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‘I think it is in the long-term interest of India and Pakistan to work together’

Dr Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in the Nixon Administration and one of the most authoritative voices on US foreign policy, was at The Indian Express early last month for an Idea Exchange where he spoke of his India connection, Indira Gandhi, Indo-US ties and Pakistan


December 7, 2008 1:29:47 am

Shekhar Gupta: Would give us your assessment of Indo-American relations since the 1960s?

I saw India for the first time in 1961. I was a historian at Harvard??, and I wrote about 19th-century Europe, and the problems that occupied me were to see whether I could learn to understand and describe how, after the Napoleonic wars which tore Europe apart, there was 100 years of peace and then how, after that 100 years of peace, Europe tore itself apart again. So I started out writing about the Congress of Vienna which ended the Napoleonic war, and I was going to go on through the 19th century. One day, I was walking through Harvard Yard and ran into Arthur Schlesinger. These were leisurely times, and Arthur Schlesinger had in his pocket a letter from a former Secretary of the Air Force called Tom Finletter that described the doctrine of massive retaliation of nuclear weapons. I did not know more about that subject than any other civilian. I had never studied it. He asked, ‘What do you think?’ I put that letter it my pocket, and I wrote Arthur, telling him why I thought you couldn’t conduct a strategy depending on mutual extermination. Without my knowing it, he sent that letter to the editor of Foreign Affairs. The editor made an article out of it. Because of that article, I was asked to head a study group on nuclear weapons and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. That book became a bestseller – the only bestseller in the history of the Council on Foreign Relations. I became well known. I never got back to the 19th century in my writings.

When Jack Kennedy became President, he asked me to join his staff, but I had been a long-time friend of Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, so I said I will work for you as a consultant. The Harvard group that was associated with Kennedy had huge admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru, and Kenneth Galbraith, a close friend of mine, was US ambassador here. I came here in 1961 to give some lectures and to stay with Galbraith. The belief in Washington was that in the big crisis of that moment, which was the Berlin crisis, there must be some policy that India would support, and I kept saying to them there is no policy that India can possibly support. Berlin is 2,000-3,000 miles away; Russia is 500 miles away. Why should Nehru run risks for a European city in the region from where colonialism had come? So I had respect for non-alignment. I knew it was not possible to change it. That was my basic view about India. I also always had the view that the national interests of India and the U.S. in the Indian Ocean were parallel, but the reason India conducted itself as it did was because in its judgment we were taking care of the overall balance of power, and they were concerned, above all, with the regional one.

My next encounter with India was when I was Security Advisor to Nixon. Of course, you all know from much of what had been published that the relationship between Indira Gandhi and Nixon was not made in heaven. There were also the differences in perception about the Vietnam war. She preferred the liberal, left-wing American writers to what she considered right-wing conservatives. To me, she was personally friendly — I was a professor, so I got more cordial treatment.

Then came 1971. I will not go into details except to make one point. Some day, I’ll write about that period from one point of view: how two countries, each pursuing absolutely logical policies from their point of view, each pursuing the national interest and perceiving it correctly, can come to a clash, that in the terms of the period was unavoidable. The crisis occurred when Pakistan was our only channel to China and for us, the opening up to China was crucial in the conduct of the Cold War and in changing the perceptions of the American public about the problem of peace. For Indira Gandhi, the problem of Bangladesh was to see that what emerged there did not become part of the Cold War. The problem was not that she thought we were unsympathetic to independence but that she thought we would bring about the independence there sooner or later, and she did not want it under American auspices. The problem with our timing was that I had been in Beijing in July; Nixon had agreed to go there in February; India had to act when the snow fell in the Himalayas. So this is, quite frankly, how the clash occurred, and as soon as the crisis was over, we moved on both sides to improve relations.

I came here in 1974, and we created the Indian-U.S. Cooperation Commission that is now a permanent feature of our relations. That was done during my period. The only problem was we found it hard to find subjects to talk about. I was creating a Track II group once. I headed it on the American side, and senior Indian bureaucrat ??? BK Nehru led the Indian side. I asked BK Nehru , ‘What’s the agenda of the meeting?’. He said, ‘American arms to Pakistan’. I said,: ‘What are we going to talk about after 20 minutes?’

