Strategic cooptation and India as nuclear power

Patrick Frankenbach, Andreas Kruck, and Bernhard Zangl show how India was strategically coopted into the existing non-proliferation regime. Their recent article in CSP holds lessons for all international institutions that need to adjust to changes in the global order.

Shifts in the global distribution of power put the international order and its underpinning institutions under stress. As powers such as China and India rise and powers such as the US or the UK decline, international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or the World Trade Organization (WTO) come under pressure to adapt to new power realities.

The prevailing view is that the adjustment of international institutions to a changing distribution of power is a highly conflictual process of power bargaining. (So far) dominant preservers of the status quo wrestle with rising revisionists, exchanging threats and trying to force the other side to give in. If anything, this power game is assumed to be particularly conflictual in security (institutions).

Our recent article on India’s inclusion into the nuclear non-proliferation regime belies this conventional narrative. Instead, it underlines the relevance of a different mode of institutional adaptation, namely strategic cooptation. In 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a major component of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, terminated the three-decades-long embargo on nuclear trade, which it had imposed after India’s nuclear tests in 1974. India turned from a nuclear pariah of the international community into a de facto recognized nuclear power.

The NSG waiver constitutes a cooptation deal in which NSG member states – led by the US, but supported by other nuclear powers – traded institutional privileges in return for India’s increased institutional support of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The US and the other nuclear powers offered India the privilege of being recognized as nuclear power and taking part in international nuclear trade. In return, India promised to support the nuclear non-proliferation regime by shoring up its nuclear export controls and making the majority of its nuclear sites subject to IAEA safeguards.

India’s cooptation into the nuclear non-proliferation regime reflects a mode of institutional adaptation that is more cooperative than the prevailing narrative of the highly conflictive power-bargaining between rising revisionists and declining preservationists would have it. Cooptors actively pursue limited institutional adaptation desired by cooptees to keep the institutional core intact.

Strategic cooptation is a mutually beneficial mode of cooperation among unequal actors that exchange institutional privileges for institutional support. Cooptation is common and widely studied in domestic political settings, but it is also relevant for institutional adaptation to global power shifts, even in the realm of security. It is particularly relevant for international (security) institutions which provide institutional privileges to some states, while denying them to others.

The general focus in academia and among many policy-makers on conflictive great-power bargaining obscures the importance of strategic cooptation. This is problematic because it comes with the neglect of three important features of institutional adjustments to global power shifts:

First, for some challengers of the institutional status quo, who are willing and able to provide needed institutional support, relying on strategic cooptation (making promises) may be a superior strategy compared to power bargaining (issuing threats). Sometimes strategic cooptation is not only better suited to attain institutional adjustment; it is also less conflictive and allows to nurture cooperative relationships. On the other hand, defenders of the institutional status quo should not simply assume that challengers will engage in power bargaining. After all, policy responses that are adequate for addressing power bargaining are often counterproductive in dealing with strategic cooptation. Starting negotiations with promises rather than threats often leads to better outcomes. The negotiations between the US and India about the latter’s integration into the nuclear non-proliferation regime are a case in point.

Second, a strategic cooptation approach sensitizes observers and policy-makers to important conditions for achieving institutional change that are overlooked in the power bargaining account, namely third-party resistance to power-sharing deals between emerging and established powers as well as institutional opportunities for overcoming it. The nonproliferation regime–India case underlines that it is often third parties that put up strong resistance against cooptation agreements. When the US announced in 2005 its intention to lift the embargo on trade with nuclear material, resistance from non-nuclear “middle powers” was massive: A group of “like-minded states” comprising Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand formed to stop India’s recognition as nuclear power, with New Zealand taking the lead. This group – rather than the nuclear great powers – rejected India’s recognition as nuclear power. For the deal to materialize, it was crucial that proponents could strike the deal within the more exclusive NSG rather than the more encompassing NPT context, thus managing to circumvent the third-party resistance typical of any cooptation deal. More generally, policy-makers should take into consideration the potentially fierce resistance (middle or even minor) third parties might put up against any great power bargain and they should weigh the institutional opportunities for overcoming this resistance.

Third, even then cooptation is not a panacea for stabilizing troubled institutions. The story of India’s cooptation suggests we should not take for granted the medium- and longer-turn effectiveness of cooptation as a means of stabilizing international institutions. The cooptation of India did not silence other critics of the NPT among the “nuclear have-nots” nor did it stabilize the status quo of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Quite the opposite: India’s cooptation further alienated dissatisfied non-nuclear weapons states under the NPT, thus widening the gap between nuclear powers and non-nuclear weapon states. Criticizing the nuclear deal with India at NPT Review Conferences, several non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT (but not the NSG) took offense with the privileges granted to India. If anything, India’s cooptation created growing resentment and increased criticism of the regime centered around the NPT, which ultimately contributed to the quest for the new Nuclear Ban Treaty.

Thus, academics and policy-makers alike should more seriously consider the option of cooptation as a mode of institutional adaptation. However, they should not simply equate agreement on a cooptation deal with longer-term stability for the institution in question. Expected contributions to institutional stability may not fully materialize or they may provoke unintended consequences – often precisely due to lasting third-party resistance.

Patrick Frankenbach, Andreas Kruck, and Bernhard Zangl are researchers at the Geschwister-Scholl-Institute for Political Science, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany. They are the authors of “India’s recognition as a nuclear power: A case of strategic cooptation”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

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