India must pay attention to concerns being expressed in Washington over Jammu and Kashmir, says William Burns, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and now President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace , who has recently authored a book on American diplomacy.
You write in your book, The Back Channel, in some detail about the intense engagement between India and the U.S. over the civil nuclear deal. How would the relationship compare a decade later?
I think both of us — India and the U.S. — sometimes suffer from the tyranny of inflated expectations. Deals like the one on civil nuclear cooperation don’t happen often, and one can’t get accustomed to that in any major power relationship. Those were tough negotiations, but born of a recognition on both sides, for the first time, that we shared an interest in each other’s success.
Today, I think the challenge is the day in-day out challenge of negotiating a complicated relationship with a lot of promise, but its share of irritants, over trade, over American policy in Afghanistan for example.
I use the analogy that managing important power relationships are a lot like riding a bicycle — if you’re not peddling forward, it tends to fall over. I’m not suggesting we are in danger of falling over, but we need to keep peddling on both sides.
Does trade matter more than other issues now? Is the current impasse on trade bleeding into other parts of the relationship?
I think inevitably when you irritate one another on trade, it does bleed into other parts of the relationship, even where we are doing quite well, like on defence cooperation.
It is possible to manage the differences, and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has been in Washington to talk and I’m certainly hopeful we make progress. Both sides will need to make difficult choices, and we each have our own domestic political realities on dairy, agriculture etc.
There are now political issues over the U.S.’s stand on Jammu and Kashmir. There have been statements, and two Congressional hearings on the situation there, and several requests by the U.S. embassy to travel to Srinagar have been denied. Has the mood in Washington changed over this issue?
I think there are concerns on the Hill (Congress) both amongst Democrats and Republicans with regard to Jammu and Kashmir that focus on two categories.
One, the concerns over the potential for collisions — given the history between India and Pakistan — and second is a genuine concern about human rights and civil liberties issues, whether it is the suspension of civil liberties, the detention of political figures, the information blackout that existed.
This doesn’t represent doubts about the larger partnership with India, but it does involve anxieties about the resilience of an important part of that relationship, which are shared democratic values.
I’d be quick to add that the U.S. lives in a glass house these days, and we aren’t setting a great example on tolerance and respect for diversity, but I do think that a number of geopolitical issues brought the U.S. and India together over the last two decades, and that sense of shared democratic values is also important.
We are both societies that, at our best, draw strengths from the diversity of our societies, and we are each struggling with that. And that’s why you are hearing those concerns on Capitol Hill and it’s worth paying attention to them.
President Trump has offered not once, but several times to mediate between India and Pakistan — an offer that was clearly rebuffed in New Delhi. As a diplomat who has worked this relationship, what did you think?
I’ve learned over the course of my work here that any Indian administration will contain its enthusiasm over mediation, particularly American mediation, and our agency is limited.
So just throwing off that idea almost impulsively can set off all sorts of alarm bells that don’t do American policy any good, and also don’t help prospects for the relationship between India and Pakistan.
There are things we can do quietly in both capitals that we should focus on. President Trump likes to throw out ideas like that, but it is an impractical one in this case.