Strobe Talbott: Fact and Fiction on India

The truth Talbott hides

Brahma Chellaney

The Asian Age, March 15, 2008


What 14 rounds of hush-hush negotiations during the Clinton years could not clinch, the Bush administration is seeking to pull off through aggressive public diplomacy, centred on marketing the nuclear deal as India’s “passport” to the world.


The Prime Minister has done well to assure Parliament that he will continue to "seek the broadest possible consensus within the country" over the nuclear deal with the United States. A critical matter like this, which is going to affect the future of India’s nuclear programme and tie the country to perpetual, legally irrevocable international inspections, demands such a consensus. The partisan rancour over what has become an increasingly divisive issue needs to be defused.

While giving that assurance, the Prime Minister referred to a recent claim by former US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott that, had the Clinton team offered only "half" of what the Bush administration has proposed now, the Vajpayee government "would have gone for it." The truth is that Talbott says just the opposite in his detailed exposition in Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, a book he published in 2004.

Talbott has a long record of mounting non-proliferation pressure on India. Before becoming deputy secretary, Talbott travelled to Moscow, as ambassador-at-large, to persuade the Russians to renege on their $75-million contract to sell cryogenic-engine technology to India — dangling carrots and warning that "a viable Indian missile capability could one day pose a security threat to Russia itself." It didn’t matter that cryogenic technology has civilian space applications and no nation has employed it in ballistic missiles.

To Talbott, India had to be penalised for retaining its nuclear-weapons option. Yet when India gatecrashed the nuclear club in May 1998, Talbott took the lead — after the shock over the tests had dissipated — to help shift the US policy goal. In place of the lost aim to stop New Delhi from crossing the threshold, a new objective was devised: Prevent India’s emergence as a full-fledged nuclear-weapons state by bringing it into the US-led non-proliferation regime.

With that purpose in mind, Talbott, as the Clinton administration’s troubleshooter, held extended, closed-door negotiations with then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh during 1998-2000. The discussions that stretched to 14 rounds at ten locations in seven countries have been described by the recently-retired US undersecretary, R. Nicholas Burns, in an article published in the November-December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, as "Washington’s first truly sustained strategic engagement with the Indian leadership."

That "sustained strategic engagement" was essentially about getting India to accept a set of rigorous non-proliferation benchmarks, by Talbott’s own admission. But where the Clinton administration failed, the Bush team is on the scent of success. The impulse to stitch up the deal before it unravels under wiser Indian reflection has triggered a crescendo of calls by US officials: "The clock is ticking;" "the timelines are short;" "we are kind of playing in overtime;" "there’s still a lot of work but not a lot of time;" "India must move ahead;" and it’s "now or never."

Let’s compare the benchmarks the Clinton team tried to impose with the non-proliferation conditions the Bush administration has attached to the deal.

Talbott says in his book, "If there is a deal to be done with India, my guess is that it will be a version of the one offered by the Clinton administration and rejected by the BJP-led government. The four US-proposed non-proliferation benchmarks put forward in 1998 — joining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, making progress on a fissile material treaty, exercising strategic restraint (by that or some other name), and meeting the highest standard of export controls … should remain the basis of the American policy into the future. That means the US government should persist until the four areas of restraint become the basis of the Indian policy."

Here is Talbott admitting the Vajpayee government rejected the deal that was on offer then and saying the four Clinton-set benchmarks should remain the basis of US policy "into the future" — until India has caved in. In the book, Talbott presents himself as an unapologetic champion of hawkish positions — from mocking New Delhi for wanting to be grandfathered out of the NPT restrictions, to insisting the US cannot give India "a free pass into the nuclear club."

He lampoons Indian leaders he met. "Vajpayee’s pauses seemed to last forever … I had never met a politician so laconic." Prime Minister Inder Gujral’s 1997 meeting with President Clinton was a washout "in part because Gujral spoke so softly that everyone on the US side had trouble hearing what he was saying." Defence minister George Fernandes "regaled us with the story" of how he had been strip-searched in the US. "He seemed to enjoy our stupefaction at this tale." Sonia Gandhi went from being "diffident and evasive" to being "steely."

If Talbott has kind words for anyone, it is Jaswant Singh, whom he describes as the "persistent and beleaguered champion of moderation." He indeed flatters and pumps up Jaswant Singh, "the Indian statesman," saying it was "Jaswant" (as he calls him) who promised India’s signature on the CTBT. Talbott candidly admits the US game-plan was "to get the Indians to accept the CTBT along with meaningful restraints on their nuclear and missile programmes in exchange for our easing sanctions and throttling back on the campaign of international criticism we were orchestrating."

Domestic opposition in India, however, put paid to Jaswant Singh’s CTBT pledge. Not only that, the American side ended up empty-handed on the other restraint measures despite the protracted, 14-round talks. Talbott, whose approach in the negotiations was to smooth-talk the other side into submission, rues that Jaswant Singh "lost out" to the "conservatives within the BJP."

