Bill Clinton missed out on being US president during the cold war. But his trip to India and Pakistan next week will be his one big shot at cold-war-style diplomacy.
It might save one-fifth of humanity from a nuclear war.
Those South Asia nations have not only armed themselves with missile-deliverable nuclear bombs but have recently stopped talking, fought over Kashmir, and veered toward religious extremism.
All that shortens the hot nuclear fuse that Mr. Clinton is trying to douse. He'll be making up for not giving India and Pakistan the attention they deserved during his seven years in office, when they were searching for new roles after the cold war.
And what's his tactic to persuade India to back down? A cold shoulder.
Last week, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the US must see "significant progress" by India in curbing weapons and exports of military technology "before India and the United States can realize fully the vast potential of our relationship."
So despite the apparent warmth of Clinton's visit to India, the private message is a cool one: If India wants US help to join the global economy and be treated as a big power, then it should put its nukes in a holster.
It was India's nuclear tests in 1998 that pushed Pakistan to follow suit. And given an October military coup in its much-smaller neighbor and other serious problems, it is India that must show leadership, especially to prevent other nations from going nuclear.
A useful comparison is Clinton's solicitude of China, despite its threats to a neighbor (Taiwan), a rush to be a nuclear superpower, and a lack of democracy like India's. Clinton is fully engaged with China on many levels and wants it to be a normal trading partner.
Shouldn't India, whose population and economy are close to China's, be equally engaged by the US?
Clinton is the first US president to visit South Asia since 1978. If he were to carry more honey and less vinegar, the US might win over India and put down roots for stronger ties.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society