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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/R Nicholas Burns, US Under Secretary of State

'There is too much at stake between the two greatest democracies'

November 16, 2007


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Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R Nicholas Burns, the chief US interlocutor of the India-United States Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, says despite the Communist parties' opposition to the deal, he was optimistic that the historic agreement between India and the United States will ultimately move forward.

In an interview with Rediff India Abroad Senior Editor Suman Guha Mozumder, Burns said the "civil nuclear card, if you will, has become the symbolic centerpiece of this new strategic partnership for better or for worse."

Burns, who has made eight trips to India in connection with the agreement, said while he does not know what would ultimately be the fate of the deal, for which both the countries have invested tremendously in the past two years, the Bush administration hoped the Indian government would bring it forward and finish it because the deal is important for both countries.

Given that the Left in India, which supports the coalition government, is fighting the deal tooth and nail, what makes you optimistic it could eventually come through?

We are certainly concerned by the delays because we very strongly believe in this agreement. We negotiated this agreement for two-and-a-half years with the Indian government. We know this agreement is good for the United States. We also know that it is good for India.

I think the agreement was actually to liberate India. India had to live in isolation -- in terms of civil nuclear technology -- for 35 years. The US has come along to say that India is now a leading member of the international community. It is a country that plays by the rules, has been responsible with its nuclear technology and therefore, it should be given a chance to come into the mainstream, back into non-proliferation system and should be able to derive the benefits of the system.

That is what this deal is and I hope very much we will able to bring it forward and to consummate it... because it is terribly important for both of our countries.

What I do not want to do is to comment on the internal politics of India. That would not be right thing for me to do. But from an American perspective, as the person who negotiated this agreement with my Indian counterparts, we are strong believers in it and we hope it can go forward expeditiously.

Now, I do not know what will happen. This is a question for India to decide and for the Indian government to decide, but I can tell you our very strong view is that it should go forward and we hope that by early 2008 it can go to the American Congress where it needs to be voted upon. That is our hope.

You have spoken about the advantages the deal has for both India and US in your address to the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, but if the deal does not go through in this, an election year, what impact can it have on the US businesses that were eagerly looking forward to it?

I do not know... because still I think we have hope that the Indian government should decide that it should go forward. I do not want to be pessimistic. You try to be realistic.

The relationship with India is important to both countries -- the business relationship, the economic, trade and investment relationship, the agricultural and educational exchanges -- all are very important.

All that must go forward because frankly there is too much at stake between the two greatest democracies of the world to become strategic partners. We must achieve this partnership between us. This civil nuclear card, if you will, has become the symbolic centerpiece of this new strategic partnership for better or for worse...

I feel there is some resonance (about the deal) in Indian society, there certainly is in the United States. There is a deep appreciation that the civil nuclear accord is a key part of the developing strategic partnership. So in that sense we both invested a lot in it.

We should not give that up easily. We should push this forward because it is in India's interest and in United States' interest and it has great deal of international support for it as well.

Senator Hillary Clinton has said that she is in favour of the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) coming back. But the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in India, even though they were the ones to start the negotiations, have been opposing the nuclear deal. In this scenario, what do you predict will happen?

I am not a partisan person. I am a career civil servant -- I should not be commenting on American politics. We have an election in our country and a new government will come to place in January 2009. I have no idea what the outcome of our elections would be. So, I do not want to speculate about any particular candidate.

What are the ramifications when the deal, if India moves it forward, goes to Congress?

Well, we hope that the agreement should be able to go to Congress in a very short time. We hope to convince our Congress, as we did in December 2006 when the Hyde Act was passed... We had bipartisan support for it. I think we can maintain that coalition but I am sure we won't be successful in doing that a year from now or eight months from now. We got to move on a quicker timeline.

This agreement has been touted from the beginning as a major step forward in Indo-US relations. In case the agreement does not move forward due to the compulsions of coalition politics in India or other reasons, where would our bilateral relations stand? Would it be seen as having moved backward?

You mean the agreement?

Yes.

I think we have a big relationship. We have been expanding trade and investment. We have more cooperation on foreign policy in South Asia and we have the greatest number of foreign students in the United States from India and increasing agricultural cooperation. There is a lot that provides strength to the India-US relationship.

This agreement is very important because it is the most ambitious undertaking perhaps in 60 years that the US and India have joined together to promote. It is a sign for the rest of the world of the great American respect for India. It is a commitment by the United States to convince all nuclear powers in the world to change the way they do business in India and to do so more favourably.

So, I think it is very much in the interest of India as well as our country. I hope that would be the result. While we have a broad relationship that must go forward, it would be a pity to see this stall after so much has been done in so much good faith by both governments.

Would the US start batting for India at the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) even before the Indian government clears this?

No. It has to have the sequence -- and the sequence is that the Indian government needs to work with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and should that happen, should they be successful in that, then the NSG would meet and that would be at the initiative of the United States and the US would act essentially as India's advocate at the NSG.

We would try to convince all the members of the NSG, but we cannot do that until the IAEA agreement has been taken first. It is a necessary step in the sequence.

The Communist parties in India are said to be opposing the nuclear deal because they believe it will make India subservient to the United States...

But that is not correct. India is an independent sovereign State, which will continue to make its own independent decisions like my own country.

True, but on October 21 US Congressman Frank Pallone said in Washington that the administration and Congress blundered by selling the US-India civilian nuclear agreement as a nuclear deal and not an energy deal. Do you see any point in this observation?

I think if you look at the agreement between the two countries, you see that you will have vast benefits for the poorest of India's population. There is a deficit in electricity production. This agreement will help India to meet its requirements, like for instance in electricity production. That will help farmers, small business people, it will help young mothers and it will help the children of India and so it is very important for the future of India.

We suggest that it will have enormous social and economic benefits for the Indian people. It is not an agreement that will lead to any kind of undue influence of one country over another. Rather it is an agreement for the most basic needs of India's population. This is why India is into it.

All countries act in self-interest and we know that India is acting and rightly so, in its self-interest, to advance its self-interest in caring for the agreement. You know, in a globalised world and you can't say that let us stop the world (and) get off. We all have to work together; we all have to see if we can combine forces to help the people of our countries. That is why governments exist.

I think this is an excellent agreement. It is in both of our interests. Certainly in India's interests. And therefore it is a deal worth supporting because it will help the people to advance their own lives in the future.


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