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Interview With the Hindustan Times

R. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Washington, DC
February 29, 2008

(4:00pm EST)

QUESTION: Let’s start off with the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal. What are your expectations right now?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think we’re at a critical time in the – on this deal because we’ve had three years of negotiations, we’ve had multiple agreements between the governments, and now it is time to internationalize the deal, to gain the international approval through the IAEA Board of Governors, the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well as the U.S. Congress to make this a reality, to bring the deal to operation.

And there is a timeline at work here. There isn’t all the time in the world left. That timeline dictates that India needs to move more quickly in order to secure the Board of Governors approval at the IAEA so that we can try to get this to the U.S. Congress by the spring and summer. As Senator Biden said publicly last week, there is a timeline and that means that things have to start happening now.

So we hope very much that the Indian government will be able to move this forward as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: One thing that struck me is that you’ve – you know, what I remember when I was in Washington, everybody said January was going to be the last, it had to be done by January. Then it moved to April. Now the Senator’s come and is saying well maybe it’s open all the way to June. This deadline seems to be a little stretchable.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well actually I think if you listen closely to Senator Biden he said, you know, he said it has to get to the Congress by then. If you back up from there it really means that the Indian government needs to move in the month of March on the IAEA Board of Governors because that will take some time. And then I think there will be a fairly complicated and complex process in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. And so I actually think there is not all the time in the world and things now need to proceed quite rapidly.

QUESTION: And how optimistic are you about getting this through the Board of Governors and the NSG in the first place?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I think that with the United States as the backer of India that there’s a very good chance that we’ll gain approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, but it’s going to be – it’s a complicated process that will require many meetings. It’s not going to happen overnight, which is another reason why we need to move this very quickly.

QUESTION: And you are similarly of the view about the IAEA Board of Governors?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Yes, I think that once India achieves a safeguards agreement with Dr. El Baradei, I do believe this will receive the approval of the IAEA Board of Governors. Yes, I do.

QUESTION: You recently said that you wanted – the Indian government had to make a courageous decision regarding this – the deal. And I presume you’re talking about regarding the internal politics of the Manmohan Singh coalition.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I certainly do not want to interfere in the internal politics of India. I won’t do that. But I think it’s just a – it just makes common sense right now that the Indian government is going to have to act because the time will run out. None of us want to see that happen, because the stakes are very high.

This agreement is indisputably in India’s national interest from our perspective. It will deliver India from over 30 years of international isolation. It will allow the country to be treated in a fair and egalitarian way. It will allow the country to be – to take its place among the leaders of the civil nuclear community and the world today as a responsible state. It will improve, I think, India’s relations with France and Britain and Russia, all of whom will be part of the group of countries that want to work with India. So I actually think there’s a lot riding on this.

And it also mirrors the growth in the U.S.-India relationship, which is very positive. The relationship between our two countries has improved considerably over the last several years, and we expect that to continue in the future.

QUESTION: The Senators argued that a Democratic administration would almost certainly renegotiate the nuclear deal. What in your judgment would they be renegotiating if that were to happen? What would they add to the table?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen in our own political system, but I think that Senator Biden’s comments were quite – should be listened to very carefully. He’s a very distinguished member of our Senate. He’s a leader. And I think that this is a very controversial agreement in the United States. I argued for it and testified before Congress quite strongly in support of it, but there were many people in our country who did not favor this agreement.

And so it’s going to be important for Indians to realize that, and to realize that this is an agreement that cannot be duplicated, I think, by another administration. I don’t think it will be duplicated by another administration. So the only opportunity to realize the potential of this deal is with the administration of President Bush.

QUESTION: Would you say that a future Democratic administration would add something like the FMC, fissile material cutoff, or the CTBP to the table?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: It’s very difficult for me to predict that. Very difficult to predict it. But I do know that this deal was put together in such a careful way that I think it will never be able to be duplicated or replicated. If it is not passed, voted upon in President Bush’s term of office I think it’s very likely that we will not see it continued by a new administration. I think there would be a – most likely a reconsideration of it. And therefore the time to act is now.

QUESTION: You may have seen Shyam Saran’s recent speech saying the international environment will be more hostile to the deal to the coming years – in the coming years. Do you agree with that?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Do I agree with – excuse me?

QUESTION: Shyam Saran gave a speech saying that he felt that the international environment regarding the deal would be more hostile in the coming years.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think the time is – I think that Shyam is correct in saying that this is a propitious time for this agreement. We ought to try to get it done in the next few months. That there’s a great risk in waiting longer. To have consensus break down in the international community as well as in the United States.

