The Bush administration has signed a new nuclear pact with India that effectively lifts a moratorium on India’s purchase of Western nuclear fuel, technology, and parts. The agreement also allows India to expand its nuclear weapons program in exchange for international inspections of only its civilian nuclear activities. Some conservatives and the liberal arms control community have justifiably opposed the agreement. The conservative opponents perceptively argue that Iran, North Korea, and other “rogue” nations, under international pressure to end their nuclear programs, will object to the double standard of allowing India, which has defied the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to build as many nuclear weapons as it wants with foreign assistance. Similarly, the arms control community cogently argues that the U.S.-India deal effectively scraps the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which the world has used to hold Iran and North Korea in line. Although these arguments are good ones, the Bush administration cares less about all this than it does the misguided goal of building up a democratic India as an Asian counterweight to a rising autocratic China.

Underlying the Bush administration’s strategic embrace of India is the “democratic peace theory”—the premise that democracies don’t go to war with each other. This theory is widely held in the popular imagination and among the U.S. foreign policy elite, including that of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, but is of questionable validity. A corollary to the theory is that nuclear-armed democracies are acceptable, but autocratic atomic powers are a threat. When discussing the U.S.-Indian nuclear pact, Nicholas Burns, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, made this corollary explicit: “The comparison between India and Iran is just ludicrous. India is a highly democratic, peaceful, stable state that has not proliferated nuclear weapons. Iran is an autocratic state mistrusted by nearly all countries and that has violated its international commitments.”

Iran aside, India is democratic, but not “highly democratic,” and is neither peaceful nor stable, and doesn’t always fulfill its international commitments. India is a “new democracy” and has been since its creation in 1947. Elections are held, but it is hardly a liberal democracy in the Western sense. Empirical data show that countries in the process of democratizing are especially prone to go to war. India’s numerous wars with Pakistan, including a recent near-war, confirm this pattern. Most of the India-Pakistan wars have been fought over the Islamic area of Kashmir in Hindu-dominated India, an area that would likely vote to be independent or part of Muslim Pakistan if it had the referendum that India has long promised but not delivered. Also, in the past India has been a seething cauldron of ethnic and religious violence.

If the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, the Boer War, and World War I, among others, don’t discredit the democratic peace theory outright, the frosty relations between India and the United States during the Cold War should give the Bush administration pause. India was loosely aligned with the Soviet Union during that period and often hostile to U.S. policy.

In short, selling India nuclear fuel and technology and other weapons (in the works) in order to develop a regional counterweight to an authoritarian China may be a risky gamble that blows up in the U.S. government’s face. Twenty years down the road, India may be more of a threat to U.S. interests than China. The future is hard to predict and the United States has not always been good at identifying who the next enemy will be. The U.S. Navy was originally created to counter the French in the Quasi-War at the end of the 18th century, but was actually first used against the Barbary pirates at the beginning of the 19th century. As recently as the late 19th century, Britain was the United States’ most likely adversary, but the United States eventually made a lasting peace with Britain and actually fought on its behalf against Germany in World War I. The United States built much of its Middle Eastern policy on propping up the Shah’s government in Iran, only to see a revolution in the late 1970s turn that country into a radical Islamic foe. The United States used Manual Noriega of Panama as an intelligence asset, but he eventually became an embarrassing antagonist that required a U.S. invasion to oust. Even after Iraq—with substantial secret U.S. assistance—won its bloody war in the 1980s against Iran, the United States continued to support Saddam Hussein right up until he became a U.S. rival after invading Kuwait.

In the future, many scenarios are possible. China could remain autocratic or could move down the road to democracy after freeing up its economy—that is, adopting the same path as Chile, Taiwan, and Singapore. But as a democracy China would not necessarily be friendly to the United States. On the other hand, if China remains an autocracy, it may not be hostile to the United States. Authoritarian states are not necessarily aggressive externally—for example, the Burmese junta. In fact, the nation with by far the most military interventions since World War II has been a liberal democracy—the United States. Moreover, in the past, the United States has befriended many despotic regimes to further its own interests.

Actively containing the Chinese by building up India, improving relations with increasingly autocratic Russia, and strengthening U.S. Cold War-era alliances ringing China may create a self-fulfilling prophecy—a threatened, hostile China.

The United States would be better off keeping its powder dry and remaining neutral in the Indian-Chinese competition. Both are rising nations with rapidly growing economies, but it is now unclear whether either or both of them will be a future threat to U.S. interests. If one does rise faster than the other and become a menace, the United States can always then help the other. But given the poor U.S. track record of identifying future enemies, it might be a big mistake to pour a lot of resources into a strategic relationship with India at the present time.