Engaging India

Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb. By Strobe Talbott, Brookings Institution Press, August 2004, 268 pp.

Michael Krepon

Strobe Talbott’s memoir, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, offers readers an insider’s account of U.S. relations with India and Pakistan during the tenuous period after both countries openly tested nuclear weapons in May 1998. Talbott, the deputy secretary of state, was then chosen to be the Clinton administration’s point person and crisis manager for South Asia.

His diplomatic skills were never more important or adept than during the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, which posed the risk of nuclear escalation. At the same time, Talbott was repeatedly frustrated in trying to convince New Delhi and Islamabad to formalize nuclear restraints. In a narrative rich with irony and insight, the author recounts how stalemated nuclear talks ended up broadening U.S.-Indian relations.

Talbott was handpicked for this high-stakes mission after President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright considered, and then rejected the possibility of appointing former President Jimmy Carter or former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) to the job. Their prospects faded because a high-profile special envoy might further complicate matters on the subcontinent. Albright, already busy with the Balkans and other crises, had enough “problems from hell” on her plate, so the crisis in the subcontinent became Talbott’s challenge—and his story to tell.

It is a story woven around extended talks with his primary Indian interlocutor, Jaswant Singh, the confidant of former Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee and subsequently New Delhi’s minister of external affairs. The story’s crucial pivot is a bold and ill-considered initiative hatched by a small group of senior Pakistani officers to seize the heights above the Indian town of Kargil. In doing so, the plotters, led by Army Chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf, unwittingly undercut their hopes to change the status quo in the disputed area of Kashmir and paved the way for a triumphant Clinton visit to New Delhi. The Kargil conflict and the rejection by Senate Republicans of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) derailed the author’s primary mission. Nevertheless, as Talbott notes, “[s]ometimes a negotiation that fails to resolve a specific dispute can have general and lasting benefits, especially if it is a dialogue in fact as well as in name.”

Talbott tells this narrative with self-deprecating candor and a deep respect for Singh. He readily acknowledges that Indian nuclear objectives prevailed over U.S. nonproliferation imperatives. This outcome was not surprising given the lousy cards that the Clinton administration had to play. After the nuclear tests, U.S. diplomacy sought to convince India and Pakistan to sign and ratify the CTBT; to halt production of fissile material for weapons; to exercise strategic restraint, particularly to stop flight-testing ballistic missiles; and to enact stricter export controls. None of these “benchmarks” were achieved on Talbott’s watch. India and Pakistan were not about to allow Washington to define the extent of their strategic requirements, particularly when they themselves were unable to quantify them. Nor did it help that Republicans on Capitol Hill were intent to liberate U.S. nuclear programs from the shackles of arms control.

In pursuit of these benchmarks, the Clinton administration had one big stick in the form of sanctions, which initially received strong support from an angry Congress. It had one carrot: the prospect of a presidential visit to the region in return for progress toward the benchmarks.

New Delhi correctly anticipated that sanctions would not last. The anger directed against India and Pakistan for testing nuclear weapons faded quickly on Capitol Hill, replaced by the impulse to push wheat and other home-state exports. When the Republican-led Senate voted against the test ban treaty in October 1999, they also cut the legs out from under the administration’s efforts to formalize verbal commitments by India and Pakistan not to resume testing. Bereft of leverage, Clinton saw no further value in putting off a trip and went in March 2000, the first presidential visit to India in 22 years. He felt a strong pull toward the subcontinent and besides, as part of a July 4, 1999, deal struck with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to defuse the Kargil crisis, Clinton promised to take a personal interest in Indo-Pakistani relations.

Talbott’s account of Sharif’s desperate trip to Washington adds important brush strokes to a picture of astute crisis management by the White House. Talbott’s portrayal of Sharif and the Pakistani government is far from flattering. During Clinton’s first term, the administration tried hard to improve ties with Pakistan, without much success. Talbott notes the strong aversion within the administration to tackle the Kashmir issue and depicts Sharif as a pathetic figure. During the second term, the administration switched to an “India first” approach to South Asia, hoping to end estrangement and reflecting profound frustration with Pakistan, which was viewed as deeply mired in damaging policies and dysfunctional governance.

Washington’s “tilt” toward India during the Kargil crisis came as a surprise to New Delhi and Islamabad and sealed the outcome that Indian troops had been fighting uphill to secure. The trust built by the administration’s efforts to force the withdrawal of Pakistani troops and to endorse the “sanctity” of the Kashmir divide was central to the transformation of U.S.-Indian ties.

Did the extended and unprecedented Talbott-Singh dialogue also contribute to the sea change from bilateral estrangement to engagement? Talbott believes this to be the case, but his narrative on this score may not be convincing to some readers. There can be no doubt about the value of this unprecedented dialogue, which became even more meaningful for the participants because of their genuine personal rapport. But as Talbott readily acknowledges, nations make critical decisions based on national interest, and his interlocutor was a staunch defender of Indian security imperatives. Moreover, Singh was a beleaguered figure in New Delhi. These circumstances suggest that the considerable rapport and understanding that Singh and Talbott developed did not significantly alter New Delhi’s calculations.

The U.S. national interest during these talks, as recounted by Talbott, was to “limit the extent to which the Indian bomb was an obstacle to better relations if India would, by explicit agreement, limit the development and deployment of its nuclear arsenal.” India’s national interest was to remove the bomb as an obstacle to better relations with the United States without constraining its nuclear options. Events as well as patient diplomacy reinforced the Indian position. Kargil and the actions of treaty-bashers in Washington conspired to improve bilateral ties but at the expense of U.S. nonproliferation objectives.

One question that readers will struggle with, as does Talbott, is whether the Indian government was ever serious about meeting the Clinton administration’s benchmarks. A cutoff in fissile material production for weapons and constraints on missile programs were unachievable as long as India could not be sure about its requirements for deterrence against China as well as Pakistan. Vajpayee’s governing coalition responded to the Clinton administration’s ill-advised request to clarify the meaning of “credible, minimal deterrence” with a draft nuclear doctrine endorsing open-ended and ambitious requirements. Singh reassuringly advised Talbott not to attach too much importance to this document, but his government subsequently endorsed it with only modest revisions.

This left India’s signature on the CTBT as a prime target of opportunity for the Clinton administration. Singh made a number of encouraging statements in this regard, before and even after Senate Republicans torpedoed the treaty. Talbott believes that Singh was acting in good faith but was stymied by resistance and political turbulence back in India. This generous assessment might be true. Alternatively, if India could not rule out nuclear options or if its underground tests in 1998 were less successful than advertised, a staunch defender of Indian national security like Singh might have been under instructions to tempt but temporize. Indian diplomacy specializes in wearing down and waiting out the opposition.

The Bush administration has not said very much about reducing nuclear dangers in South Asia, talking instead about raising U.S.-Indian ties to a new level, although not one befitting a state visit by the president. The dilemma of how to cohere South Asian nuclear realities to global nonproliferation imperatives remains an agenda item for the future. Talbott raises the possibility of a “5 + 2” arrangement for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but without much conviction. The benefits of conferring a special status to India and Pakistan might be appealing to other nuclear aspirants and unwelcome to China, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, South Africa, and others.

This book is essential for South Asia experts and easy reading for the curious. Talbott has come a long way since translating Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs. The old Russia hand has become a South Asia hand as well.

Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Henry L. Stimson Center, is author of Cooperative Threat Reduction, Missile Defense, and the Nuclear Future (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and editor of Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming). He served as an outside reviewer to the Brookings Institution for an earlier draft of Engaging India.


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