Relationship between India, US on very positive track: Former US defence secretary William Cohen to WION

New Delhi, Delhi, India Updated: Feb 07, 2019, 10:58 PM(IST)

Arun K Singh, former Indian ambassador to the US with former US defence secretary William Cohen. Photograph:( WION )

Story highlights

What is going on in the United States? Why does Donald Trump want the US to play a smaller role in an ever-more integrating world? WION's The Diplomacy Show speaks to former US defence secretary William Cohen to try and understand. 

The whole world is trying to figure out what is happening in the United States, and the shrinking role that President Trump wants the US to play in a technologically-integrating world. He has walked out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership where the US was leading the negotiations and norm-setting to arrange integration with 11 other economies to deal with the economic and technological challenge from China.

European and other allies are undergoing uncertainty related to US security commitments. Decisions are seen as sudden, whimsical and subject to quick reversals. All these will have implications also for India. If there is a sudden decision to withdraw significantly from Afghanistan, there will be an impact on the endurance of the governance and security structures in that country leading to instability and a security and terrorism-related challenge for India.

The posture related to China's military assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean region will also constrain India's choices. The manner in which the US implements its domestic politics-driven sanctions on Russia and Iran will have an impact on India's defence, security, economic and energy requirements.

To understand and unravel all of this, Arun K Singh, former Indian ambassador to the US, spoke to William Cohen — a former US defence secretary, a long-term member of the US Senate and House of Representatives and a leading voice today on international and domestic political and economic issues related to the United States — on WION's The Diplomacy Show.

Here is the full transcript of the interview:

WION: Recently, you sent a letter along with 43 other former colleagues of yours in the US Senate to current members of the US Senate where you referred to foundational principles of democracy and national security of United States being at stake. What prompted that letter?

William Cohen: Well, what prompted it for me was the fact that I believe that the President was taking steps more in line with a dictatorship or an autocrat than a Democrat or in a Democracy. First, the attack upon the media, the attack upon the Justice Department, the attack upon the multilateral institutions, the attack upon immigrants; all consistent with the road to either dictatorship or tyranny and I felt that it was important for the Senate to assume a role of independent judgment.

Yes, the Republicans are the majority but all of the senators have a coequal branch of government. They have an absolute obligation to look at the facts, to make an independent examination and analysis of the current and world events and to exercise the role of senators. I felt that the Senate is there for a reason. The House has a short term- two years, the Senate is a six-year term. So that for four years, you can be a statesman and two years you can be a politician running for re-election.

And I felt that and along with many of my former colleagues, we felt that the Senate needed to restore a sense that we are committed to the rule of law, a respect for the rule of law that no person; no man or woman is above it. No one falls below it and I just felt that things were taking a turn of events which were inconsistent with our history and what I hope would be our legacy.

WION: In 1974 when you were a freshman member of the US Congress, you were seen as a leading voice, an effective voice from the Republican Party when the US was dealing with the impeachment of President Nixon. Do you see that situation today in the US is similar to what prevailed at that time?

Cohen: Well there are similar parallels in terms of the potential abuse of power and also an obstruction of justice. I was very strict in my interpretation of what the role of the President is. The President is a trustee. He is a fiduciary and our justices of the Supreme Court in the past have said that the role of a fiduciary is different. We expect more than the morals of the marketplace and that fiduciary has a duty, the punctilio of an honour, the most sensitive. The very highest sense of honour that you are in there to represent the people of the United States and not to acquire personal power or wealth or enrichment and, I think there are some parallels here in terms of - I'm concerned about the fact that the President would fire the FBI Director, it's not that he doesn't have the power to do so but to fire an FBI Director who is conducting an investigation into alleged wrongdoing on the part of the President seems to me it comes close to interfering with justice. I would go back to 1974, actually it was in 1973 that I was upset when I found out that the Nixon administration had approached the sitting judge of one of the most celebrated cases in our time that of the trial of Daniel Ellsberg on the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon administration on behalf of the President, two of his key people went to the sitting judge and offered him the position of the Director of the FBI.

