and secure reactor sales, it must bend to reality and drop the UAE conditions.

This pitch, however, ignores an embarrassing truth: Vietnam is unlikely to buy American. In fact, to do so, it would have to forswear suing U.S. firms for damages a nuclear accident might inflict off-site — a demand that America’s government-backed nuclear competitors do not make. In any case, the key reason for cutting the deal wasn’t to generate U.S. jobs, but rather to tighten our strategic ties with Hanoi by formally authorizing it to receive sensitive nuclear goods. America’s commercial losses if Washington demanded that Vietnam adhere to the UAE conditions, therefore, would be essentially zero.

As for the contention that the U.S. has no effective leverage over the behavior of its nuclear competitors, just the opposite is the case. That leverage is actually substantial, and it’s also increasing, as foreign companies such as Rosatom, KEPCO, Hitachi, Toshiba, and AREVA seek to expand their business with the U.S. In fact, these government-backed firms are not just trying to sell America more, but (as I have detailed elsewhere) are pleading for billions in U.S.-taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to expand their business in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Congress, ever eager to promote the UAE conditions, is planning on tightening America’s nonproliferation laws. Some on Capitol Hill are already toying with the idea of cutting off foreign firms that refuse to make the UAE conditions a requirement of the nuclear assistance they offer overseas. The House is expected to take up these matters in the fall, around the time U.S. negotiators are scheduled to meet their Vietnamese counterparts to finalize the proposed nuclear deal.

One would like to think that the discussion will focus on more than just minor details, and that Washington will do what it can to avoid any further Vietnam-style blunders in the area of nuclear diplomacy, whether inside or outside of Asia. What this will first require, though, is an admission of the obvious: that someone in the executive branch made a mistake.

– Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and author of Controlling the Further Spread of Nuclear Weapons.


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