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Interview with Strobe Talbott

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (2004)

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (2004)

At different points in the book, you appear to express sympathy for the Indian position that the global nuclear nonproliferation regime is unequal and hypocritical. If you are indeed sympathetic to this view, how do you think the NPT - or for that matter, the CTBT - can be altered, or perhaps just enforced on nuclear weapon states (NWS), so as to appear less discriminatory, and thus possibly more palatable?

I have intellectual sympathy for this position but this intellectual sympathy does not lead me to support the Indian decision to test because there were and are larger stakes. There were considerations that I think might have led a different Indian government to refrain from testing. But I do not dismiss as absurd or evil the logical process that brought the Indian government to the decision to do Pokhran II. I just think they were letting issues unquestionably of overarching national interest trump considerations having to do with the stability and sustainability of the global, nonproliferation regime. This put the Indian government then, and continues to put the Indian government now, in a position of some tension between its national and international interests.

Since India is already more than a regional leader, and I think ought to be a global leader, it behooves India to take such considerations into account, just as it behooves the United States - and we can put the shoe on the other foot at any point you want in the conversation. India and the US have an obligation to think about their global standing before doing things that might, in a narrow sense, be good and right and just for the country in question but that increase dangers on an international scale.

The fact that Pakistan also became a nuclear weapon state very shortly after India in May 1998 seems to have elicited a slightly different reaction in the West partially because it is a majority Muslim state. What do you think accounts for the singular anxiety provoked by nuclear weapons being in the hands of a Muslim country?

Well, it is actually even more paradoxical than that: there was initially more tolerance, understanding and sympathy for the Pakistani test which came two weeks after India's simply because India had done it first. And you know the phrase, "Keeping up with the Joneses"? It was harder to be outraged at the Pakistanis given what their very large neighbor had just done.

About the "Islamic Bomb": we all thought it. The first person I actually heard use the phrase after the test was the Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. I am sure there are some who use the phrase with an unsupportable connotation that Muslims cannot be trusted with the bomb, whereas Hindus or Judeo-Christians or communist Chinese can; an absurd proposition! But there are two issues. One, Pakistan had a perfectly dreadful record as a proliferator, whereas India had a pretty good record as a non-proliferator, not a perfect record, but a pretty darned good one. The second issue is one of geopolitics: given the Islamic overlay of the region, there is objectively more reason to worry about a Pakistani nuclear capability than an Indian nuclear capability. Who was India going to give its bomb to? Nobody, absolutely nobody: Sri Lanka, I doubt it, Bangladesh, no, Nepal, no, and so on and so forth. Who might Pakistan either give the capability to or provide an umbrella for? Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and so on.

Given the urgency of the problem of nuclear proliferation, is it not striking that the single individual responsible for disseminating technology and expertise to at least Iran and North Korea - that is Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan - was pardoned by General Musharraf, and this extraordinary gesture was met with little or no resistance on the part of the US and the West generally?

This was of course during the Bush Administration, for which I am not a spokesman. I just want to be clear on that. Having said that, I actually take a somewhat softer line than some others do on the handling of the AQ Khan case by the United States. I do not know - having not been in the government at the time - that this denouement occurred. I am basing what I say on reading and relying a little bit on what I have heard from people still in the government.

There is no question that the United States government put a lot of pressure on Musharraf to take AQ Khan out of business. We, that is, the Clinton Administration, tried to get the Pakistani government to put AQ Khan out of business and could not do it. The Bush Administration got the Pakistanis to do two things that we had failed to do: one was to cut off contacts with and support for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and the other was to put Dr Khan into retirement. Now a lot of people think that luxurious retirement was not the fate he best deserved but it beats the hell out of running, as everybody says, a "nuclear Wal-Mart." So it was a step in the right direction. I am sure that what happened there - one can be more than speculative about this - is that Musharraf grudgingly succumbed to American pressure but insisted on doing it his own way so as not to cause an uproar with the Pakistani public.