For the last 20 years, I have been coming to India regularly, and I believe that our interests are extremely parallel now on the big issues of the period – on the peaceful evolution of the region between Singapore and as far west as you want to go and on issues like environment, energy, proliferation and terrorism. So now when I come here, I come to a country that I have always respected, but now we have common purposes. I think our relations are very good. They were strengthened by the nuclear cooperation agreement. They will continue to improve in the next administration and in a world in which there are many conflicting currents. Coming here is a relaxation for me in that I meet a lot of people who have parallel objectives, and I look forward to the continued cooperation of the United States with India. I think this is the most positive period that I have ever known in Indo-American relations and, of course, it is exciting to see the progress that has been made in fulfilling India’s objectives towards its own development.

Pranab Dhal Samata: Can you fill in some of the blanks with regard to 1971 since you were privy to all the details.

We were at no point anywhere close to or contemplated a military act against India. The movement of the U.S. carrier Enterprise was a symbolic move to convey that the situation was getting serious and going beyond regional issues. It was at the moment when the Chinese allegedly were considering a move in the Himalayas, and the Soviets were sending arms to India. So you have to look at it in the context of attempting to bring about an end to the conflict on the West Pakistan side. The Bangladesh issue had been substantially settled. Some day, I would like to maybe write about it – not to show who was right or wrong – but as a study in the dilemmas of statesmanship. If I had been Mrs. Indira Gandhi, I would probably have done what she did, and if she had been in my place, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had come to the same conclusion. The remarkable thing is, considering how rigorously each side pursued its interests, how quickly they backed off from the confrontational aspects. There was no recrimination in practical form on either side.

Dheeraj Nayyar: Do you think Obama should negotiate with Iran, conditionally, unconditionally, or not at all? What should India’s policy be?

If you look at the American reaction to negotiations through the last 30 years, whenever there is an issue about negotiations, there is a big debate on whether we should negotiate. And there are usually two groups of people. One group looks at negotiations as a psychiatric problem: that is, you get people together, put them in a room, the atmosphere will change magically, the problem will disappear. Another group looks at negotiations as a theological problem: is the other party worthy of your attention? My view is, when you have a problem, of course, you should always be prepared to negotiate. Now the question is, with or without pre-conditions? As a general rule, you go into a negotiation to achieve conditions. That’s why you are there. So I am in favour of negotiating ‘without pre-conditions’. On what level the negotiation should be held, I think it’s a general rule that it’s a bad idea to have heads of state negotiating with each other at the beginning of a process. Most heads of state have highly developed egos – or they wouldn’t be heads of state – and limited time. So if they meet in a short time frame and don’t agree, you have no recourse left. So as a general proposition, I believe it is helpful, at the beginning of the negotiation, for the top leaders to understand where they are going but to have the actual details prepared at a lower level. I think it’s necessary in our relationship with Iran. Other countries have an important interest in that, including India. We should be in close contact with India and hopefully agree on a general framework of what is going to be proposed. We have another problem – we don’t want our Arab friends to believe that negotiating with Iran is a prelude to the division of the Arab world between the so-called American empire and the Iranian aspirations. And we have to take into account the special concerns of Israel and Turkey. So negotiating with Iran is important, but it has to be put into the context of an overall American foreign policy.

Shekhar Gupta: You are right about the problems when heads of states negotiate, particularly when they meet for the first time –we saw what happened when A.B. Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf met at the Agra Summit.

I went to Moscow to negotiate a ceasefire to the Middle East war in 1973. And I thought I would take the position with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that whatever we agreed to, I had to check with Nixon. And he said, ‘Oh no, you don’t have to check with Nixon because he has sent me a cable giving you full powers’. I was so outraged, I went back to my residence and, on an open line I called Alexander Haig, who was White House Chief of Staff, and said, ‘What the hell! You are giving me full powers’. And Haig said, ‘Will you get off my back? I have troubles of my own.’ I said, ‘What troubles can you have in Washington on a Saturday night?’ It turned out to be the night of the Saturday massacre (the term given to Nixon’s dismissal of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and the resignations of his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General during the Watergate scandal). So here I was, a great theorist of negotiation being deprived of flexibility by my own President and by the conditions that existed in Washington at that moment.

Ravish Tiwari: You said the interests of India and USA now run almost parallel. Can you pinpoint when trajectories of both these countries started to run parallel?

What was our problem with India before? India, in my opinion, has always looked at its security, mostly in terms of East-West trajectories – from Singapore to Cairo. USA looked at that primarily as a Cold War issue; India looked at it as a way to keep the Cold War out of the region. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, India faced the conditions of the region in terms of their own intrinsic volatility. And so did the United States. So this began to bring us closer together. Then when jehadist terrorism emerged, and when the centre of gravity of international affairs began to shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, there was a greater and greater convergence of interests. So I would begin the process in the late eighties.

