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BW Businessworld

US Is Aware Of India’s Stature

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Strobe Talbott, 66, has been travelling to India since 1974. His career spans journalism, government service, and academics is an expert on US foreign policy. Talbott who was US undersecretary of state in the Bill Clinton Administration in Delhi recently to meet up with the team of the recently established think tank Brookings India. He took time off his busy schedule to speak with BW Businessworld’s Anup Jayaram on a wide range of issues.
What new can we expect from Brookings India?
I am here in connection with the establishment of Brookings India, a think tank in India with Indian leadership and largely Indian funding. It will be part of the discussion in policy circles on major issues that Indians are concerned with including economics, society, government, private sector and foreign policy. The chairman is Vikram Singh Mehta with Subir Gokarn as research director. There is an organic relationship between Brookings India and the Brookings Institution in Washington. Over the course of months and years, we will be able to make a real contribution both to an informed citizenry here and leaders of the private sector and government.  
This will be the third overseas Brookings Institution affiliate. We have the Brookings Tsinghua Centre, at the campus of the Tsinghua University, Beijing and the Brookings Doha Center, which covers all of the Middle East. But Brookings India will be unusual. It does not have an intermediary reporting channel. Mehta is going to be working directly with the head of our foreign policy, Martin Indyk and myself. The three of us will be working together.
This is also due to the growing appreciation in the United States on how important a player India is on the global scene. One of the reasons we wanted to establish Brookings India is precisely because we recognized that. I came to Brookings 11 years ago and even before I walked in the door that was one of my aspirations to have something like what we have here. It took a long time to do it.
Indo-US relations hit a high with the signing of the nuclear deal. Do you see the same degree of warmth even today? What are the areas of concern?
I think there is steady improvement going back to the time when President Clinton was in office. I do not see serious setbacks. One reason for that is that the relationship has become much more deep and broad than before. For a long time we spent a lot of time arguing and disagreeing. That’s no more the case. There are still issues and there will always be issues, as there are between us and every country on earth. We have issues with ourselves. But, the basics of the relationship are getting stronger on a year by year basis.
When the nuclear deal was signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh, I had some apprehensions that expectations were being kept too high on both sides and as you know implementation of the deal has run into some speed bumps. That shouldn’t be too surprising and I don’t think that it has done any fundamental damage to the relationship.
In my career as a journalist for 20 years, one of my first trips was to India with Henry Kissinger, when Indira Gandhi was prime minister. Right up to the eight years that I spent with the Clinton Administration, I became very convinced that India is not only one of the most important countries in the world but also one of the most important bilateral relationships for the United States. The bilateral relationship needed a lot of tending to, and I think we did some of that tending in the Clinton Administration.
What are the biggest challenges facing the Obama Administration in its second term both domestically and globally?
Domestically, there is no question what the challenge is—remove obstacles to a robust recovery of our fiscal and economic health. In addition, we need to resuscitate a vigorous international trade and investment order. That will be done in several ways as the President has announced with the Trans Pacific Partnership. In the bilateral relationship between the United States and India, there has been significant improvement, but I think there could be more.
That relates to what we need to do in order to keep the economy going. Apart from keeping the deficit and the debt under control, we need to promote growth. One way to promote growth is to increase exports. And one way to export is to attract investments from Indian entrepreneurs who are very, very good at export-based industries and services. That’s where the economic agenda of President Obama overlaps somewhat with the foreign policy agenda. In order to have a healthy, international commercial order, that is good for all who participate in it, you need to be peaceful. There are many threats to a region which is much closer to you than to us—what you call West Asia and what we call the Middle East. And South Asia has some serious problems which I hardly need to mention.
Because India is a large, responsible democratic country, and a country with aspirations to play a significant role in the G-20, in the BRICS, it is incumbent on the United States, and I would say India to come up with ways to collaborate diplomatically, and in coordination of policies to address foreign policy issues.
There is no question that in the second term of president Obama, West Asia in general—what used to be called the Arab Spring, but is not looking like a spring—is one and there are Iran and Syria. There have been differences between the views of the New Delhi government and those at Washington. I think narrowing the gap is very important.