I felt that that was tantamount to an obstruction of justice, an attempt to obstruct justice. I spoke out about that in 1973 to alert my colleagues that I was going to insist on a very high standard of conduct in terms of the rule of law. And I find that in the current situation when the President fires not only the Director, the Deputy Director as such, he's firing top people in the Justice Department, top prosecutors and also engaged in an alleged cover-up of payments in order to affect the election.

Those are very serious allegations and I believe that when the Mueller report is made public, that it would be appropriate for Congress to explore whether there has been an abuse of power and again the issue raised is not so much whether it is an impeachable offence because you then get into the politics of it but rather the American people should have a full understanding of what was done by whom and to what end. This is required on the part of any President and especially this President.

WION: Although the Democrats are now in a majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans are in a majority in the Senate and Republican senators and the Republican Party by and large still seems to be under the influence of the President.

Given that do you think there is any realistic chance of the President being impeached or is it really more of a political game being played out unless the Mueller investigation comes out with something dramatic?

Cohen: I think looking at this point, it's probably unrealistic to think that the Senate would impeach the President by the numbers that are currently in the Senate. But much remains to be determined exactly, whether or not Russia has much more money involved in the Trump administration than we currently know.

I think it's very clear that the Russians fired digital bullets into the heart of the United States democracy. Here we have a situation where the entire US intelligence community unanimously said that Russia attempted to interfere with our electoral system and yet the President of United States accepted President Putin's statement that he did not.

So you have the President of the US agreeing with the President of Russia as opposed to are our own intelligence community. That to me, I find not only curious but very suspicious.

WION: Of course, as you know Secretary Cohen, India has a very strong and good relationship with Russia. It's a very important political partner, an important defence partner. More than 60 per cent of our defence inventory is still from Russia and from the Indian perspective, of course, we would hope that there is a way for the US and Russia to move forward positively in the relationship rather than Russia becoming increasingly dependent on China.

But I wanted to draw your attention to a letter you wrote, a farewell letter when you finished your term in the US Senate and two short paragraphs from there, you said, "In a world filled with great competition, complexity and confusion one thing remains clear; the US must resist siren calls coming from the political left and right that it is time for America to come home."

And the second- "Growing level of frustration with the decline of civil discourse, an increase of personal animosities that now permeate much of what passes for political debate.".

Now, this was way back in 1996. We are now in 2019. Is there much that is different?

Cohen: Not much has changed. I am concerned that we are pursuing a policy of 'Unilateralism' and that we are pursuing a policy of retrenching to our shores. The notion that somehow we can retreat from engagement in global affairs and find safety in some kind of a continental cocoon. I think it's folly to think in those terms.

We live in a very complex, complicated world, one in which digital bullets as such, digital transmissions can cross oceans in milliseconds and so we must remain engaged. We must have friends and allies and you mentioned before my comments about Russia. I would like to have a better relationship with Russia, but not on President Putin's terms.

I do not think that any head of another country can attempt to influence or really invade another country's sovereignty whether by force of arms or by force of technology in an attempt to undermine the integrity of its electoral system. I do not think that President Putin should be allowed to get away so to speak with simply annexing Crimea or trying to destabilise Ukraine.

So I would like to have a better relationship with Russia. I think it's important. It's a great country with fabulous people who are great writers, scientists and thinkers as such. So I'd like to have a better relationship.

WION: Of course, many countries had concerns related to the action that the US had taken in Iraq in 2003 or in Yugoslavia and Serbia towards the end of the previous century.

Cohen: Both were done with the UN sanctions, however. They were in pursuit of UN resolutions and not against it. The Russians didn't have any resolutions authorised by the United Nations. So there was no rule of law that they were complying with. They were, in fact, violating the territorial integrity of another country without UN.

WION: Well in the case of Iraq, as you know there was the coalition of the willing and therefore many felt that this was being done outside the framework of the United Nations.

But I wanted to take you to the issue of Syria and President Trump's decision to announce that US troops would be coming home from Syria, in a month and that leads to the resignation of Secretary Mattis and then word coming out that this will be delayed by up to four months and now US national security adviser John Bolton who visited Israel saying that it will be conditions-based.

So how do you interpret this going back and forth in terms of the decision that is being made?

