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Interview with Strobe Talbott

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (2004)

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (2004)

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