QUESTION: I remember when you began acting as a negotiator for this deal two and a half years ago, three years ago. I met members of your staff and I met Indian diplomats who were negotiating with you and they said oh, Burns is doing this because you’ve got orders to do so. And then after about a year or so they all used to say well, Burns actually now believes very strongly in the India-U.S. relationship. How do you explain your shift over the years? How did you actually become a true believer in the Indo-U.S. --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I guess I don’t agree with the conventional wisdom. Secretary Rice and I talked about this strategic opportunity at length in the spring of 2005 to form a closer U.S.-India relationship. I always believed in it. And that new relationship encompasses the civil nuclear agreement, much closer India-U.S. cooperation in South Asia on issues like Nepal and Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. It certainly encompasses the newfound cooperation we’ve had in defense and counter-terrorism. It extends to our very ambitious joint undertaking to try to produce a second Green Revolution in India and to further the gains that we’ve made in education.

And so, I think – I wrote an article in one of our leading foreign policy journals, Foreign Affairs, just in the autumn of – just a few months ago, in the autumn, making the case that Americans should look at India in a very friendly way, that we should see a strategic opportunity to improve our relations, and so I have been one of the, you know, a leading advocate for this in our country as well as in our government.

QUESTION: Where do you see the relationship going in the next five to ten years?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I think there’s enormous promise in this relationship. In fact I think it’s certainly on the – there’s an upward trajectory in the relationship. And I – one of the great strengths is that we have a bipartisan consensus in the United States among Democrats and Republicans that India is important and that it deserves full and fair treatment from the United States. I think that’s also true in India. As an outsider, you know, we have worked well with the current government. We – our country has worked well with the previous BJP governments. And so I see a consensus in both countries that we need to grab this opportunity to make progress in all these areas.

QUESTION: And how badly would this be affected, in your view, by the nuclear deal not coming to fruition?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Oh, I think it would be a great disappointment and frankly a great loss if the U.S.-India nuclear deal did not go forward. Because it’s so important for the future of both of our countries.

Now the relationship would survive, surely, because it’s a broad relationship and very deeply rooted. But still, it’s been a generation, more than a generation since India has been living in isolation, and surely it’s in the interest of India and Indians to see that change.

I’m afraid I’m going to have to run in about two minutes. I apologize.

QUESTION: What’s going on in your mind, now that you’re actually leaving after 26 years, is it? 26 years in the service?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Yes. Well, I’m obviously very grateful for the opportunity to have served here at the State Department in the diplomatic corps. I will leave office believing that this major opportunity with India should be realized. I will be an advocate for India and the U.S.-India relationship outside of government. I look forward, you know, to working in India, to being in India in the future.

But mostly I think that our two countries, because of the size and importance and power of our countries, we do bear responsibility, we’re among the leading powers in the world to make the world more peaceful and more stable. And that’s a responsibility we take here in the United States very seriously.

QUESTION: In your record of diplomacy how does the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal fit in terms of its complexity and toughness? Has it been unusually tough, or have you done stuff like this before?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well I’m a veteran of many different negotiations in all parts of the world. This is one of the most complex negotiations in which I’ve ever been involved, given the technical complexity of the issues, but it’s certainly a negotiation that was built on trust between the two countries and governments. And I developed a very close working relationship with both Foreign Secretary Shankar Menon as well as his predecessor, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran. Both men are friends of mine. I was very impressed by the professionalism of the Indian negotiators – Saran, Menon, Jaishankar who is now the Indian High Commissioner in Singapore. These are outstanding individuals. They were – I can assure you they were very capable and competent defenders of India and I expect that – I think this whole negotiation has strengthened relations between our two countries. It’s brought us so close together. You know, I negotiated this agreement with them in Delhi, in the United States, in many cities of Europe, and I’m just particularly grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to become so enmeshed in U.S.-Indian affairs.

QUESTION: So out of curiosity, are you still – have you still not publicly stated what you will be doing after you leave office?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I have not, no. I have not gone into that. I will do that at the right time, but that’s ahead of us.

QUESTION: Rice has mentioned that when you announced your departure that you would still continue to be Special Envoy to the nuclear deal, even after you leave the State Department.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I think what she said was that I’m actually going to be still officially a diplomat until April. And so if it’s necessary and if there’s movement in the agreement, then, you know, I’d be happy to help out. But at this rate I’m going to leave the day-to-day involvement to Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher.

QUESTION: Right. Okay well, is there anything else you’d like to add to any of this?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Just that I think this relationship has enormous promise and we should grab this opportunity to try to push things over the finish line. Thank you very much for the interview. I appreciate it very much.

QUESTION: Not at all. It was good that you would spend time on your last day in office.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you very much. You’ve been very kind with your time. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

Released on March 3, 2008

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