Interview: Mr Strobe Talbott, president of Brookings Institution
Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-09
Mr Strobe Talbott is president of the prestigious Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., a leading think tank. Earlier, he was Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration. And before that, he was a senior diplomatic correspondent for Time Magazine. Mr. Talbott has long been a prolific author, having tackled subjects ranging from the Soviet Union to geopolitics. He also translated the late Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs from Russian into English.
The Brookings Institution Press is publishing his new book, "Engaging India," this month. It has already caused waves on account of his insider disclosures of how the United States prevented India and Pakistan from going to nuclear war against each other. Mr Talbott, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, gave The Straits Times an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
What importance does the United States attach to India?
"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. That is, 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 skeptical of Washington's designs in Asia?
I wouldn't say wary -- I'd say aware, i.e., aware of history and of prevailing attitudes. Having traveled to India since the 70s, 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 policy-makers to "get" from your book?
I'd hope that both American and Indian policymakers -- and, for that matter, all readers -- would come away from the book with a somewhat heightened appreciation of the importance of personal engagement and trust between individuals as a necessary (though not necessarily sufficient) precondition for engagement and trust between governments.
What role do you see the US now playing in Asia, particularly South Asia and Southeast Asia?
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 Southeast Asia, the US has left several of those relationships insufficiently tended of late, partly because of its preoccupation elsewhere -- the Greater Middle East and Northeast Asia.
Do you feel that the Clinton Administration neglected Southeast Asia and perhaps focused too heavily on the Indian Subcontinent?
I don't see a zero/sum relationship between the two. In fact, the Clinton administration gave a lot of attention to Southeast Asia, even as we were working hard on South Asia. Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeline Albright spent a lot of time, for example, on the ASEAN Regional Forum. President Clinton himself devoted considerable attention to APEC, which gave him a way of engaging with Southeast Asia.
Do you see Washington playing a constructive role in helping resolve the Kashmir crisis?
Insofar as the parties wish it to do so.
Will Pakistan last as a polity?
We must hope so -- and we means 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?
The world 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?
More work on everyone's part.
Do you see India truly becoming an economic superpower?
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-Southeast Asia-related programs?
Yes, Brookings is embarked on an effort to develop a more robust and ambitious India/South Asia program. My colleagues Steve Cohen and Jim Steinberg are working with me on that. We already have a vigorous
Center for Northeast Asia Policy Studies and we've just launched a new initiative on China, funded by the chairman of our board, John Thornton. Southeast Asia remains an area where we hope -- and need -- to do more in the future. Much will depend on finding partners in that region.
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist