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Diplomacy in Action

Question and Answer Session at the Council on Foreign Relations

William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Q&A Following India's Rise and the Promise of U.S.-Indian Partnership Remarks
Washington, DC
June 1, 2010


PRESIDER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. That was a comprehensive, very helpful overview. I want to get down into the weeds just a little bit and focus on one of the items that you mentioned. That is the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship.

I think it’s fair to say that since Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Washington last November there’s a growing understanding both here in Washington and in Pakistan that he provides an unusual opportunity because of his conviction that India will not be secure unless it has a better relationship with a stable Pakistan. So there have been hopes that there might be a revival of the kind of back channel dialogue between India and Pakistan that took place earlier in this decade.

I’d ask you to summarize as best you can for this audience where the dialogue stands. There’s been an announcement of renewed dialogue that has made some people think the back channel is back. Where is it now? And what, if anything, can the U.S. do to encourage a process that so obviously is in our interest as well as India’s and Pakistan’s?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think we’re certainly encouraged, David, by the announcement that the Pakistani and Indian Foreign Secretaries are going to meet in June. The Indian Home Minister, Mr. Chidambaram, is also going to be traveling to Pakistan for a regional meeting, but also the opportunity to talk to his counterpart. Then in July the two Foreign Ministers are set to meet in Islamabad. So I think all of that is encouraging. The exchanges that Prime Minister Singh has had with the Pakistani leadership have also been encouraging and I think a mark, as you suggested, of Prime Minister Singh’s willingness to take political risk in the interest of India and in the interest of Pakistan as well.

From the perspective of the United States, we want to do everything we can to encourage that kind of a process, mindful of all the sensitivities that are involved.

I think Prime Minister Singh has made clear the importance that he, and that India, attaches to effective Pakistani efforts against terrorists, against violent extremists, particularly those who are responsible for the attack on Mumbai in November of 2008. And the Pakistanis have stated that they’re going to pursue the trial of the suspects in the Mumbai attacks rigorously, and I think it’s very important for all of us, not just the United States but the rest of the international community, to see that happen and to see effective measures taken against violent extremists who threaten not only India but Pakistan’s own security.

PRESIDER: Given the centrality for India of the issue of terrorism and the memories of Mumbai, is there anything the U.S. can do in advance of this Islamabad meeting this summer that would assist in confidence building? Any way of providing a framework for sharing information, for improved intelligence flows, so that the Indians feel that they have a real partnership beginning in security?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think since the Mumbai attacks you’ve seen a dramatic expansion of our law enforcement/counter-terrorism cooperation with India. In practical terms, improving the sort of forensics capacity, exchanging information in ways that didn’t occur before that. I think that has built greater confidence between security agencies on both sides and certainly reflects the very strong American commitment to fighting violent extremists in that part of the world. I think that also it is a contribution to creating an atmosphere in which hopefully India and Pakistan can also make progress.

PRESIDER: One more question I want to ask you which I’m sure our audience would be too polite to pose as directly as I’m going to. It’s my understanding that the UK and France have indicated that they would support membership in the UN Security Council for India. So the obvious question is, what does the United States think about that? Is that something we think would be a good idea? I don’t mean in the long run, in the abstract, I mean you know, soon, now? What do you think?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: That’s a very good question.

PRESIDER: That always precedes a non-answer, but -- [Laughter].

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Yeah. Well, I’ll see if I can surprise you a little bit.

As I said in my remarks, India’s evolving role underscores the fact that it’s going to have a very important part to play in any consideration of reform of the UN Security Council. And it’s obvious that the Security Council, as has been the case with other parts of international architecture over the last few years, is an issue that needs to be addressed so that it reflects the realities of 2010.

Obviously we want to try to do that in a way which is going to preserve the effectiveness of the Security Council, but this Administration has made clear not only its openness to reform and some expansion of permanent membership in the Security Council, but we’ve also underscored the importance we attach to India’s role. So I think India’s going to be a central part of the consideration that is bound to come of Security Council reform.

