Strobe Talbott’s absorbing and, at times, riveting diplomatic and historical memoir chronicles his and Jaswant Singh’s travails to bring India back into the fold of international politics and also reboot the troubled Indo-US relationship after the successful tests at Pokhran in 1998 that christened India as a de facto nuclear state. Through their joint laborious efforts, not only did they gradually commence the complex process of nuclear recognition that culminated in the extraordinary Indo-US Civil nuclear that the Bush administration struck with Manmohan Singh’s government but also, more importantly, create a deft diplomatic edifice that could enable decades of embittered relations between Washington and New Delhi to gradually ease resulting in a decade of unprecedented cooperation across a number of areas. Indeed, as Talbott himself argues, the promulgation of the recent civil nuclear pact would not have been feasible had it not been for the patient and protracted diplomatic work done by these two determined public servants. Notwithstanding recent events, their efforts are an undeniable ode to effective and robust diplomacy when practiced with sound principles, clear values and objectives and the unstinting support of the highest echelons of government. The extent of their encounters that ranged across several continents and was intermittently met with various domestic and international blows testifies to the difficulties associated with the responsibilities reposed on these two diplomats by their respective leaders. The achievement of a comprehensive rapprochement between the US and India following the efforts of Talbott and Singh has fundamentally reordered not only regional geopolitics, which quickly invited major power interest and activity with 9/11, but also rescued the vexed relationship between the world’s first and largest democracies, one that had been suffering from bouts of engagement, hostility, antagonism, and almost war with the onset of the 1971 crisis; perhaps, as many have suggested, India’s nuclearization cannot be fully understood without Nixon’s decision to despatch the USS Enterprise to prevent a regional and possibly global conflagration from occurring. A rejuvenated Indo-US accord has also gradually led to the waning of a hitherto strong US-Pak alliance that had navigated the choppy waters of the cold war with considerable tumult. Lacking a robust existential foe to deal with, American predilections for Pakistan ebbed but this did not immediately engender goodwill for Delhi. It took a monumental event, that of nuclearization, for Washington to commit substantial attention to their sizable democratic counterpart in South Asia.
As India went nuclear in 1998, the discontent and anger in Washington was palpable. Talbott commences with a run through of the sentiments within the American establishment once they learned of the nuclear tests in the deserts of Rajasthan. Clinton’s response and that of the administration was swift, comprehensive sanctions were enforced across a number of areas combined with an effort to direct international opprobrium towards New Delhi. Through the maze and mess of these developments, one crucial aspect came through following the tests and the attendant response – that American policy to India was and had been a failure for decades. Administrations had come and gone but one constant was the love loss between both countries. Even as the cold war ended, a renewed effort to resurrect the moribund relationship was found wanting. If anything, Pokhran II had awoken this acrimonious relationship from a protracted slumber. To shepherd the relationship from its fraught past, initially for the purposes of global non-proliferation, Clinton and Vajpayee placed it into the hands of their deputies, Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh. What followed was a three-year long dialogue between them and their teams to gradually prod the Indians to shed their nuclear ambitions and adhere to CTBT. Also part of Talbott’s narrative were the concurrent efforts to dissuade Pakistan from also going nuclear in response. Despite American exhortations, Nawaz Sharif led Pakistan down the same road, creating a problem of epic proportions for Washington as it was tending to crises across the Middle East and the Balkans. South Asia had emerged as a major irritant and one that could not be sidestepped or wished away. Some of the most alarming parts of the book deal with Talbott’s encounters with Pakistan’s establishment as it went nuclear and after with the lead up to the Kargil fiasco. Some Pakistani diplomats, notably Shamshad Ahmad and his team come under severe treatment from Talbot and are seen as largely incompetent, unprepared, inveterately insecure and downright deceptive. And this in stark contrast to Jaswant Singh and his team, who were extremely deft, crafty, armed with strategy and the dexterity to pursue it ruthlessly. Nawaz Sharif, himself, comes out looking as mind-numbingly hopeless and defunct following the Kargil invasion; his eventual unravelling and dressing down under Clinton should amount to one of the, if not the most, humbling encounters between two heads of state.
Talbott’s tale also enables us to consider and better understand various issues incumbent under and related to the conception and practice of contemporary Indian foreign policy – domestic politics, strength of India’s foreign-policy making establishment, regional preoccupations, vestiges of colonialism, relationship with major powers and the nature and status of Indian multilateralism. Though Talbott continually refers to the ability of the domestic Indian politics to scuttle ongoing negotiations and any potential deal vis-a-vis the CTBT, he does not delve more into what specifically the impediments were domestically. Besides electoral contingencies and setbacks and the difficulties associated with coalition management, there is not much coverage of the domestic in the book. And this is disconcerting since it forms as one of the chief barriers to potential breakthroughs between both sides. Compared to their Pakistani counterparts, India’s foreign service corps are positively portrayed and presented in the narrative and this somehow does not square with the widely propounded claim that the IFS and the MEA are chronically underfunded, understaffed and are constantly overwhelmed. One definitely does not get that impression through Talbott’s experience. But Talbott does bring into light several other factors that are repeatedly recited as withholding the global ambitions of Indian diplomacy, including the fractious Pakistani relationship that Delhi finds itself consigned to, colonial hangover or resisting any and all alliances and adhering to ‘strategic autonomy’ due to the legacies of colonialism and its effects, and also Delhi’s guarded and defensive orientation to major powers that have long remained a source of consternation to Delhi. Talbott should definitely be commended for delivering his diplomatic experience in such lucid and engaging prose and for providing an outstanding outsider’s look to the practice of Indian foreign policy.