In the Cold War, we looked at the structure of the world in military terms. India, because of its history and location, looked at it in more political terms. In this moment, it is important for us to understand that, of course, jehadist terrorism is importantly a military problem, but many of the other forces in the region, including the emergence of China, are not primarily military problems. They call for an economic and political and cultural structure which permits all the people to work together. It’s on that basis that I have always resisted the notion that we should have better relations with India as a sort of military option against China.

Ravish Tiwari: Did India’s 1998 nuclear explosions cause a divergence in our interests?

For the then-American administration non-proliferation was an important moral issue, and they had moved American thinking towards non-proliferation. So President Clinton was quite outraged and made several highly critical statements. But you have to see those in the context of the tradition of those in US who have been for non-proliferation and who were basically the groups that were favourable to India. So it was a kind of sense of rejection or disappointment. I think it’s now better understood. We are now in a position where nuclear relations are done on the basis of equality and so, on the issue of non-proliferation, there are no fundamental obstacles to close cooperation.

Anubhuti Vishnoi: What kind of foreign policy shift would US require to handle today’s Pakistan? You recently said Pakistan is in danger of being a failed state.

I didn’t quite say that. I said it is against anybody’s interest for Pakistan to be a failed state. When I was asked about objectives with respect to Pakistan, I meant to say we have common interests to have Pakistan become an effective state. And I still think that, and I think it is in the long-term interest for India and Pakistan to work together on a number of the issues that I have mentioned here. There are worrisome elements in Pakistan. In our country, the current Pakistan government is criticised for not controlling the territory along the Afghan border. But all of you know that in no period has this territory been controlled. Therefore, for Pakistan to control this region would require an extraordinary military effort and a redirection of its policies – not really because of India. I don’t think the idea that one can move the Pakistan army away from the Indian border into that territory as an American policy is unrealistic. One could hope that a condition will arise where both sides will ease their deployment against each other. So I think one should try to look at Pakistan as a potentially constructive element and make a joint effort to get them to move the relationship in that direction.

Shravan Sen: How can India and America further improve their relations?

In this financial crisis, I think the whole world is facing, not just a technical problem but a structural problem. We have managed to create a globalised economic machine that operates on its own momentum, produces its own incentives. It was not adequately understood that the consequences of that globalised machine are experienced by people who live with national governments, and when something goes wrong, people turn towards the same government for help. There is no political structure yet that is compatible with the economic structure. That, to me, is what is going on in these meetings in Washington, and while the leaders keep saying they want a common effort, I don’t think they have yet fully developed a common political effort. So that is one area in which we need to work together. Another area is non-proliferation. We all say we don’t want nuclear weapons to spread. But once we’ve said this, we are also spreading nuclear technology around the world in peaceful fields. On a global basis, the imperatives for proliferation will grow more and more acute, on climate change, how you handle these carbon credits,.etc. These are large areas where we need conceptual agreements.

Coomi Kapoor: When you were a professor at Harvard, apparently you used to cite Nehru as an example of how not to conduct foreign policy. Critics say that for you, strategic interests override moral and humanitarian interests.

My critics also say that I like to look at drawings of nuclear weapons before each meal. And they say, Kissinger conducts realpolitik. A great statesman will operate at the outer limits of his society’s values, but not beyond it. An ordinary statesman operates only with the familiar. Nehru was a great statesman who faced specific conditions. To form a country, you have to emphasise its values. It would have been unwise for India to throw itself into the Cold War when it had just gone through the terrible experiences of its own Independence struggle. I used to think that non-alignment was not relevant to us but not to Nehru. The Indian struggle for Independence would not have succeeded without the deep beliefs of the founders. It would also not have succeeded if these founders had not made a shrewd assessment of the psychology of the British and chose a weapon that turned out to be the most effective way to achieve Independence.

Shekhar Gupta: What was that ‘psychology of the British’?

The psychology was, if you had made a purely power confrontation, it would have been suppressed like the Mutiny. Britain’s own values believed in self-government and, therefore, you were defeating the British with their own weapon. But what Gandhi did and Nehru did could not have been done without deep convictions. I think we sometimes make it very easy for ourselves in our domestic debate by giving the impression that the purity of thought is the only requirement for achieving national or international objectives.

Moderated by Editor in Chief, Shekhar Gupta.

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