PRESIDER: I’m going to have to think about that for a little while, but I think that means that we support India’s membership on the Security Council as part of a broader process of reform.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, just as I said. [Laughter]. See, now I’m reconfirming all your worst suspicions about State Department bureaucrats.

No, I do very much understand the significance of Security Council reform. I think it’s an important issue for the United States to address, and I think India’s going to be very much part of that process.

PRESIDER: Fair enough. Let me turn to the audience for questions. Wait for the microphone to arrive. State your name and your affiliation. Barbara?

QUESTION: Barbara Slavin. It’s always good to see you.

I’m going to switch you to two other I’s; I’m sure you were ready for this. Let me ask first, is the United States preparing a response to the Iranian letter to the IAEA where they formalized this Turkish-Brazilian deal? When would you expect that response to go? Do you anticipate talks with Iran in Vienna or anyplace else about this?

The other question is, how much has the incident off the shore of Gaza affected U.S. plans to impose sanctions on Iran? Do you think it’s going to cause a problem for us in the Security Council? Thank you.


On the first part of your question, we’ve been consulting with our partners in support of the original IAEA proposal with the Russians and with the French about what we believe are shared concerns about the proposal that the Iranians made most recently with regard to the Tehran research reactor.

I think it’s important to underscore, as you well know, that the core concern of the international community has been Iran’s unwillingness to live up to its international obligations. It’s unwillingness since the meeting on the first of October last year to engage directly with the P5+1, with a focus on international concerns about its nuclear program.

The Tehran research reactor proposal is a confidence building measure. Its value as a confidence building measure has diminished over time for the simple fact that Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium has increased considerably, whereas in October the 1,200 kilograms that the IAEA proposed was three-quarters of Iran’s stockpile. Now it’s about half. In the meantime, Iran has also moved ahead to enrich 20 percent. Those are just some of the concerns that we have, and we’re consulting with the Russians and the French and do plan at some point to make those concerns clear to Mr. Amano. I can’t give you an exact date for that, but that’s certainly what we’re consulting with our partners about now.

With regard to the recent tragedy off the coast of Gaza, we joined in the UN Security Council Presidential Statement in the early hours of this morning that made clear the fact that we and the rest of the international community deplore the loss of life, and we have supported a call for a full investigation of what happened. We’ve underscored the need to deal with the ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Gaza. And we’ve also underscored the importance that I think all of this suggests for continuing with the proximity talks and hopefully direct negotiations that Senator Mitchell has begun.

We intend, based on the agreed text that we reached with the Permanent 5 members of the Security Council, to continue to move ahead towards a new resolution in New York, focused squarely on the reality that I mentioned before, and that is that Iran has thus far been unwilling to engage with the international community on the concerns that the IAEA underscored again yesterday when it released its most recent report.

QUESTION: I’m Ambassador Petersen from Denmark.

In the international architecture today you would say that the UN Security Council plays a very important role, but also that it’s fair to say that a lot of the ad hoc structures, contact groups for the Middle East, for the Balkans, for Iran, are playing an increasingly important role -- G20, G8. Where is the Administration at this point in time in history with a visionary
President, in sort of trying to determine where it should be on defining, redefining, enlarging the UN Security Council with global powers like India, others? Could you elaborate a little bit on that?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: As I said before, I think it’s an important part of the international architecture that needs to be renovated to reflect the realities of 2010. We’ve already seen, as you mentioned, considerable movement in a number of other areas: the emergence of the G20 in the wake of a global financial crisis; ad hoc groups, whether it’s the P5+1 or the Six-Party talks on North Korea that have assumed increasing importance.

On Security Council reform, it’s an issue that this Administration recognizes as extremely important. We want to go about it in a way that’s going to preserve the effectiveness of the Security Council, but we also recognize that that means that the realities of 1945 don’t apply today. That means that for countries like India and for other countries, we need very much to consider how their increasing role in global affairs is matched by the responsibilities that they can discharge in the most important parts of the international architecture. So it’s an issue that we look forward to taking on.

