April 3, 2005


Diplomatic illusions: a review of Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb: A Memoir By Strobe Talbott (Appu K. Soman, March/April 2005, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

Days after India conducted atomic tests in May 1998, provoking the United States to impose sanctions and virtually freeze relations with India, New Delhi signaled its desire for a dialogue with Washington. The Clinton administration responded quickly, and a series of 14 meetings between Jaswant Singh, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's emissary and later foreign minister, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott followed. Talbott undertook a parallel series of talks with Pakistani officials; Engaging India is his account of this dialogue.

India and the United States started the talks with widely divergent goals. India sought nothing less than a total transformation of Indo-U.S. relations from a state of "cold peace" to a strategic alliance. U.S. aims were far narrower--a compromise between U.S. nonproliferation goals and India's aspiration to be accepted as a nuclear power on par with the officially recognized nuclear weapon states. The Indian tests had blown away the main plank of the Clinton administration's earlier South Asia policy, the goal of which was to "cap, eliminate, and roll back" the Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities. With rollback and elimination no longer feasible, the policy centered on "cap." The United States "would 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," Talbott writes.

Early in the talks, Talbott put forward U.S. "benchmarks" aimed at achieving a cap on India's nuclear capabilities. The United States wanted India to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); to cooperate in capping India's production of fissile material; to create a "strategic restraint regime" under which India would limit its ballistic missiles to the existing Prithvi and Agni, refrain from arming them with nuclear warheads, and not deploy them close to Pakistan; to adopt strict export controls on nuclear and missile technologies and materials; and to resume the India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir.

Not much came of the U.S. goals. India appeared willing to sign the CTBT, but failed to muster enough domestic support to actually do so. The refusal of the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty eventually ended any prospect of India signing it. On fissile material, some progress was made when India acceded to U.S. demands. Vajpayee made a landmark visit to Pakistan early in 1999 in an effort to peacefully resolve Indo-Pakistani disputes. But within weeks, Pakistani incursions in the Kargil sector of the Line of Control in Kashmir set off a major crisis and killed the dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad for the rest of the Clinton administration. U.S. efforts to restrain India's nuclear and missile programs made no progress beyond technical talks. Less than six months after the tests, the U.S. Congress authorized waiving the sanctions, thus undercutting the administration's only bargaining chip. By late 1999, Clinton, with only one year left in office, decided to go ahead with his long-postponed South Asia visit, brushing aside Talbott's objections about "having let himself [Clinton] be stared down [by India] and thus having devalued American power." The Talbott-Singh talks petered out in 2000.

The importance the Clinton administration gave this dialogue can be gauged from Talbott's assertion that, "From the American perspective, what was at stake was the stability of the global nuclear order." If so, the efforts of those in charge of the U.S. South Asia policy were amazingly lopsided.

Mr. Talbott is one of these Realists for whom arms talks are fetishes, more important than the nature of the regimes involved in the talks. Had it been up to him the USSR would still be around but there'd be a splendid edifice of arms agreements he could point to in "triumph." That he was so focussed on weapons that he missed out on forging what will be the most important relationship of the 21st century--the alliance of America and India--should be something he's too embarrassed to bring up.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 3, 2005 5:31 PM

Just another example of why an Oxford education should be a bar to public service in America, unless you expressly understand that your time spent in Perfidious Albion was solely for the purpose of how NOT to do things.

Posted by: bart at April 3, 2005 6:09 PM

Question: Why would a "realist" have a fetish about arms talks with dictatorships? Sounds unrealistic to me.

Posted by: jeff at April 3, 2005 6:42 PM

talbot, like all clinton appointments, is and was, a colossal jerk-off. but don't expect such people to recognize the reality of their failure; its enough that the rest of us do, and can get a laugh out of it. my favorite clown, from the clinton family circus, is m. albright -- maybe one day the dear leader will share his personal videos of their "night of love". gakkk.

Posted by: cjm at April 3, 2005 6:56 PM

"Realists" are motivated by fear (along with ego and greed), so hope and freedom are almost foreign to them, and are certainly not desirable.

So negogiation is their mantra, because it provides a way to drug their fears and stroke their egos at the same time.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 4, 2005 12:30 AM

Talbot, the Clinton Administration and much of the left are "Realists", not realists. A Realist prides himself on accepting the world as it is, realizing that it won't change and that the best we can do is manage the status quo. For example, the USSR is a fact of life, wishing won't make it go away, we have to learn to live with it, so we must manage the relationship through a series of arms-control agreements to safeguard our mutual interests in the future.

The point was famously made by a Bush aide quoted in a New York Times magazine article by Ron Suskind:

The aide said that guys like me [Suskind] were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The phrase "reality-based community" was taken up as a badge of pride by the left, who fail to get it even when you rub their noses in it.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 4, 2005 9:27 AM