Cohen: Well I interpret it as a decision being made by the President of the United States without any real agreement on the part of his national security team. I know Former Secretary Mattis very well. I know that he felt that this was uncalled for in terms of what our security consequences would be. These security consequences for certainly the Kurds who are fighting beside us for the allies, who are fighting with us against ISIS.

And by the way it was not in a month, he had ordered it immediately. And that was something that Secretary Mattis felt that- give me at least time to talk to our allies. Let's try to at least find a way in which this can be done consistently with protecting the lives of those who remain, consulting with our allies to say these are the reasons why. But it was done in a manner that was prompted simply by the President making a decision without really taking into account either the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defence.

So, I think the manner in which it was done, you can have a serious debate on whether we should be involved in Syria, how long we should be involved in Syria. But the manner in which it was done, sent a signal that the President was acting on gut instincts as he likes to say, without thinking through the consequences of what the implications might be for our closest allies. And then once the reality has set in with Mattis resigning and not being fired. Initially, he resigned, then just see the consequences and the follow-calls coming from the Israelis and from others and from all of our partners who had interests in the region.

I think, then he started to backtrack and say, well not immediately but four months and maybe now it'll be conditions-based. If it had been condition based, I suspect that Secretary Mattis would still be there.

WION: How are you expecting the decision related to Afghanistan to play out?

At one level, US has now been wanting to withdraw from Afghanistan for quite some time. I sensed that even during the Obama administration, but on the advice from the military, President Obama increased the number of troops, but gave them a very strict timeline to draw down.

But then because of conditions on the ground, a certain level of troop presence was maintained. President Trump initially said that any action in Afghanistan would be conditions-based. But now there is word that he's ordering a 50 per cent reduction of US presence in Afghanistan, their talks going on with Taliban.

How do you expect this scenario to play out?

Cohen: Not well. Initially, I think the immediate order to reduce by 50 per cent is a mistake. Secondly, the notion that we should pull out altogether will only compound that mistake. Much as we don't like being there, much as the American people suffering from fatigue, Afghanistan-fatigue.

I think the reality is if the United States and those who support the United States' effort in Afghanistan, if we leave, then I think the Taliban comes back. If the Taliban comes back, you then have the risks that will see the potential for another 9/11. But you'll see the spread of terrorist activity.

And so the military's position is, 'we don't like being there'. We want our men and women to come home, but we believe that we're committed to the long term stabilization of Afghanistan until such time as the people of Afghanistan can put in place some institutions, also some self-protection training of their army, their military, and start to establish institutions that can help provide for self-governance.

Until that takes place, Afghanistan is going to be a place of continued turmoil and continued combat between warring tribes and individuals.

WION: On China, again I seem to find that US policy seems to have contradictions going back and forth. President Obama had at one stage spoken of Strategic Reassurance to China, then there was talk of a Pivot to Asia to deal with the challenge from China. President Trump sometimes speaks of President Xi being a very good friend of his, of needing China's help in the context of North Korea and other times very strong posture related to Chinese trade and technology acquisition processes, their military assertiveness in the South China Sea in the Indian Ocean region.

So how do you see the US policy related to China and what would be your advice as a former Congressman, Senator, Defence Secretary on how the US should deal with the growing challenge from China?

Cohen: Well, first the United States has to decide in a very substantive way what our role should be in this 21st century. We don't have a policy at this point that certainly is either comprehensive or consolidated. President Trump, I think, believes that we should retrench from these engagements that we are deployed in too many places for too long. He would like to bring our troops home. He sees this as an expenditure of tax dollars that benefit other people rather the United States. That, I think is a misconception.

We are deployed in Europe, we are deployed in South Korea, we are deployed in Japan and other countries not to benefit them as some kind of a charitable gift as such that we are taxing ourselves to give something away. We are extending our defensive perimeter by extending our defence perimeter to other countries who share our interests and our ideas and our opportunities, then we are engaged in more self-protection. So there's a self-interest in our being forward deployed.

Yes, other countries are benefiting from it, but they're paying as well. South Korea pays a billion dollars. Our European friends pay, not enough and the President is right to call them out saying you must meet a higher level of the spending. But we haven't decided yet in terms of should we be more isolationists, neo-isolationists.