QUESTION: Tezi Schaffer from CSIS. It’s nice to see you.

I wanted to ask you to expand a bit on this idea of a dialogue with India on the Middle East. It has struck me for a long time that there are important shared interests between India and the United States in the Persian Gulf, but there are also some very great differences in perspective regarding Iran.

First, do you expect that these subjects will come up in the course of the next week? And second, where would we like to take them?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think it’s very important, as I described, and as you know very well, given India’s expanding role around the world and its expanding interests for us to find a way to engage systematically on East Asia issues which have already begun, on the Middle East and the Gulf and Africa and other places. Not because we’re going to agree on everything, because we do have differences on some issues. But simply because it’s important for us to understand one another’s positions better, because I think we can complement one another’s efforts in some important ways. So we will be continuing those discussions over the course of the next week and we’ll continue that with delegations of my colleagues who go out to Delhi as well.

We want to make this a systematic effort in a way that hasn’t really happened before. I think that’s in both the interests of India and the United States. Not because we’re going to homogenize our approach to these issues, but because I think we have something to learn from one another and I think we can benefit from one another’s perspectives.

On Iran, we don’t necessarily have a uniform view of the issue, although on the nuclear question India has made quite clear its opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran. It has an admirable record of implementing previous Security Council resolutions. As I mentioned in my remarks, it’s been quite straightforward in holding Iran accountable at the IAEA Board of Governors when it’s failed to meet its obligations. So that’s an issue on which it’s also important for us to continue to stay in close touch.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, sir. Raghubir Goyal from India, Global Asia Today.

Mr. Secretary, you have analyzed India-U.S. relations in a great way, but you left only one issue, as the previous question, India’s entry in the United Nations Security Council. I don’t know why deliberately, or you didn’t want to mention this.

You think, are you going to make this case now that India will be better sitting next door to you in the United Nations Security Council than China because you have many hard times convincing China on many issues and I think, and many people think in India, time has come for the United States to support India’s membership in the UN Security Council.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you for your question, sir, but I did actually mention in my remarks India and the Security Council. And as I’ve said in the meantime, we recognize very clearly India’s increasing global role. We recognize the importance of reform of the UN Security Council. We’re open to expansion of permanent membership of the Council, and we believe that India is going to have a central part to play in the consideration that’s going to come of that reform of the UN Security Council.

QUESTION: Ambassador Burns, Aziz Haniffa with India Abroad.

The Administration seems to have gone on overdrive in terms of emphasizing the U.S.-India strategic partnership. We had Ambassador Blake last week, here you are, and then President Obama in fact is going to even be coming down the street for the reception that Secretary Hillary Clinton is hosting for the Indian delegation and Foreign Minister Krishna. Does this say something about the U.S.-India relationship in terms of, in a way, being defensive, talking that it’s not hyphenated? Does this say something that there may be something wrong one year after the Obama administration has been in town, and also the fact that you had, President Obama had the Indian Prime Minister over for a State visit, et cetera, and you still have all the analysts and commentators talking about concerns in terms of the strategic partnership? The very fact that you keep emphasizing and emphasizing that this is a very solid, U.S.-India strategic partnership.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think the facts bear out the position that I argued, and that is I’m very well aware of the historic progress that was made in the last administration in the partnership between the United States and India, and I was lucky to be able to contribute to it in a small way in the last year of the last administration. What I think you’ve seen demonstrated is remarkable continuity in terms of the continuing commitment of the United States at the very highest levels to that partnership.

If you look at the practical steps that I mentioned: a fulfillment of our commitment to follow through in the Civil Nuclear Accord; a reprocessing agreement which was concluded six months ahead of schedule; an agreement on end use monitoring; progress in defense cooperation reflected in the C-17 sale worth almost $5 billion that’s almost complete; progress in counter-terrorism cooperation, as I mentioned to David before. Those are all steady, practical steps in the direction of the kind of partnership that I talked about before.

