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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, April 24th, 2005


Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb

by Strobe Talbott

American Indians

A review by Warren I. Cohen

Strobe Talbott's book is unusual, for a statesman's memoirs, in being a portrait of failure. His assignment was to win India's explicit agreement to limit the development and deployment of nuclear weapons after its surprise bomb tests of 1998. In his capacity as the Deputy Secretary of State for the United States, he met fourteen times with Jaswant Singh, his Indian interlocutor, in the last years of the Clinton administration. The two men appear to have respected each other, but Talbott did not succeed in persuading the Indian Government to accept any restraints on its nuclear weapons programme.

Engaging India is not, however, a mea culpa. On the contrary, Talbott sees his "dialogue" with Singh as the basis for a striking improvement in Indian American relations. Throughout the Cold War, the Indian democracy had aligned itself more often than not with the Soviet Union in opposition to the United States. Indian leaders such as Krishna Menon and Indira Gandhi were as vituperative in their condemnations of the US as any Soviet bloc propagandist, in large part because of the nominal American alliance with Pakistan.

After the Cold War, it was not unreasonable to expect the Indian-American estrangement to end. Washington's ties to Pakistan had long since frayed. Hundreds of thousands of Indians were emigrating to the US, where they found meaningful employment and soon learned to lobby on behalf of their native land. But four decades of mistrust were not easily overcome. Indians continued to deplore American arrogance and hypocrisy, not least on the issue of nuclear weapons. What right did the Americans, with their thousands of missiles and nuclear bombs, have to deny India the right to produce its own? India never signed the Non-proliferation Treaty, and had exploded its first device in 1974. Not surprisingly, Indian leaders believed a nuclear arsenal was the ticket to Great Power status, perhaps even a seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

The Americans, on the other hand, had prevailed in the Cold War without Indian assistance and had no compelling reason to come courting. The elder George Bush was preoccupied with European affairs such as the reunification of Germany, and with salvaging Chinese-American relations after Tiananmen. Bill Clinton was convinced India was worthy of more consideration, but found no time for it during the first six years of his Presidency. Talbott, a highly respected authority on the Soviet Union, was initially assigned the Russian port-folio. The Indians were right: their weapons tests in 1998 commanded American attention and Clinton picked Talbott, his former Oxford housemate, for the task of reining them in.

Although New Delhi justified its nuclear programme as a strategic necessity, given the threat posed by its powerful Chinese neighbour, it was India's tense relations with Pakistan, specifically over Kashmir, that worried Talbott and his colleagues. The Pakistanis invariably attempted to match the Indians weapon for weapon and had also become a de facto nuclear power. The potential for a major war on the subcontinent was great and there was little reason to doubt that the Pakistanis perceived their nuclear weapons as an "equalizer" in any conflict with their larger and more powerful adversary.

Talbott met frequently with Pakistani civilian leaders in a vain effort to restrain their nuclear programme and their provocations in Kashmir, but found them weak, too frightened of their own military and radical Islamists, unable or unwilling to act effectively. To the extent that Talbott's overriding concern was the non-proliferation regime, Pakistan was the world's Achilles heel. The Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was subsequently revealed to be the world's greatest proliferator, having facilitated nuclear weapons programmes in Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Ultimately, it was Clinton's intervention with Islamabad, forcing Pakistan to withdraw from a military incursion into Kashmir and agree to a ceasefire immediately afterwards, that won India's trust in 1999. Throughout his discussions with the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Clinton kept Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's Prime Minister, fully informed. At last, the Indians were prepared to believe the US no longer "tilted" toward Pakistan, and Clinton made a triumphant visit to India in March 2000.

The spoilers in Talbott's narrative are the Pakistani military, Pervez Musharraf in particular, and democratic politics in both India and the US. Musharraf and his colleagues were determined to wrest control of Kashmir from India, and to that end supported terrorist attacks on Indians and sent troops into Indian-held territory. Sharif was surely right to fear Musharraf and was lucky to escape a military coup with his life. Musharraf, of course, is now firmly established as the military dictator of Pakistan, having recently reneged on his commitment to surrender his uniform and rule as a civilian.

Democratic politics posed few problems in Pakistan, but Vajpayee was always constrained by militant nationalists in his own Bharatiya Janata Party and overwhelming popular support for nuclear weapons within the Indian electorate. And the BJP's hold on power proved less durable than Talbott anticipated. In the US, conservative Republican senators undermined Talbott's efforts to persuade Vajpayee to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by rejecting American ratification in October 1999. In addition, pressure in the US Congress to lift economic sanctions imposed on India as punishment for its nuclear tests weakened Talbott's hand.

Nonetheless, Strobe Talbott contends that American diplomacy 1998-2000 was so successful that New Delhi's newly friendly and cooperative attitude towards the United States survived the missteps of the George W. Bush administration, specifically the 2004 designation of Pakistan as a "major non-NATO ally", without warning to India. It might also be noted that India's military cooperation with the United States has continued because the Americans now share India's fear of Islamic terrorism.

Warren I. Cohen is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His most recent book is The Asian American Century, 2002.

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