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.

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.

You say in your book that in July 1999, when Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, came to Washington, DC in the midst of the Kargil crisis, arrangements were made by the US government for him to be received at the airport by Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. How is it that the emissary of a third state was accorded this right, and was this not an unusual breach of protocol?

Everything about that whole weekend was unusual. If we were going to stand on protocol, first of all, Nawaz Sharif would not even have received a visa or been let in at Dulles airport because he had not been invited. But we were obviously not going to keep him from coming once he had expressed an interest in doing so. The whole situation was highly unusual and also quite volatile given what was happening in South Asia at the time. To be honest with you, I cannot recall whether Bandar volunteered or whether we asked him to receive Sharif. We talk to Bandar all the time, on a whole range of things, of course, but I just cannot recall whether we asked him or whether he just offered. It was a very good idea in any case: Bandar, dean of the diplomatic corps, knows Nawaz Sharif well (indeed, look where Sharif is living today: Saudi Arabia).

Having Bandar receive Sharif was just a way to soften the guy up, as I say in the book. Bandar was just to let him know that, as far as the Clinton administration is concerned, there is only one outcome that is acceptable in Kargil. And that is what Bandar did.

In discussing the 1998 bombing of Afghanistan under Clinton, in retaliation for the US embassy bombings in East Africa, you say that the Pakistan government was not informed in advance - despite the fact that US missiles had to fly over its territory to reach their target - because there was concern that Pakistan's intelligence services would forewarn Osama bin Laden. Is it not striking then that these same intelligence and military services are now being used by the US in the search for bin Laden and Al Qaeda operatives?

Yes, it is striking, but lots has happened between August 1998 and now. The most important was 9/11 and the 180 degree turn - or 170 degree turn, maybe - that Musharraf made under pressure from the United States.

I am not an expert and I am out of touch on this issue, but I assume that there is still a lot of complex networking that goes on. I am sure American officials are extremely careful about who they are dealing with, how much they know, and what they do with the information they get.

One of the points on which you disagreed with Mr Singh had to do with his reading of the violence of Partition as a legacy of colonial rule. Your discomfort with this argument appears to stem in part from the fact that it was expressed by a spokesperson for the Hindu, rightwing BJP government in power at the time. Is this an accurate interpretation, and how do you respond to the fact that this is an argument frequently made from all sides of the political spectrum in India?

Let me clarify my disagreement with Jaswant. I actually found Jaswant's interpretation of history to more or less comport with what I recalled from my own reading. I don't think there is any question that the British pursued a divide and conquer policy. It is objectively and empirically established that the worst of the violence occurred in those regions which had been directly under the Raj as opposed to areas that had not been. I believe that to be the case.

My intellectual discomfort with Jaswant's treatment of communal violence was that he tended to downplay it much too much. I felt that there was a little bit of not facing up - at least in conversation with me - to what is an unavoidable issue that all of us who want to understand India need to talk very honestly about.

The bigger problem had to do with Hindutva itself. My problem with Hindutva was that, despite my conscientious efforts to really listen to my friend Jaswant - and I did regard him as my friend - explain how Hindutva was not about religion, as far as I can tell, Hindutva is still about religion. I made three visits to India since the end of the dialogue and it has come up every time I have been there. I still hear the argument not just from BJP people that Hinduism is a civilizational category and not a religious category. As a civilizational category, it is like a forgiving and embracing mother, and among its children are Muslims. It strikes me as either a self-delusion or an attempt to delude others to suggest that Muslims in India, never mind in Pakistan or Bangladesh, are going to see Hindutva the same way. They are not going to accept this distinction between a civilizational and a religious category. They will insist it is about Hindus running the place, which is how, if I am not mistaken, we got into Partition in the first place. This is what the Muslim League was all about: a conviction on the part of a highly secularized Muslim living in India that Muslims were never really going to be fully enfranchised. That is what I think Jinnah's idea was all about, as best I understand it.

I will also say that quite a few Hindu and indeed very Hindu Indians who are not associated with the BJP have supported my doubts in this regard. They say they are proud to be Hindus, that they are devout Hindus, that Hinduism is very important to their lives, but that they cannot and should not try to impose it with a different suffix (Hindutva) on fellow citizens who happen to be of the Muslim faith.

Despite substantial evidence to the contrary, there still seems to be a perception in American foreign policy circles that the US supports democracy and democratic movements worldwide. Minimally America's alliance with and active support of a dictatorship in Pakistan during the Cold War - indeed even today - suggests that these claims ring rather hollow. What in your view accounts for the continuation of this rhetoric?

What accounts for the continuation of the rhetoric, I think, is the validity of the principle behind the rhetoric, the ideal behind the rhetoric. It is right and fitting that the United States should support democracy around the world. India and the United States should work together to promote democracy because they both are democracies. Does that mean instant democracy everywhere, all the time? Of course not. There is however a shared conviction that despite the messiness of democracy, it is the best of all possible systems, and that is a universal ideal. And therefore the promotion of it should of course be part of not just our agenda, but India's as well.

There are two points to be made. One to agree with the implication of your question and the other to disagree with it. There is no question that the United States when preoccupied with one big threat - whether it is the Soviet Union or global terrorism - has gotten confused on this question of democracy-promotion. It is then that we end up supporting, as FDR said, "our sons of bitches" - as we did during the Cold War with the Somozas in Nicaragua, for example. By the same token we have gotten ourselves wrapped around the axle in Uzbekistan and over Chechnya now. In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov justifies his repressive regime on counter-terrorism grounds, and we say it doesn't matter that he is a dictator because he is on the right side in the war on terrorism (which is one reason I don't like the term "war on terrorism"). So I think that part of the question is true.

At the same time, and here is where I differ a little bit with at least what I understood to be the thrust of your question, life is choices and you can't do everything simultaneously when you're dealing with complex countries in complex times and you have to decide what your priorities are. And sometimes that means that you place more emphasis on nonproliferation than you do on democracy because you're more concerned about the short-term danger of Pakistan having nuclear weapons than you are about the need for Pakistan to return to a democratic regime right away. So it is also a question of making difficult choices.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society