So you’ll have to forgive me if from my perspective I don’t see that as overdrive, I see that as a steady, consistent effort running from the last administration through this one, to underscore the significance of our partnership. I think that’s a view that’s shared by Prime Minister Singh, and we look forward very much to continuing to deepen it in the years ahead.

QUESTION: Bruce MacDonald with the United States Institute of Peace.

There’s no doubt about the fact that the civil nuclear agreement between the United States and India has played an important role in strengthening relations. There has been a little downside to it though, of course, in the question about non-proliferation concerns and we took a little heat in the recent Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York. Change in that is probably unlikely, but going forward, what can we do to help ease or resolve the tension between that agreement and the little bit of a contradiction? Because with India not being an NPT signatory, some countries are saying gee, why shouldn’t we get the same break as India?

What can we do to try to ease that tension that would be in the interest of the United States?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: It’s a fair question. I think the best thing that we and India can continue to do is follow through on the agreement, and then look for other opportunities to demonstrate our shared commitment to curbing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, and improving the safety and security of existing nuclear material sites. I think that was reflected in the proposal that Prime Minister Singh made at the Nuclear Security Summit in April, to set up a regional Nuclear Security Training Center so that India, which has a very, very good record at preventing the proliferation of its materials and at safeguarding its own installations, can contribute to the same kinds of high standards of security on the part of other countries that are attempting to build civilian nuclear installations. I think that’s one example of what we can continue to do.

We also work together on some of the biggest non-proliferation challenges. I mentioned Iran. North Korea is certainly another one. I think we can continue to work together in not only upholding India’s unilateral moratorium on testing, but also working together with regard to the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty which both of us have expressed support for.

So I think there are lots of opportunities for us to make very clear our continuing commitment to basic principles of non-proliferation.

QUESTION: Karen DeYoung from the Washington Post.

I wanted to try to probe a little deeper on David’s question about India-Pakistan relations. The United States has played a role over the past several decades at moments of high tension between the two of them trying to slow things down on both sides. I wonder now with this closer relationship with both of those governments, you have a situation where the United States has actually become a player in a way, where the Indians think the United States is too soft on Pakistan, letting them off the hook on terrorism issues. The Pakistanis think the United States is giving India a nuclear advantage, giving them a weapons advantage. Why can’t you play a bigger role? What good is it having these very close, increasingly close relations with both countries and not pushing a little harder for them to resolve some of the issues between them?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think, Karen, we can and we will continue to provide support and encouragement. I think the ways in which we have deepened our counter-terrorism and law enforcement cooperation with India since the Mumbai attacks are a contribution to this. Certainly we’ve been very direct, Secretary Clinton has as well as other members of the cabinet, and the President himself, about the importance we attach to Pakistan following through in its own self-interest in fighting effectively against violent extremists, and we don’t distinguish amongst terrorist or violent extremist groups who operate out of Pakistan. That means operating just as effectively against groups like Laskhar-e-Taiba as well.

So I think we want to do everything we can to encourage progress in relations between Pakistan and India, and we will continue, as
President Obama has made clear publicly, to offer that kind of support.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for your overview, it’s quite sweeping. Jan Piercy from ShoreBank.

I just want to ask you, you referenced the Prime Minister’s emphasis on India’s own internal inclusive economic development. Could you say a word about financial sector reform and what role this may play in credit access to finance?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I’m not an expert on that issue so I don’t want to mislead you, but I do think, as I said, it’s valuable as the Indians look at their own self-interest to look at issues like the kind of caps or restrictions that exist in certain sectors. Insurance is one of them. To look at them in ways that can benefit India and the competitiveness of Indian companies over the long-term as well. So those are things that thoughtful Indians are advocating as well. We think that will help expand and amplify the kind of contribution that the United States and other foreign investors and foreign companies can make in India.

QUESTION: Jan Lodal, Atlantic Council.

