Engaging India | Strobe Talbott

Summary of: Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb
By: Strobe Talbott


Dive into the high-stakes world of diplomacy in Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb, where author Strobe Talbott chronicles the complex and often tumultuous relationship between the United States and India. This summary explores the dialogues between Talbott and Indian statesman Jaswant Singh, as well as the geopolitical and historical factors that have shaped this relationship. Discover how India’s nuclear weapons program, the influence of domestic politics, and lingering colonialist attitudes contributed to a challenging diplomatic landscape. With themes of national sovereignty and global nuclear order at its core, Engaging India offers an insightful examination of the delicate balance between diplomacy and nuclear proliferation.

Negotiating with Nuclear Powers

The story of the negotiation between the US and India in response to India’s nuclear weapon test in 1998, revealing the differing perspectives on nuclear armament.

In 1998, India’s nuclear weapon test caught the American intelligence services off-guard and sparked negotiations between the US and India. Strobe Talbot, the Deputy Secretary of State, and Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh engaged in a two-and-half-year dialogue that spanned three continents. The US was concerned that India possessing a nuclear weapon would unbalance the global nuclear order, leading other countries to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense. Meanwhile, India saw its possession of nuclear weapons as a demonstration of national sovereignty and equity.

The negotiations were slow-moving, as India was reluctant to compromise and viewed it as taking orders from a colonial power. As far as the Indian leaders were concerned, why should a world power like India be excluded from the nucleus of nuclear powers when dictatorships like China and Pakistan were members? The US aimed to establish a compromise wherein the US would overlook India’s bomb to an extent if India agreed upon limitations on further nuclear development and deployment.

Despite the US’s efforts, India played for time, betting that the US would eventually stop pressing on the issue and accept the reality of India as a nuclear state. Throughout their negotiations, India’s sovereignty remained key, and Talbot’s use of the word “engagement” highlighted India’s reasons for developing nuclear weapons. The negotiations eventually led to an agreement, but the tense diplomatic exchange disclosed distinct differences between the two countries’ views on nuclear armament.

India-US Relations

India and America had a complicated relationship due to their colonial pasts, different cultures, and friendly relationships with each other’s enemies. The BJP rose to power in India, and Pakistan was created due to Muslim leaders’ belief that Muslims could not achieve equal opportunities in Hindu India. The nuclear arms race escalated in both countries due to political instability and overthrows. Despite several attempts at reconciliation, the Kashmir crisis remained an ongoing issue, and both countries developed missiles necessary for effective nuclear weapons. However, there were brief periods of promise in US-India relations, culminating in President Clinton’s successful visit to India.

India-Pakistan Nuclear Standoff

When President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, India and Pakistan’s refusal to sign and ratify it prevented its enforcement. As nuclear-capable states, both countries were given a veto. In 1998, India tested a bomb, resulting in the US imposing sanctions. Despite the Clinton administration wanting India to sign the CTBT, critics in Congress seized on India’s test to scrap the CTBT, citing that the US should continue to build its nuclear capabilities. Instead of cooperating, Pakistan followed India’s example and tested its own bomb only weeks later.

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