Search Asia Times


Advanced Search

South Asia


Two villages and an elephant
Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb by Strobe Talbott

Reviewed by Chanakya Sen

Metaphors belong naturally to the world of diplomacy. Allusive manners are considered hallmarks of skillful diplomats. Strobe Talbott, the prodigious Russian-affairs scholar and former US deputy secretary of state, has brought alive the crucial period of diplomatic history after the 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests with similes - a non-proliferation elephant that barely crawls to two different villages as destinations, one aspired by the Americans and one by the Indians.

In 1998, as the Bill Clinton administration's point man on Russia, Talbott knew India as "merely important", not "urgent", in US foreign-policy priorities. However, the May nuclear tests in Pokhran stunned the State Department. "India was no longer merely important" for an administration that espoused treaty-based non-proliferation regimes. Over the next two-and-a-half years, Talbott engaged Indian diplomat Jaswant Singh in historic dialogue, meeting him 14 times in seven countries. In this intricate game of negotiating chess, Talbott's perspective was that the global nuclear order was at stake, while Jaswant viewed it in terms of India's sovereignty, security and equity. Talbott's brief was to limit the development and deployment of India's nuclear arsenal, while Jaswant's was to get the US to accept India as a nuclear-armed power. In hindsight, Talbott remarks, "Jaswant came closer to achieving his objective that I did to achieving mine." (p 5)

Bomb in the womb
In 1964, alarmed by the Chinese nuclear tests, India sought security guarantees from the US, an unrequited idea. When China was allowed to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a nuclear-weapons state, Indians were infuriated. In 1974, India conducted a "peaceful" nuclear explosion and kept the option of a nuclear-weapons program open. At that time, then secretary of state Henry Kissinger assumed that India would conduct more tests and directed "a basic policy of not pressuring Indians on their nuclear-weapons program", only to be overruled by the US Congress (p 17). In 1988, prime minister Rajiv Gandhi warned that if the NPT nuclear-weapons states did not disarm, India had the right and need to join their ranks.

In 1990, on receiving intelligence that the Pakistani military had assembled nuclear weapons and was preparing them for use against India, the George H W Bush administration dispatched Robert Gates and Richard Haas on a discreet and successful intervention that would carry precedent in future crises containing nuclear ramifications.

Bill and Hillary Clinton had a fascination for India and were convinced about a "new opening" to this neglected Asian giant. Yet the first six years of Clinton's busy globe-trotting had no place for India. His administration pursued the objective of keeping the lid on Indian nuclear and ballistic-missile technology, even as widespread domestic antipathy to the NPT built up in India. Premier Narasimha Rao visited Washington in 1994 with the trepidation of being "badgered on non-proliferation". (p 31) Talbott conveyed to Rao Clinton's hope that India would resist the powerful temptation to test nuclear devices, but received no concrete assurances in return.

In December 1995, US satellites photographed suspicious activity at the Pokhran test site. The US ambassador in Delhi warned Rao of a "full dose of sanctions" that would hurt the liberalizing economy and forced the Indians to pull the plug on the test. The test was again suspended in early 1996 when the two-week-old government crumbled in Delhi.

India's May 1998 tests blindsided the US Central Intelligence Agency and threw Clinton into "a volcanic fit", dimming hopes of bettering bilateral ties (p 52). Arrays of US sanctions were cranked out against India, leaving few supporters of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's fateful maneuver. Clinton's brain trust's immediate aims were to persuade India to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and dissuade Pakistan from entering the club of NPT spoilers. Clinton himself floated the thought of a troika with Russia and China to rein in India and Pakistan to sign the CTBT. The scheme fell through.

Talbott was bluntly informed in Islamabad, "You don't understand the Indian psyche. The people of Pakistan will not forgive if we do not do the right thing." (p 61) Prime minister Nawaz Sharif said he could resist pressure to test if India allowed a plebiscite in Kashmir. As soon as Pakistan detonated nuclear devices in Chagai, Clinton declared that there was a threat of "nuclear war" and that South Asia would be "front and center" in diplomacy during his last two years in office.

Epic dialogue
Vajpayee decided on damage control and sent his adviser Jaswant to sit and talk "as long as the United States entered without preconditions". (p 76) At the envoy's first meeting with Talbott in June 1998 in Washington, Jaswant justified India's decision to go nuclear for defending itself against its enemies. China being "the principal variable in the calculus of Indian foreign and defense policy", Jaswant deplored US tendencies of "hyphenating us with Pakistan". (p 85) Talbott replied that Indian and Pakistani fates were interlocked since they had just conducted back-to-back nuclear tests. Jaswant dangled out feelers that India "might" sign the CTBT in exchange for the lifting of the US sanctions.

The second session of the dialogue took place in Frankfurt in July, where Jaswant repeated that "maybe something could be worked out on non-proliferation" if sanctions were lifted. The third meeting was in Delhi in the same month. Talbott presented five benchmarks for carrying the non-proliferation elephant to its ideal village. They included India's signing of the CTBT within a year and adopting "strategic restraint" in missile building. Jaswant demurred that these benchmarks were based on "American judgments about Indian defense requirements" and that the CTBT signature would "take time". The Indian side was unsure how much of a nuclear arsenal was enough. When Talbott had an audience with Vajpayee, "on the subject of CTBT, his silence was absolute". (p 100)

Jaswant foxily gave oracular utterances to the press creating the impression that he was getting along famously with Talbott, fanning suspicions and anxiety in Pakistan. Talbott found Pakistani diplomacy "reactive and ineffectual in part because Pakistani democracy was so fragile". (p 107) Sharif kept linking the CTBT to Kashmir, a strategy that went nowhere with the Americans.