What have we learned from the 20th century in terms of when the United States is disengaged and we say, everybody, fend for themselves. It's not a pretty picture, particularly as countries now are engaged in either pursuing nuclear weapons, chemical or biological, now cyber weapons. So, I think that we have to remain engaged and that engage means with China as well. Now China has been taking advantage of all the rules as such. We have supported their entry into the WTO. I think that they have used those rules in ways that advantage them and disadvantage others, including the United States.

So, that has to change. I think the President is correct in saying, 'China, we want a different relationship here because you haven't been playing by the rules, at least our rules, well those of the international community and to the extent, you want to change them. There's a way to do that by engaging in negotiation but what you're doing now by erecting these artificial edifices and then militarizing them contrary to the promises you made that you would not be militarizing them. You've done so and now you're threatening countries who are sailing past these edifices by saying they're invading Chinese territory.

So, I think China has to understand that the United States and other nations in the Indo-Pacific region are not going to allow China or any other country to dominate the region or to erect barriers or transit restrictions on free navigation.

Secondly, I think that we have to engage China on the economic issues the same. You haven't been playing by the rules. You insist upon transferring intellectual property. You've been using cyberattacks to gain economic information to your advantage and to our disadvantage. So that has to change. But you do it through negotiation. You do it by sitting down with them.

I have offices in China, I have two. I have been going to China since 1978. I have enormous respect for the Chinese people and what they've been able to achieve. But I also think that, that Xi Jinping's vision for the future, that namely he can establish rules whereby their Chinese rules or socialist rules with Chinese characteristics, which allows basically the treasury of China to be dominating in key sectors to compete against India, the U.S., with the Europeans; is not sustainable.

So there is a way to challenge what they have pursued. Deng Xiaoping had a very different version than Xi Jinping has. So maybe there's some halfway measure in between, but there has to be changed. And that comes not just from me, but Hank Paulson, from Henry Kissinger, from Hank Greenberg and other people who have been committed over the years to a positive relationship with China.

And I hope that can be achieved. There is no benefit in us having any kind of a trade war, certainly not a physical war with China. We need to have a good partnership with them.

WION: Okay. And you've been dealing with and visiting India for a long time. You were Defence Secretary when India had done its nuclear tests in 1998 and at that time relations with the US had become difficult, but then-President Clinton had visited in 2000 and you were still Defence Secretary then, which had transformed or begun the process of transformation of the US-India relationship in a positive way.

So how are you seeing the US-India relationship today and what more should we do to take it forward?

Cohen: The relationship between India, the United States is on a very positive track. It has been consistent now from the year 2000 when President Bill Clinton first visited India. It's been going on a very positive upward arc since that time. I expect it to continue even though there are bound to be some bumps along the way, there are bound to be disagreements, but fundamentally we are two democracies, we have the same ideas, interests, opportunities and challenges.

So it's important that a country like India and the United States and those who support democracies around the world form bonds of friendship. So I think that's going to continue.

WION: Secretary Cohen, I know that you bring a lot of personal commitment on some major global issues and one of these has been related to climate change and water; and water conservation, availability of water, water stress.

So what has brought about this engagement with the issue related to the availability of water?

Cohen: We are in a crisis at the moment. There is a diminishing source of fresh water, globally. Here in India, 70 per cent of the water is polluted. We have water supplies that are dwindling. We have populations that are increasing. We have India that is striving to increase its Gross National Product, wants Foreign Direct Investment. With Foreign Direct Investment comes more building, more production, more use of water.

So the choice is ours. It has to be made now; by businesses to be sure, by government, hopefully, that we have to conserve that which we have. We have to not only conserve it, we have to recapture it and then recycle it. And if we don't, we're going to see a situation in just 10 short years in which the need for water will double the ability to provide it.

That is a catastrophe in the making and unless we change our habits now. Unless we adopt best practices that are now being pursued by key industries here in India and elsewhere, we're going to see a tragedy of global proportions that take place. We've had the warning, we see with climate change, we know that some places have too much water and others have too little.

India is in a crisis situation in my opinion because you have such a large population with dwindling supplies of fresh water and also the rivers that have to be cleansed, etc. So water is vital, without water we die. Nothing lives without water. Without water, we are Mars. I may want to go to mars. I don't want to be Mars.

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