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Interview with Strobe Talbott

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (2004)

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (2004)

Strobe Talbott is the President of the Brookings Institution. Mr Talbott has had a long career in journalism, government and the academy. Prior to assuming the presidency at Brookings, he was founding director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. He served in the State Department from 1993 to 2001, first as Ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the Secretary of State for the new independent states of the former Soviet Union, then as Deputy Secretary of State for seven years.

Mr Talbott entered government after 21 years with Time magazine. As a reporter, he covered Eastern Europe, the State Department and the White House, then was Washington bureau chief, editor-at-large and foreign affairs columnist.

A prolific writer, some of Mr Talbott's more recent books include Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb (Brookings Institution Press, 2004), The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (Random House, 2002), The Age of Terror: America & The World After September 11, co-editor with Nayan Chanda (Basic Books, 2001), and At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War, with Michael Beschloss (Little Brown & Company, 1993).

In this interview with Asia Society, Mr Talbott discusses the US-India negotiations following India's 1998 nuclear tests, his relationship with his principal counterpart, Jaswant Singh, international treaties governing nuclear testing and proliferation, the regional consequences of September 11, 2001, and the future of US-India relations.


You suggest in the acknowledgements in Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb that your writing this book was prompted in part by the high regard in which you held your interlocutor in these US-India negotiations: Jaswant Singh. What qualities of statesmanship and diplomacy struck you in him?

First and foremost: honesty. He was, and is, very tough-minded, vigorous, and capable of being a quite persistent advocate of his government's position but he always played the angel's game - what someone once called diplomacy - straight. Another quality he has is great intellectual breadth, subtlety and sophistication, so that on a personal level it was not just stimulating but actually fun - if one is allowed to use that word in this context - to interact with him. His intelligence was relevant to policy and diplomacy as well because it meant that his mind was so good that it was possible to find angles of attack on issues that we were dealing with that would not have been the case otherwise.

Essentially, our problem was that we had one assigned topic on which our positions were, if not diametrically opposed, then at least profoundly opposed. If we had simply traded talking points with each other we could have limited the famous dialogue to one short round and we could have then just exchanged papers. It was really a question of whether not just two brains, but two teams of brains, could transcend the core disagreement that had brought us together to begin with.

To what extent do you think that the affinity you felt was made possible by the shared assumption between you and Mr Singh that US-India relations in the years of the Cold War - in which Pakistan was America's staunch ally in the region and India was non-aligned - were a missed opportunity?

I think it helped. We did not waste time, as it were, debating original sin or arguing over history. I think we saw history more or less the same way and we were able to move on. Also Jaswant's ability to articulate the historical basis for Indian attitudes, including, by the way, Indian sensitivities, resentments, and insecurities, was genuinely helpful to me. As a newcomer to the issue, he helped me to understand the subtext and context of the issues we were dealing with. I am not an "India hand", so to speak. I have had a fascination with the country for a long time and had been there before and so forth, but no one would accuse me of being an expert. Therefore having an interlocutor who could explain the situation from the Indian perspective was very helpful, and he did so in a way that was really quite dazzling, stimulating and edifying.

You argue that these bilateral negotiations were ultimately more successful for your Indian counterpart than yourself. To what do you attribute this, and do you think things would have been different had the US Senate ratified the CTBT?

Not to quibble, but I would disagree with the word 'ultimately' because it suggests that these negotiations are over, but they are not. The last chapter of the book is called "Unfinished Business". The dialogue, in some fashion with other dialoguers, will continue. I would be prepared on any occasion to argue that what the United States, through the Clinton Administration, was seeking in the dialogue on the nonproliferation issue was eminently reasonable, consistent with India's interests, and ought some day to be incorporated into Indian policy. There is no question that during the period that we had to work, Indian steadfastness or stubbornness, depending on how one sees it, prevailed over American persuasiveness.

With regard to the CTBT, there is no question in my mind that Jaswant Singh, as an individual, but a very responsible and influential individual, could see a scenario that would have included Indian signature on the CTBT. No question at all. This goes back to the very first question you asked and my answer to it: honesty. He told me that and I believed him. That does not mean that he ever promised me, other things being equal, which they were not, that he would have been able to deliver the Indian government. I had quite a bit of confidence that other things being equal, he would have been.

The CTBT was snake-bit by two snakes: one was Indian domestic politics, and the other was American domestic politics. The Indian government went into a state of near paralysis for electoral and parliamentary reasons on two occasions during the course of the dialogue and we could not get anything done. Jaswant and I would have been spinning our wheels except that we had a lot of important stuff to talk about. Then there was that dark day when the Senate knocked the legs out from under us by refusing to ratify the CTBT. What were we supposed to do? What arguments did we have left when we could not keep the CTBT alive within our own political system? We will never really know what might have happened otherwise.