India is a repository of a huge amount of information and knowledge about Iran. It’s not just because you are neighbours, but there are cultural affinities and trading links. You’ve had a robust diplomatic presence there for a long time and Iran is an immensely complicated society. It is not all in bad ways; it’s complicated in good ways. They are very talented people with thousands of years of history. It is a young population; very cosmopolitan. Lot of Iranians speak English and they have a lot more democracy than many other countries in the region. Some people say it is the second-most democratic country in the Greater Middle East, because it has an elected Parliament and an elected president. But they also have this clerical leadership which has a tight grip on the system. And most importantly, they have an un-admitted programme to get nuclear weapons.
One of the reasons we at Brookings think we have a role to play in the think tank community here is because you Indians have a lot of expertise—some of which is available through think tanks, with government officials and the private sector—with Iran. We have some perspectives and information that I think are necessary or are useful for Indians to hear. So there is an opportunity for exchange of ideas, exchange of people and to exchange plans to serve the purposes of both countries.
With the US pulling out of Afghanistan how do you see the dynamics changing in the region?
It is inevitable and worrisome at the same time. It’s inevitable because some time ago Afghanistan passed in to first place for the longest war in American history. It has accomplished some things but not many other things that were much hoped. And in particular is the transformation of Afghan society. In retrospect, I would say in terms of goals and expectations, it is not Mission Accomplished.  
With regard to the Taliban threat, more specifically the Al-Qaeda threat, it’s been beaten back but it has not been destroyed by any stretch of imagination. So we need consultations between the United States and India. I don’t need to tell you or your leaders how complex and contradictory Pakistan’s policies are with regard to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and therefore how strained the relationship is between the United States and Pakistan.
We don’t ever want to be in the position of play Pakistan versus India or vice versa. That is absolutely not our foreign policy. However, what we want to do is to do as much common cause as we can do with India, which is because India like us has been on multiple occasions been the victim of terrorism originating from that part of the world.
In this context how do you see Indo-Pak relations moving in the immediate future?
Well…I am starting with a disclaimer. I come here as I have been coming since 1974. I always come with questions and not with answers. I come to try to find out what is going on here and how Indian friends see the situation.
I’ll give you my answer for what it’s worth. My Indian friends will agree that there are a huge number of highly talented, responsible Pakistanis both in public and private life. I don’t need to get into the history of your country and what used to be called the Raj, but read a lot about Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his concept was for a secular Muslim society. As a journalist, I had several opportunities to interview Zia-ul Haq. I think it started with him, but in a way it goes farther back than that. My friend, Jaswant Singh—I just came from seeing him—once told me that Pakistan and India were born in the same room. But they were very different on a key point. India was committed and remained committed to being an inclusive secular state.
We in the United States have an imperfect record. We had a civil war. We had the stain of slavery on our history. Even today with a president who has a Muslim name and a black face, there is still racism in America. So we are still working on our experiment in democracy. You are still working on your experiment in democracy. But we are both working on our experiments on the same model—which is secularism, pluralism and diversity. And Pakistan is not. It is paying a price for that.
And another thing is that born in the same room, India came into the world with an element of self-confidence. And I think, Pakistan came into the world, was an element of insecurity. As a result, it has always looked at India as an existential threat. You fought wars over that.
You had a tough time with Pakistan during the Kargil war?
The most frightening experience that I had was when I was working on South Asia during my eight years in government. That was Kargil. I was in the middle of that. My god, my god Nawaz Sharif came down to Washington. There was lot of anxiety about that. In this city, Prime Minister Vajpayee had to suspend his skepticism and worry or to accept President Clinton’s assurances that President Clinton would drive a very, very hard bargain on the fundamental requirement for ending that crisis; which was that Pakistani forces would have to go back behind the line of control. And there were moments during that where we thought that it could go to war. It was even imaginable that it would be nuclear.
Why was that?  I would not like to say that the flood of the blame was on one side. Many people in this city and this country would say that it was all on one side. But the point is, Pakistan had in that instance and in so many others saw India as the biggest threat to Pakistan’s integrity. My own view is that’s not the biggest threat, the biggest threat is inside of Pakistan. It’s to be found in areas of Pakistan, where neither Islamabad nor Rawalpindi is in control. That’s the biggest threat.
And how the United States and India can cooperate is a challenge on a bilateral basis, but also a triangular challenge, because United States wants to have a strong relationship with Pakistan. And India wants to have a better relationship with Pakistan; and there are Pakistanis who want to reciprocate in both directions, but there are Pakistanis who don’t and will do anything to prevent. So, that’s an issue for governments.