Now let’s see where the four Clinton-prescribed benchmarks stand today. What sticks out is that the Clinton benchmarks have not only been embraced wholeheartedly by the Bush administration, but also deftly incorporated in the deal, with each benchmark finding unequivocal mention in one or more of the key documents — the July 18, 2005 joint statement, India’s Separation Plan, the Hyde Act and the so-called 123 Agreement.

Benchmark 1 — a permanent test ban. That benchmark is central to the Bush deal with India. The expansive Hyde Act drags India through the backdoor into the CTBT. The Act admits it goes "beyond Section 129 of the Atomic Energy Act" in mandating that the waiver for India will necessarily terminate with any Indian test. The test ban is also built into the 123 Agreement by granting the US the dual right to seek the return of exported goods and to suspend all cooperation forthwith. In fact, with the Hyde Act going beyond the CTBT to define in technical terms what constitutes a nuclear-explosive test, India is to be held to CTBT-plus obligations.

What Jaswant Singh could not deliver has been ceded by a government whose real centre of power, Sonia Gandhi, paradoxically, was instrumental in scuttling the Vajpayee-led effort to build a political consensus for CTBT signature. Vajpayee’s hopes collapsed the moment Sonia Gandhi spoke up at the consensus-building meeting he had called. She said, "Why hurry when the US Senate itself has rejected this treaty? Heavens will not fall if we wait."

Benchmark 2 — restraint on fissile-material production. The Bush deal imposes this check in eclectic ways — from getting India to shut down one of its two research reactors producing weapons-grade plutonium to securing New Delhi’s commitment to work "with the US for the conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty." The Hyde Act proviso for regular presidential reports on India’s "rate of production" of fissile material or on any changes in "unsafeguarded nuclear-fuel cycle activities" opens New Delhi to sustained pressure.

Much of India’s cumulative historic production of weapons-grade plutonium has come from the Cirus research reactor, to be dismantled by 2010 after having been refurbished at a cost of millions of dollars barely four years ago. Eight indigenous power reactors will also become unavailable for strategic-material needs.

Benchmark 3 — strategic restraint. The Bush deal seeks to hold India’s feet to the non-proliferation fire through the instrumentality of the Hyde Act and 123 Agreement. The controls built into the deal, as Senator Joseph Biden has admitted, will help "limit the size and sophistication of India’s nuclear-weapons programme."

While permitting conditional and partial civil nuclear cooperation, the Hyde Act, seeking to hobble the growth of Indian delivery capability, mandates the continued applicability of US missile sanctions law against India. The deal primarily is aimed at ensuring that India’s nuclear-deterrent capability remains rudimentary and regionally confined, thus helping promote security dependency on the US, including for missile defence and conventional weapons. Fostering security dependency is the key to winning and maintaining an ally.

Benchmark 4 — "meeting the highest standard of export controls." India has agreed under the deal to enact "comprehensive export-control legislation" and to unilaterally adhere to the rules of US-led cartels. While the original deal cited two such cartels, the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and Missile Technology Control Regime — both of which continue to exclude India from their membership — the Hyde Act has expanded the list to include more, including the controversial Proliferation Security Initiative.

So, as is clear, all the four Clinton benchmarks are at the heart of the Bush deal with India.

In fact, the Bush deal has far more to show. While the Clinton team could not persuade the sphinx-like Vajpayee to place under international inspection more than the two indigenous power reactors he was willing to offer under a potential deal, the Bush administration has won the Manmohan Singh government’s agreement to subject 35 nuclear facilities, including eight existing indigenous power reactors, to permanent external inspection. New Delhi will also shut down Cirus and remove the fuel core from Apsara, Asia’s first reactor.

The Bush team could extract such commitments from India by taking the tack Talbott suggested in his book that he wrote with "the cooperation of the department of state," which later — in his words again — "subjected the manuscript to a review to ensure that the contents would not compromise national security."

With the benefit of hindsight, Talbott had advised that the White House use the dual bait of UN Security Council permanent membership and a strategic partnership to "coax India into the non-proliferation mainstream." That is exactly what President Bush did.

Before offering the deal, Washington led India up the garden path on UNSC membership and massaged its ego with statements that it was both "ready to help India become an important power in the 21st century" and open to "a decisively broader strategic relationship." Since the deal was unveiled, a growing number of publicists have been pressed into service to market it as "India’s passport to the world."

As a result, what hush-hush negotiations with Jaswant Singh could not achieve, aggressive public diplomacy may pull off, with Burns singing the ditty that the deal is "wildly popular among millions of Indians who see it as a mark of US respect for India." That explains why an inveterate non-proliferation ayatollah like Talbott today is hawking the Bush deal, betting that India’s short public memory will help obscure the inconvenient truths.

(c) Asian Age, 2008 

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