Too Few Americans Pay Attention to the World

September 18, 2004

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by Pranay Gupte with Strobe Talbott for The Straits Times.

Pranay Gupte: Mr Strobe Talbott, former United States deputy secretary of state and current president of the prestigious Washington think-tank, The Brookings Institution, has just written a book, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy And The Bomb, which the Brookings Institution Press released this week.

His insider disclosures of how the United States, under former president Bill Clinton, prevented India and Pakistan from going to nuclear war against each other caused major waves on the Indian sub-continent when they were leaked earlier this year.

The prolific writer, who was once a senior diplomatic correspondent for Time magazine, has tackled subjects ranging from the Soviet Union to geopolitics. He also translated the late Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs from Russian into English.

His exclusive interview with The Straits Times:

What importance does the United States attach to India?

TALBOTT: ‘The US’ may be a singular noun, but it’s a plural phenomenon. Too few Americans pay attention to South Asia. Indeed, too few pay attention to the world as a whole. That’s both a shame and a puzzlement, since so many Americans are ‘not from around here’. We’re a nation of immigrants. A lot of relatively new Americans are from India. That factor has increased awareness of what’s happening in the region and concern about the direction of US policy.

The US government, since the Clinton administration, has tended to look at India more in its own right. We’ve put the Cold War behind us as a lens that had a distorting effect on attitudes towards India.Were you wary in dealing with Indian officials who have long been sceptical of Washington’s designs in Asia? I wouldn’t say wary—I’d say aware, that is, aware of history and of prevailing attitudes. Having travelled to India since the 1970s, and having dealt with Indian officials both as a journalist and as a government official, I knew the background of policies and views I’d be encountering.

What message would you like policymakers to ‘get’ from your book?

TALBOTT: In South Asia, I see the US as a friend to all the nations in the area, willing—and permitted—to play the role of facilitator from time to time, especially in relations between India and Pakistan.

In South-east Asia, the US has left several of those relationships insufficiently tended of late, partly because of its preoccupation elsewhere—the Greater Middle East and North-east Asia.

Do you feel the Clinton administration neglected South-east Asia and focused too heavily on the Indian sub-continent?

TALBOTT: I don’t see a zero-sum relationship between the two. In fact, the Clinton administration gave a lot of attention to South-east Asia, even as we were working hard on South Asia. Secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright spent a lot of time, for example, on the Asean Regional Forum. President Clinton himself devoted considerable attention to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, which gave him a way of engaging with South-east Asia.

Do you see Washington playing a constructive role in helping to resolve the Kashmir crisis?

TALBOTT: Insofar as the parties wish it to do so.

Will Pakistan last as a polity?

TALBOTT: We must hope so—and we mean Indians as well as Americans (not to mention Pakistanis)—since Pakistan’s failure as a polity would be a disaster for everyone.

Do you seriously see India as being a genuine ideological and military ally of the United States?

TALBOTT: The word ally has been used with something less than precision (to wit: major non-Nato ally, as a designation for Pakistan). The point is we—the US and India—have common interests, including in the security realm. That suggests partnership, more than alliance, since the latter term connotes a treaty relationship. We may get to that point, but progress in other respects should not wait until then.

What will it take to deepen Americans’ understanding of India and its potential?

TALBOTT: More work on everyone’s part.

Do you see India truly becoming an economic superpower?

TALBOTT: The vitality and ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of the Indian people, plus the sheer size of the country, plus the promise of economic reform are reasons for optimism. The looming question is whether the fruits of economic growth can be used to reduce poverty, lessen disparities and open up opportunities within India.

At Brookings, are you introducing any special India-Pakistan-South-east Asia-related programmes?

TALBOTT: Yes, Brookings has embarked on an effort to develop a more robust and ambitious India/South Asia programme. My colleagues Steve Cohen and Jim Steinberg are working with me on that. We already have a vigorous Centre for North-east Asia Policy Studies and we’ve just launched a new initiative on China, funded by the chairman of our board, Mr John Thornton.

South-east Asia remains an area where we hope—and need—to do more in the future. Much will depend on finding partners in that region.