Books Review


By Strobe Talbott, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC 2006, ISBN: 0815783019 Reviewed by: Mirza Asmer Beg

This book provides a diplomatic account of America’s negotiations with India and Pakistan subsequent to their May 1998 nuclear tests. It is Strobe Talbott’s – who was Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration – firsthand account of behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

From June 1998 to September 2000, Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh met 14 times in seven countries. It was the most intense and prolonged set of exchanges ever between American and Indian Officials at a higher level than ambassadors. Their personal rapport elevated the Indo-US relations to a higher level of “engagement”. Talbott’s assessment of Jaswant was that he was a “master of public statements that made up in panache what they lacked in content and sometimes even in discernible meaning” (p. 103). Talbott mentions that the US in 1998 put forward certain non-proliferation benchmarks for negotiations with India, such as joining the CTBT, making progress on fissile material treaty, exercising strategic restraint and meeting the highest standard of export control. But the Indian leadership was generally evasive on all these issues.

Jaswant revealed to Talbott that the Indian nuclear capability was basically directed against China which was “a power and a threat worthy of India’s strategic attention” and not Pakistan which was “a relationally small, incurably troubled and incorrigible troublesome country that dreamed of a parity with India it would never attain or deserve”.

Talbott tried to convince both India and Pakistan that maintaining the nuclear capability was an expensive exercise, which had cost the US more than 5 trillion dollars, and therefore, both India and Pakistan could not afford it.

Talbott was unnerved in his meeting with Advani, when he talked about the happy days when India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar would be united in a single South Asian “Confederation”. In his dealing with Indian and Pakistani leaders he faced the same kind of complaints from both sides when they accused the US of discriminating against them, in favour of the other.

Jaswant posited the need for “the Judeo-Christian West, secular India, and moderate Islamic States to make a common cause against a single evil of global reach, rooted in radical regimes like Pakistan’s ………”. Talbott adds, that if “a presumption of guilt about every move of Pakistan, and utter pessimism about its future continued to dominate official attitudes in New Delhi, then India would loose whatever chance it might have of ever exercising a positive influence. The same could be said of assumptions underlying American policy”. He was also concerned with Jaswant’s understanding of Islam which for him was “all about conquest and conversion by the sword”. He says that if someone “as sophisticated as Jaswant saw Islam this way, it meant that there were surely many who held more primitive and virulent forms of this view”.

Talbott believes that the concessions which India got from the Bush Administration in 2005, made a mockery of earlier assurances which it had given about its determination to preserve the “red lines” between those countries within the NPT and those outside its bounds. Bush had agreed to give “India virtual membership in the club of recognized nuclear-weapons States. In return, the United States (and the world) received nothing in the form of concrete Indian steps towards nuclear restraint in its military programmes. In fact, in one important respect, the Indians received more leniency than the five established nuclear “haves”.

Talbott suggests, that in future conversations with an Indian Prime Minister, “an American president might use the prospect of Security Council membership and other possible sources of leverage to coax India into the nonproliferation mainstream. New Delhi might be asked—once again—to forswear further nuclear testing, stop producing fissile material, accept international safeguards on its nuclear facilities, go much further than it has to date in strengthening its controls over transfers of technologies relating to weapons of mass destruction, redouble efforts to ensure that its nuclear installations and materials are effectively protected against theft or seizure, and limit its nuclear-capable ballistic missile programs, especially operational deployment of those systems.”

Despite all these efforts the US could not get India to sign the CTBT, and still India managed to get along well with the US and sign the Indo-US nuclear deal in July 2006. According to Talbott, during this period India was more successful in furthering its foreign policy objectives as compared to the US.

This book is a welcome addition to the existing literature on the subject of Indo-US relations. The available material does not usually focus on behind the scene diplomatic manoeuvres, and therefore this book becomes all the more valuable. Students of South Asian politics must go through this fascinating book.

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