Currying Favor

The extent of the challenge can be gauged by the difficulty we’ve had of keeping even non-hostile nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. In 1998, India conducted its first nuclear test. Two weeks later, Pakistan followed suit.

The tests triggered celebrations in both countries, suggesting that getting either to turn back was improbable, if not impossible. In an effort to put the genie back in the bottle, the Clinton administration entered into intense negotiations with India as part of a reengagement with a country that had been largely estranged from the United States during the Cold War, because of its close ties to the Soviet Union.

The point man for that reengagement, former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, has now written a book about the experience. Talbott argues that much good came from Clinton’s effort. But his book also makes clear that a better relationship with a country is no guarantee that the United States will get what it wants.

Thanks in no small part to Bill Clinton’s opening–capped by the President’s rapturously received visit to India in 2000, the first by an American president in 22 years–America and India are on better terms today than at any time in the last 50 years. The reflexive anti-Americanism that was once pervasive here is gone, although vestiges remain. The American government takes India far more seriously as a potential strategic partner (and the American public takes it far more seriously as a potential economic power, thanks to the rise of outsourcing).American defense manufacturers are increasingly interested in India as a market, and top State Department officials are regular visitors.

But while Talbott makes a strong case that Clinton’s presidency marked a “turning point” in U.S.-India relations, his book, Engaging India, is largely a narrative of failed diplomacy. Talbott’s task was to persuade India to agree to four non-proliferation benchmarks, including the endorsement of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). His interlocutor in this effort was Jaswant Singh, then India’s foreign minister, and in the end, Talbott acknowledges, “Jaswant Singh came closer to achieving his objective than I did to achieving mine.”

India’s 1998 nuclear test caught America completely off guard. Indeed, the State Department learned of the test from CNN, and the CIA learned about it from the State Department. It was, in the words of one official, a “bad government day.”

Over the next two and a half years, Talbott and Singh–a former soldier who saw himself as a liberal democrat within the then ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party–met 14 times in seven countries, and clearly struck up a warm friendship. (Talbott’s description of that relationship contrasts sharply with the author’s diplomatic rendering of the total lack of chemistry between Talbott’s boss, Madeleine Albright, and Singh.) Their meetings form the narrative spine for the book. Singh continually makes vague assurances on the CTBT like, “At the end of the day, Strobe, you will not find us wanting.”

Of course, in the end Strobe did find them wanting, and so from an outsider’s perspective, and admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, this looks as much like Indian strategy as good faith. The Indians simply figured they could wait out the United States, and that is exactly what happened. Singh was the “good cop” to the hardliners in his party.

Even if he had wanted to sign the treaty, Singh would have been waging an uphill battle from the start. The nuclear tests were popular in India, and not just among the ruling Hindu nationalists.

Talbott recounts futile efforts to garner support from Sonia Gandhi, leader of the opposition, in pushing for nuclear containment. In his book, Talbott reveals for the first time, that, in 1996, Clinton managed to dissuade then-prime minister Narasimha Rao from going forward with a nuclear test. Talbott’s revelation led to news stories in India this year suggesting that Rao was weak for having caved to American pressure.

Clinton’s own leverage with India was ultimately undermined in Washington. The GOP-controlled Senate refused to ratify the CTBT. The only concession India ever made was to agree to stricter export controls in return for coveted cooperation in space and other high technology commerce with the United States. Talbott paints this as a major victory since it is one of the four non-proliferation benchmarks the Clinton administration had pushed for, but it is arguably the least significant in curtailing India’s nuclear program.

Talbott offers few insights on how to stop a country like India from acquiring nuclear weapons for what it sees as its own security needs. With a nuclear-armed China on one border and another neighbor, Pakistan, seeking these weapons, it is not hard to see why the Indians wanted to go nuclear–even though attainment of nuclear weapons has not done much to either deter those threats or increase the subcontinent’s stability.

India has opposed both the CTBT and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because it sees both as reflecting the efforts of nuclear powers like the United States to prevent others from joining the club. What Talbott saw as responsibility, the Indians saw as hegemony.

Ultimately, Engaging India makes clear that India wants to be engaged, but on its own terms, and those do not include compromising its nuclear program. While Talbott’s recounting of his conversations with Singh partially helps explain why, in the end, this might have been a more valuable memoir had it been co-written with the sphinx-like Singh himself. The Indian position is represented here, but second-hand, and largely as it frustrates the American one. If these two countries are going to bridge their differences, it will require not just bilateral talks, but a bifocal view of history as well.