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Management of mutual disappointment?

Print edition : Jun 17, 2005 T+T-
Strobe Talbott.-

Strobe Talbott.-

Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb by Strobe Talbott; Penguin, 2004; and Brookings Institution Press, Washington, 2004; pages 268, Rs.395 (paperback), $27.95 (hardback)

IT is quite difficult to think of good metaphors for the India-United States relationship, but it is certainly most entangled. How things got that way is not Strobe Talbott's story, but he shows that working within it is constrained at every step. In fact, the U.S effort to bring India into a nuclear weapons control regime during Talbott's official role at the century's end did not evolve logically much beyond U.S initiatives following the first May 1974 nuclear bomb test. Talbott's phrase in a December 1998 letter to his counterpart Jaswant Singh (page 140) captures an abiding quality of this relationship over the previous 50 years, and their own dialogue, as the "management of mutual disappointment". But as this intimate portrait shows, key individuals in both countries certainly learned to understand one another much better. Although this book does not contain Jaswant Singh's own words, Talbott is at pains to try to characterise fairly and accurately his counterpart's views. A candid blend of the official and personal strongly commends this book to readers whose interests lie both within and outside South Asia. Readers will not be disappointed.

Strobe Talbott became U.S. Under Secretary of State four years before India's second nuclear test in May 1998. Having known Bill Clinton since their student days at Oxford, Talbott now had an opportunity to influence American choices and decisions, and respond to the urgencies of the hour. He had frequent access to the President. At that time in 1994, though India was an interesting and important country, it was `merely important' and not an `urgent' country at Talbott's level. Clinton intended a visit to South Asia, and arranged for his wife Hillary to tour India in 1995 to prepare for his own visit, though it finally occurred only five years later in March 2000.

This 1994-1998 period leading up to the Indian and Pakistani nuclear bomb tests saw the coming to power of fundamentalist and conservative Hindu and Muslim forces in both countries. Talbott shows the State Department and the White House bravely (but futilely) trying to understand and counteract these forces, conceding the fact that the U.S. had cultivated them for its purposes ten years earlier in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, though it is not Talbott's main purpose, he provides a fascinating picture of the increasingly weak Pakistani leadership's ability (Nawaz Sharif & Company) to negotiate with the U.S. and get more or less what they wanted. Conversely, despite 50 years of American involvement with Pakistan, the U.S. could scarcely achieve its strategic objectives in that country, even as the agenda shifted away from weapons proliferation and toward the more tractable problem of terrorism. Moreover, the U.S. could not protect Pakistan's democracy, could not enhance the economy, and could not guarantee the personal security of its citizens, despite massive U.S. arms sales, debt relief, and aid.

Jaswant Singh, a Rajasthani and a Major in the Army before entering politics, was elected for the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1989, and was tasked by Prime Minister Vajpayee in 1996 to create "a discrete - and if necessary secret - channel to Washington" (page 47). Talbott describes very sensitively his friend and opponent (in the sense of chess and poker) Jaswant Singh who was first a diplomatic intermediary and then External Affairs Minister in the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government from 1998 until 2002.

After which he was made Finance Minister until that government's defeat in 2004. He was also an author at this time, publishing while in office the authoritative, if at times puzzling, Defending India.

Talbott was a Soviet expert trained at Oxford and Yale who first visited India as a journalist covering Kissinger's visit in November 1974 after the first Indian nuclear test.

He joined President Clinton's administration at the State Department in 1994.Talbott was trained as a writer for Time and the book exhibits its best features - a succinct and clear flowing style - but here at least Talbott is fortunately free of the intellectual limitations usually imposed by Time's editors (for example, their need for short sentences and one idea per paragraph). But why would an experienced author like Talbott publish a book of the same title as one published just five years before, also about `U.S. strategic relations with the world's largest democracy', and one which mentions the Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks with anticipation.

Talbott is mentioned personally a number of times. Could not he have engaged more with those scholars in that book?

Although the main outline of the India-U.S. story in this period is known, Talbott's contribution is to show precisely how unforeseen factors intruded on each step of the way in his dialogue with Jaswant Singh after the 1998 tests - a military coup in Pakistan removing Nawaz Sharif, a hostage-taking on an Indian airliner in Nepal, the price of onions and party politics in northern India, and a military showdown on the high-altitude Kargil frontier in Kashmir. Players in both teams took these intrusions as opportunities to prolong, compound, or delay their main objective, which was to re-tune and warm up U.S.-India relations. The sticky talking point was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which President Clinton had signed but Congress had not ratified. Talbott (and Clinton) wanted India to sign and ratify it too, knowing that their own Congress opposed it. Jaswant Singh said he was bringing some leaders around to agreeing to India's acceptance of it.

