Philip Zelikow may go down in history for a statement he made at a press briefing where he was described only as “State Department Official Number One”. It was at this March 2005 meeting that he declared the US had set itself a foreign policy goal of helping “India become a major world power in the 21st century”.
Zelikow’s resignation as counselor to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was announced earlier this week. This gangly academic had been brought from the University of Virginia by Rice to be a one-man brain trust four years ago. In this position he drafted a stream of memoranda on the strategic direction of US foreign policy.
The rest of the world knows him best as the staff director of the 9/11 Commission, the public US investigation of the attack on the World Trade Center. In New Delhi he should be known as one of the fathers of the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.
Despite a lifetime dedicated to foreign policy, Zelikow’s first exposure to new thinking on India occurred during a January 2002 dialogue between the Aspen Strategy Group and the Confederation of Indian Industries in Udaipur. It was there that he got a long and voluble glimpse of where the Indo-US relationship could go from, among others, the indefatigable then-US Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, and Blackwill’s advisor, Ashley Tellis.
Their influence was already apparent in the post-9/11 US National Security Strategy of 2002. Rice had asked Zelikow to draft the document after rejecting an earlier version she deemed too conservative for a post-September 11 world. “We start with a view of India as a growing world power with which we have common strategic interests,” he wrote. “The US has undertaken a transformation in its bilateral relationship with India based on a conviction that US interests require a strong relationship with India.”
By 2004, the Bush administration’s India initiative had run aground. The US had opened the door for India to a host of technological and economic benefits previously denied to it under the so-called Next Steps in Strategic Partnership. Now the State Department bureaucracy was balking at what Blackwill and Tellis argued was the step after the next steps: rework the nuclear non-proliferation regime to grant India nuclear club membership.
As Tellis, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, later explained, “I told Zelikow that the US had three choices when it came to the India relationship: do nothing; keep the relationship where it was; or go for something big.”
The relationship was at a crossroads. Zelikow recommended to Rice that the US go for the third option. In other words, the US should throw its diplomatic might into persuading the world to modify the non-proliferation regime. He had chosen the road never travelled before and that made all the difference.
Neither President George Bush nor Rice needed much persuading when it came to helping India. But they were too busy to handle the nuts and bolts of the policy, notes Tellis. The traditional Washington bureaucracy was against going too far out on a limb for India.
However, Zelikow’s mandate was outside-of-the-box thinking. When it came to India, he decided he needed to leave standard diplomatic geometry altogether. The nuclear deal — that the US would persuade the world that India should be allowed to legitimately have both civilian and military nuclear programmes — became US policy.
What persuaded Zelikow? “He accepted the broad argument that in the future the US was going to be dealing with an increasingly complex geopolitical environment in Asia and that the US could not do without a stronger India relationship,” argues Tellis. It was a mish-mash of US concerns from terrorism to technology, China to democracy. It was geopolitics with a capital G.
That Zelikow, an establishment foreign policy thinker, should have decided India was worth a major US diplomatic effort probably helped ease selling the policy to other parts of the US government. “Zelikow was deeply involved in negotiating the original July 18 agreement between Bush and Manmohan Singh,” says Teresita Schaffer of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “The real point is that Rice, [US National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley and, I believe, the Pentagon top brass bought into the policy.”
The gangly and geeky Zelikow was often seen as out of place among the conservative ideologues who walked the Bush White House. But he was hardly a yes-man.
Zelikow warned Rice that the Bush administration’s Iraq policy had the potential to go disastrously wrong. He criticised Washington’s refusal to talk directly with the North Korean regime. He publicly hinted that the US needed to put more pressure on Israel to get a West Asian peace process going. Sometimes Rice listened to him, very often she didn’t. Zelikow kept to writing memorandum in his seventh floor office in the State Department.
On India, this scholar who liked to chew his finger- nails while he ruminated, didn’t seem to have any doubts. “Zelikow and Rice have consistently talked up the Indo-US relationship,” says Dennis Kux, author of the definitive history of Indo-US relations, Estranged Democracies.
Washington sources are unanimous that it was his university’s insistence that he either return to the classroom or resign that led Zelikow to step down. The State Department number three, Nicholas Burns, said at the Asia Society in New York that “Phil Zelikow is going to be very, very sorely missed. He’s added a lot to what we’ve done.” Says Kux, “His going does not signify any change in policy.” The Indian component is likely to be among the soundest parts of the Zelikow legacy.
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is a Bernard Schwarz Fellow at the Asia Society, New York