Talbott next met with Jaswant in August in Washington. The Indians played the card of Republican senators in the US hell bent on thwarting the CTBT and claimed that it made their government's signature on the CTBT harder. In light of the recent East African bombings, Jaswant's ploy was to lie back and wait for the administration's preoccupation with Islamic terrorism to replace its upset over the Indian nuclear program. His ultimate goal was to get sanctions lifted without India meeting any of the "elephant benchmarks".

At the next meeting in New York in September, Jaswant slipped in references that he would meet with Jesse Helms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who detested the CTBT. Pro-India and farm-belt members of US Congress were putting pressure on the Clinton administration - exactly as the Indians hoped. Jaswant and Talbott sat down next in November in Rome. The Americans explained that the US did not automatically side with Pakistan in the zero-sum game of the subcontinent.

At the next summit in Delhi in January 1999, Jaswant (now foreign minister in Vajpayee's cabinet) exploited the Clinton administration's slipping grip for applying weight on India. The US Congress, France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom were all inclined to lower the bar for sanctions relief. The Indians offered minuscule movement on two benchmarks and asked for a large reward. Their partial steps were "couched in future conditional tense and riddled with escape clauses". (p 146) Relenting to the soft stonewalling and needing to display an appearance of progress, the US released a big World Bank loan to India.

Brokering peace
The May meeting in Moscow convinced Talbott that India would not sign the CTBT that spring because of political paralysis. Meanwhile, Pakistani military infiltrators into Indian Kashmir brought about a full-fledged border conflict that appeared to have portents of nuclear cataclysm (Talbott had information that Pakistan might be preparing its nuclear forces for deployment). The US put the blame squarely on Pakistan for instigating the crisis and demanded its withdrawal from Kargil as a precondition for a settlement and for US intervention.

Clinton chided Sharif point-blank at a Blair House emergency appointment, "I'm not - and the Indians are not - going to let you get away with blackmail." He threatened making public a statement detailing Pakistan's role in supporting terrorism in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Pakistan withdrew from Kargil soon after.

The elephant's swansong
For the first time, the US had allayed Indian doubts about "whether we would take their security interests properly into account". (p 163) Kargil made Vajpayee more trusting of Clinton, but more wary on nuclear matters. India released its draft nuclear doctrine that enunciated a "strategic triad" based on the more-bombs-are-better philosophy of deterrence. In October 1999, the US Senate rejected the CTBT, a severe setback to the administration's efforts with India and Pakistan. Clinton had to waive significant sanctions against India.

The next formal dialogue round happened in London in November. Indian interlocutors wanted an end to all sanctions as well as rights and privileges available to NPT signatories in exchange for signing the CTBT. Talbott declined. Jaswant, embattled by domestic allegations that India was caving in to US bullying to curtail its defenses, could give little at the next meeting in January 2000 in London.

Eyeing reality, Clinton dropped all preconditions for his long-postponed India trip. In contrast to stripped-down visits to Pakistan and Bangladesh (partly for security concerns), Clinton's visit to India was transformational for US-India relations. Vajpayee pressed for full acceptance of India as a nuclear-weapons state and president K R Narayanan chastised the guest for commenting that South Asia was "the most dangerous place on Earth". Clinton did not hide differences on nuclear issues and hinted that the US could advance India's quest for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council if it advanced non-proliferation. But the emerging possibility of the anti-CTBT Republican candidate, George W Bush, winning the next elections gave the Indian government space to wait for even better terms.

Jaswant and Talbott met for the last time in Bangkok in July 2000. "Our work was done and we both knew it." (p 206) Jaswant officially notified that India would not sign the CTBT.

A new tenor
The George W Bush presidency maintained NPT-related restrictions on India for two-and-a-half years, especially due to Secretary of State Colin Powell's desire for continuity of policy. The cushion of trust created in Clinton's time helped the Bush administration send another troubleshooting mission to South Asia after the terrorist attack on India's parliament in December 2001. Richard Armitage, Talbott's successor, elicited an assurance from Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf that cross-border infiltration would stop. Even Clinton prodded behind the scenes in 2003 when tensions heightened over terrorist incidents in India.

Talbott concludes that the Indian bomb remains "very much at issue" (p 224), though Bush's re-election in effect shelves it. The talk now, under Condoleezza Rice when she takes over the State Department and Stephen Hadley as national security adviser-designate, is of "ending the nuclear dispute" with India and boosting military-strategic cooperation.

Talbott's empathy for Jaswant's India outshines his policy disagreements. Engaging India arrives as a fascinating primary source about the ever-tightening "strategic partnership" between the United States and India. It takes readers through the pivotal moments when US-India relations stepped on to greener pastures after 50 years of fallowness.

Engaging India. Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb by Strobe Talbott. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2004. ISBN: 0-67-005771-1 Price US$8.75, 268 pages.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

Dec 16, 2004
Asia Times Online Community


A US offer Delhi can't refuse
(Dec 3, '04)

India digests Bush's second coming
(Nov 6, '04)

India and the US game
(Nov 5, '04)

India doubting its US 'strategic partnership'
(Mar 27, '04)
Live and work in the USA


  Click Here!    
No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong