For all the aspersions cast at U.S. President Bill Clinton, it cannot be said that he lacks courage. For no other word can describe Mr. Clinton’s foray into the treacherous politics of South Asia. The decades-long standoff between India and Pakistan has become yet more threatening since the two governments exploded nuclear devices almost two years ago. A political misstep could have exacerbated the situation. The dangers were also personal: Terrorist groups operating in the region have vowed to exact revenge upon Mr. Clinton for perceived misdeeds.

Nonetheless, Mr. Clinton persevered, and well that he did. His trip, which featured the first visit to India by a U.S. president in 22 years, sent important messages to regional leaders. He reiterated world concern about the conflict in Kashmir, the coup in Pakistan and the need to put human rights and economic development over nuclear weapons programs.

The trip was ensnared in controversy from the start. Coming in the wake of the nuclear weapons tests and the coup in Pakistan, Mr. Clinton’s visit risked being seen as international acceptance of those acts. A failure to visit Pakistan, which was debated up to his departure, would have been considered a slap at a longtime ally. In the end, Mr. Clinton made a brief stop in Islamabad, during which he informed Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, of “harsh realities.”

While India wanted Mr. Clinton to come and see their country — and bask in the reflected glory of a presidential visit — they did not want him to interject himself into the dispute over Kashmir. Fully cognizant of Indian sensitivities, Mr. Clinton repeated at every opportunity his willingness to facilitate negotiations between India and Pakistan, but only if invited to do so by both governments. That invitation has not been forthcoming.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton arrived in India as terrorists killed 35 Sikhs in the disputed territory. That savage act was no doubt designed to try to force the president’s hand. Instead, he condemned it for the mindless brutality that it was and called for all governments to end their support for the violence, a subtle swipe at Pakistan.

In Pakistan, Mr. Clinton had tough words for Mr. Musharraf. He wants the general to restore democracy, practice restraint, end its support for terrorist groups (a charge the government denies) and shift sign the nuclear test ban and give up its weapons development program. In an attempt to pre-empt some of the criticism, Mr. Musharraf last week announced a timetable for local elections. He did not, however, set a time frame for national elections, saying economic recovery and political and administrative reforms had to come first. The general is right about the need for reform on all fronts, but he is wrong if he thinks that democracy can therefore be safely relegated to some distant future.

All in all, the world is not much different than it was before the trip. Then why did Mr. Clinton take the risk of inflaming the situation?

Because in one important way, the world is different: The U.S. and India are on the verge of a new relationship. They are not there yet, but it is inevitable. Some in Washington see the country as a check to Chinese regional ambitions. Others see the potential in the Indian economy. Whatever the reasoning, the conclusion is the same: The U.S. can no longer treat India as peripheral to its international concerns.

That means, among other things, that Pakistan cannot expect to be treated by Washington as New Delhi’s equal. That gives Japan new leverage, since this country is already Pakistan’s biggest bilateral aid donor. Our government should reiterate its willingness to work with Pakistan to turn the corner in both political and economic terms. But substantive assistance should be conditioned upon Islamabad’s willingness to sign the test ban treaty and abandon its nuclear-weapons program.

There is a real danger that India will think that it has erased the stigma associated with its nuclear tests. That could prompt other governments to recalculate the potential costs of their own nuclear ambitions. To ensure that does not happen, the U.S., and all nations that hope to one day greet a world that has been rid of nuclear weapons, must keep the pressure on India. They must make it clear that nuclear weapons have not yielded the benefits that Indians seek: Their world is not safer, their status has not been enhanced. If fact, a nuclear-weapons program will only prevent India from realizing those ambitions. It is a message that must be repeated at every opportunity — as Mr. Clinton did last week.

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