In his first ever state-visit, the new Chinese leader Xi Jingping is has gone to Russia and is meeting the other BRICS nation heads of state in South Africa. Is there a message in this to the western world?
it didn’t strike me as surprising or worrisome. I would stress two motives on both countries side. One is commercial; it is very simple—China needs energy, Russia has energy. The other thing is that both countries are uneasy about American foreign policy. US-Russia relations, I am sorry to say are at a low point for all kinds of reasons. As for US-China relations they are more complex. But President Obama during his first term called it the pivot of Asia. There is definitely an increase in attention to Asia and your part of Asia and a rebalancing towards the western rim of the Pacific and all the way to the Cape and through the Straits to the Indian Ocean.
And the Chinese see that as threatening. They think it’s about containment. It’s not about containment, but some of their own policies have made their neighbours, including India I think, worry what their geo-political interests are. Therefore it has made some of their neighbours hope that the United States will assume a more active and robust presence in Asia. Managing that different set of hopes, fears and perceptions in the region will be tricky for the United States. And we will do it better, if we can collaborate closely with you.
In 2000, during that presidential election, Condoleezza Rice wrote an article in Foreign Affairs that explicitly said the United Sates should improve its relationship with India as a strategic counter-weight to China. Every Indian I know thought that was a terrible thing to put forward as American policy. India has its own difficulties with China and it doesn’t help if it looks like entering an alliance with the United Sates. I have been very careful that we should not create such a view.
Back in days of the Cold war we did that. We built our relations with China in order to counter Russia. That was the Cold war. We should not be looking at the US, China, India relation as three-handed poker. What we should do is, each if we want to see a strengthening of each leg of that triangle. We have a lot of expertise on China and India at Brookings.
In his first ever state-visit, the new Chinese leader Xi Jingping is has gone to Russia and is meeting the other BRICS nation heads of state in South Africa. Is there a message in this to the western world?
You know which is the letter in that acronym that I have the most questions about? R, I just don’t get it. The generic description of the BRICS is emerging economies. Russia is not an emerging economy. It is a resource rich economy that has a governance structure and an economic system that are not emerging. They are still stuck in the past. I’ve never understood the rationale.
You know the origin of the word. Goldman Sachs, and all praise to Goldman Sachs. They are a very fine financial institution, but I don’t quite understand why a concept became institutionalized. From what I understand about how the BRICS interaction is going, not all that great, including with the B.
I’m skeptical about the bank.
Europe is still in trouble. So when do you see the global economy getting back on track?
My recent itinerary was Berlin, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt and Athens. So, I am choc-a-bloc with impressions from Europe. It’s a very, very tough situation there. It is in general and particularly with regard to Cyprus. I’ll just make one comment on that. It looks like that they have pulled out of the hat a deal that we hope the president of Cyprus can get through his parliament. That may stop the hemorrhaging from the Cypriot banking system. I have a real question about that deal, because even though the levy is only on deposits of over 100,000 Euros the essence is that they are fining or haircutting deposits which strikes me as being morally questionable.
I was in Barcelona when the first of these deals was announced. The Spaniards were worried that they would be next. When people are worried that their money is not safe in the bank, what do they do? They take it out. That’s a bank run. That’s how the Great Depression—it wasn’t how it started but was one of the catastrophic consequences of the fall in the stock markets. You don’t want to see that happen in Europe.
In the years that I have been coming to India, what I have noticed with some exceptions is a lack of interest and attention to Europe.  US of course; even Africa is back on the radar. Indian entrepreneurs would like to get back there and compete with the Chinese. East Asia is big time. But Europe is like a blank spot on the map.
It has not been like that on this trip. If I was tweeting, I would say common Indians are paying attention to Europe again, which is a good thing. I think that is because now India is a global power with a globalised economy and it recognizes like we all are doing that we need to work our way out of the great recession. We are making progress. I know your progress has been a little shaky. Our progress has been shaky, but some of the numbers are good—stock market good, job creation not so good; debt and deficit really not good. What we don’t need is another shock to the international system and the collapse of the Euro; the breakup Eurozone; bankruptcies of small countries in the Mediterranean zone.  
Twitter: (at)anupjayaram

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 06-05-2013)