Just an addendum to Bruce MacDonald’s very good question and your good answer. Is it possible in the Strategic Dialogue to talk a little bit about the actual strategic relationship between Pakistan and India? Many people think that it’s still the most risky place in the world with regard to crisis stability and the possibility of nuclear weapons being deployed, and there are things associated even with India’s own force structure that are problems there. Has the relationship advanced to the point where we can openly discuss those kinds of things?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think the Strategic Dialogue provides the kind of framework in which we can talk about lots of different issues. As I mentioned in my remarks, there has been no shortage of questions on the Indian side about our policy in Afghanistan, about our relationship with Pakistan, and I think we’ve made a very concerted effort in recent months to try to consult carefully with India to explain clearly what we’re about and what we’re not about in those areas. I think that can help create a greater confidence in our relationship that over time can lead to a discussion of a whole range of issues. So I can’t predict for you the exact agenda in the meetings that are going to take place this week, but I think we’re creating a climate of confidence in which lots of things are possible.

PRESIDER: Let me just follow up on that question a little more pointedly.

At a time when the India-Pakistan border is a flash point, it’s a place where a major war could begin, is it wise for the United States to be planning to sell such a large weapons package to one side? Advanced fighters. Why does that make sense given the dangers?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: You’re talking about sales to…?


UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We’ve looked very carefully at the kind of sales that we’re discussing, consistent with the wide role that I think India is playing in Asia and in global security. Its commitment, I think, to helping to secure sea and air trade routes that are important to all of us in Asia. So we’re very careful in how we try to calibrate those sorts of sales, and we think that’s commensurate with India’s expanding role as well as with our own interests.

We try to apply the same standard in looking to what our significant arms sales to Pakistan as well, focused in the case of Pakistan mainly, at the current stage, on how we can help enhance its capacity to deal with the immediate challenge it faces in terms of fighting against violent extremists. So you look at the significant package that we’re proposing for Pakistan. It’s very much focused on those kinds of issues.

So we’ve been very careful, I think, in how we’ve approached the sorts of sales or transfers that we make to either India or Pakistan.

PRESIDER: Two remaining questions. I’m going to ask you to do the two questions and then let Secretary Burns respond to both of them.

QUESTION: Rob Quartel with Intelex. A business question.

India, one of the residuals of Indian socialism is it’s the world’s largest protected semi-closed market to Americans and others. What are we doing constructive there to open it up?

QUESTION: Debbie McCoy with 2020 Capital.

My question is about internal terrorism in India, specifically the Naxalites. And I’m curious to what extent the United States and India are collaborating to help the Indian government and military address the Naxalite issue.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think on your question first, the United States is committed to doing everything we can to help not only India but other partners around the world fight against terrorist groups. As I’ve said, we’ve greatly expanded our exchange of information, law enforcement cooperation in recent years.

I think India clearly has the capacity to deal with those kinds of challenges itself, but they represent a very serious threat as you see in the incidents and attacks that have been occurring recently. So we’ll continue to provide whatever kinds of support we can to India to help enhance its capacity to deal with a terrorist threat that’s a very real one.

I think with regard to the question about bureaucratic red tape, you’re right, and more importantly than whether you or I recognize this, a lot of thoughtful Indians starting with Prime Minister Singh I think understand that India’s modernization, its very ambitious development programs, are going to hinge to a large extent on cutting through some very bad habits of bureaucratic red tape and bureaucratism over a number of years. It’s going to take time to cut through that.

What we have tried to do is help demonstrate in certain sectors the benefits for India’s economy and India’s modernization when you move in that direction. We will keep pushing as hard as we can both in support of individual American companies who are competing for business there. We make that a very high priority both at our embassy whenever I travel there and my colleagues travel to India. Not as a matter of doing favors for the United States, but in India’s own self interest.

And I think by the same token, we’re also trying to look at ways in which we can upgrade our approach to some of those issues and take a look at procedures like export controls which have their roots in a different era in U.S.-India relations and see if we can’t update them to reflect the benefits and the potential of a 21st Century partnership. So there’s more that we can do as well.

PRESIDER: Mr. Secretary, you’ve given us a good road map for what is genuinely a big deal for the United States. I know everybody in the room wishes you good luck this week in the strategic dialogue. Thank you so much for coming and being with us.


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