More than ever, it is imperative for outsiders to understand U.S. decision-making and its multiple layers and pressures. Outsiders like Canadians and Indians need to become experts on the U.S. political system. For those who live outside Talbott's culture of capital cities, this book is a glimpse of a very American world that cites CNN and Time, takes the superficiality of Huntington's Clash of Civilizations seriously, that must listen to TV talk shows on Sunday - indeed a world soaked in media whose professionals themselves know nothing about South Asia, and are usually quite unashamed to say it.

Talbott, in contrast, moves closer and closer to understanding India after 1974, partly through his wife's relationship with an unusual Delhi family and partly through his own intellectual curiosity. His book enables outsiders to understand this world of an apparent easy familiarity, populated by first-name Sandys and Madelaines. Negotiating with Americans is now everyone's business, and as charming hosts they make it look deceptively easy. This book suggests it is not.

This book also provides a stark lesson to those who hope to work in embassies and influence the course of relations between countries, because it shows how frequently telephones and short visits are used to bypass local staff, including ambassadors, in crucial talks. But nothing can quite replace long conversations in face-to-face meetings, of which this book is an intimate and thoughtful record. In the best restaurant in Rome, gazing at the Pantheon and Saint Peter's, sat two top diplomats from Delhi and Washington, talking in November 1998 about `inducting' nuclear weapons (a peculiarly Indian term), and refusing to sign discriminatory treaties. (The only detail not mentioned is who paid the bill.)

Though detailed, Talbott's book is by no means boring. Exploring the nuances of their dialogue, an observant Talbott reveals a contour map of the impasse between these two governments, under great domestic pressure, with other governments looking keenly on. It is the variable application of U.S. economic and technical sanctions and India's effort to remove them that prevail throughout. And then the opportunity to help improve the Pakistan-India relationship suddenly appears in the middle of the nuclear debate. This provides a valuable counterbalance for students of diplomatic strategy and negotiation, who are all too often given a hollowed out version of history, a version where the process of meeting mutually unexpected challenges is missing, where `separate' subjects are stored in separate silos, and where all intentions and trials converge in a dome of success at the end.

He hoped to persuade the Indian opposition to push for his cause on nuclear weapons containment, but Talbott's effort from 1999 to open a division between BJP leaders in government and opposition Congress leaders like Sonia Gandhi was rebuffed by the Congress; so firmly did dominant parties rally round India's refusal to sign international weapons treaties. The awkward meetings of the U.S. President and Indian Prime Minister are well described. Talbott provides valuable insight for President-watchers about Clinton's thinking and negotiating style, which he found trying at times. How (and why) Talbott and others stopped Clinton from appointing other U.S. leaders like Jimmy Carter `to deal with India and Pakistan' is fascinating. The insider's account of Clinton's India visit in March 2000 is invaluable. What I would have liked to see is how these negotiations addressed growing Indo-U.S. conflicts over the Missile Technology Control Regime, because the Indian emphasis at the time was on missile delivery systems for nuclear weapons.

While this review was being written in the spring of 2005 the U.S. announced the sale of F16 jets to Pakistan and gave promise of an even larger sale of jet aircraft to India. The secret communication behind the conditions in these deals, when known, could differ but little from the variables in Talbott's account of the 1994-2000 bargaining process. Moreover, also in spring 2005 President Bush explained these big aircraft deals in terms of his plan to visit South Asia in 2006 - it would sound familiar if you had just read Talbott. As current President of the Brookings Institute, Talbott with his long experience in Moscow can help Americans to better understand the dynamics of Russia's relationships with India, surely one of the more important axes of strategic action today.

To read Engaging India allows you to guess quite accurately what would be going on backstage currently in the jet aircraft negotiations, six years after Talbott's act in the drama. What is new? At least there is an on-going conversation, particularly as India gains sufficient influence to set some of the new conditions of the relationship, and not simply issue a reactive list of `cannots' and `should nots'. Past entanglements may not be undone, but the gradual realisation of India's importance at the middle level in America, even among isolationists, augurs much better for the future.