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Zia Mian

(The News, Islamabad, May 16 1994)

It has been a month since the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, left Pakistan. Before and during his visit there was a great hue and cry. Almost everybody treated his visit as yet another attempt to make the government of Pakistan change its policy on its nuclear weapons programme. As expected, the Prime Minister was emphatic, the day before Talbott arrived, "we will not roll back" she said. The leader of the opposition went further, as expected, even "inspection or verification of the nuclear programme would not be acceptable." But enough time has elapsed, perhaps, for the excitement to have worn off and a very different and worrying assessment can be made of what happened.

By his own standards Strobe Talbott thinks he succeeded in doing whatever he came here to do. In his press conference on Sunday April 10th at Chaklala airforce base, he said "I feel very, very good indeed...I have nothing but good news to report." He went so far as to say "the trip has been a total success." Since he went back to Washington with nothing but a "significant" one page joint statement of the government of Pakistan and the US Embassy, this naturally raises the question of what Talbott thinks he came to do.

Some indication of his idea of the purpose of this visit is in his public statements. In between the endless diplomatic dross, and his "wonderful dinner", there is a remarkably curious sentence. Answering a question at the American Centre in Islamabad, he said "I don't mean to quibble with words, but I wouldn't say that we came here so much to convince or to persuade, as we came to discuss." The difference between these activities is obviously very significant to Strobe Talbott, and given his present position, they should be looked at more carefully.

So what exactly is the difference between these? Does he mean that rather than try to "convince or persuade" the government of Pakistan to do anything about its nuclear weapons, Strobe Talbott and his team came all the way here just for a chat? A "discussion" suggests a conversation, two people having a rather well-mannered and good-natured exchange of views, with no real hint of either serious positions being held or challenged. Argument yes, but without a real purpose other than for its own sake, in effect a word-game is being played. (Is Strobe Talbott the first post-modernist Deputy Secretary of State?) This contrasts sharply with the image conjured up by an attempt to "convince or persuade." There one gets the impression of the subject matter being important, of the positions held on this being serious, and of effort being exercised to get someone to change their position. In other words that the outcome matters.

To suggest that the present US Deputy Secretary of State, is not serious about nuclear weapons in South Asia may seem frivolous. But it isn't. Strobe Talbott used to be a journalist, and a writer on superpower arms control negotiations. In his book, Deadly Gambit, his view about nuclear weapons comes out: "nuclear weapons exist to be talked about, not to be used." He follows this analysis with a description of arms control, especially relating to nuclear weapons, as "mutually agreeable rules of the road in the arms race -- rules that will make the competition somewhat more predictable."

Now the beginnings of a policy can be seen. Talbott was very specific when he said "We are not asking for a rollback. We are suggesting a verifiable cap on the (nuclear weapons) programme." The speculation was that in exchange for such a "cap" by Pakistan the Pressler Amendment, cutting off US government aid, would no longer be applied, and Pakistan's airforce would get the F-16s the government had already paid for. In fact Talbott himself described the "status of the F-16s" and the "proposal on how to cap" as "explicitly" tied together. It has to be said that this offer by the US of more F-16s, the very aircraft that everyone says are to be Pakistan's first choice as a means to transport the nuclear weapons (that Pakistan can keep) to an Indian city and carry out indiscriminate wholesale destruction is an appalling and immoral one. But then morality never had anything to do with US foreign policy.

In effect US policy seems to be aimed at a South Asian version of the superpower Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. India and Pakistan are supposed to agree to certain limits on the arms race, keeping what weapons they already have. They only have to set bounds to the threat they pose to each others' population, not end them. All that India and Pakistan have to do is "agree to pursue the goal of capping, then reducing, and finally eliminating weapons of mass destruction." Without a definite time-frame or any real commitment, it is very reminiscent of Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which commits each party to it to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament." Signed by the US and the USSR in July 1968, this treaty has yielded nothing resembling even a single step towards "general and complete disarmament" in twenty-five years, as the US well knows.

It seems the US has rushed itself across a policy threshold to pragmatism; nuclear non-proliferation as an absolute end in itself is to be surrendered - it was never very convincing anyway given the blind eye the US turned to the Israeli nuclear weapons programme. India and Pakistan will be allowed to threaten each other with nuclear weapons, the two states will be able to continue stealing resources from their people for an endless, but not open-ended arms race. They can have more of what they already have, but no new weapons that will upset the balance. This means of course that demands for a total nuclear disarmament, including by the United States, become out of the question for any "reasonable" US administration. The Pentagon must be ecstatic.