Indo-US ties downgraded

The health of a relationship between the United States and any other country is best gauged by whether a political appointee has been named as American ambassador to that country, and how close this ambassador-designate is personally and politically to the US President of the day. By these criteria, the Indo-US bilateral ties have slid back to the mundane, diplomatic level. The appointment of a careerist, Nancy Powell, to the Delhi embassy, just cleared by the US Senate, marks the eighth time a professional US diplomat will occupy Roosevelt House out of twenty-one US Ambassadors to India since 1947.

If the same standards are applied at the Indian end, meaning the quality of relations is judged by the appointees to the Washington embassy, then the contrast could not be starker. Out of the 21 Indian ambassadors to the United States to-date, only eight (Asaf Ali, Nehru’s sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit, G.L. Mehta, M.C. Chagla, Nani Palkivala, S.S. Ray, and Karan Singh) carried political weight in India in terms of, if not having the Prime Minister’s ear then being treated with bit more respect than bureaucrats in that post, the rest being career diplomats and retired civil servants, including a couple of retired cabinet secretaries (P.K. Kaul and Naresh Chandra). The exception to the list of Indian careerists in America was, of course, B.K. Nehru – an Indian Civil Service stalwart and the longest-serving ambassador to the US and, importantly, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s cousin.

The difference in the Indian and the American systems of ambassadorial appointments is also reflective of how differently foreign policy gets made in the two countries. In the American milieu, being on the public payroll is  regarded with certain contempt and civil servants are perceived as  people who couldn’t make it in the hurly-burly of the private sector, or wouldn’t brave its hazards. American politicians particularly trust people who have helped them get elected and whose political sensibility is in sync with their own. They also surround themselves with small teams, whose members have wide-area domain skills and expertise, and trust their advice and rarely rely on civil servants and career diplomats constituting the permanent secretariat in government.  Once in office, these advisers assume important cabinet and other positions in the Administration. Thus, candidate George W Bush’s advisory team called  the “Vulcans” led by Condoleeza Rice, monopolized the highest, most desirable, posts in the US government during the two terms of George W’s presidency.  Typically, the advisers in this inner group, in turn, bring in experts in various fields they know personally or by their professional reputation and body of work, and soon is formed a widening circle of talent, resulting in political appointments in the US government. The list of these top positions to be filled by the incoming US President is called the “plum book. Except, those chosen by the president for cabinet and sub-cabinet rank posts, and even ambassadorial posts have to be cleared by a majority in the upper House of the US legislature, the Senate. There is no guarantee that the presidential selection is always confirmed in the post. Partisan politics or a controversial past of the nominee can derail his/her chances.

What such system of appointments does is ensure that the unique outlook of the US President shapes policy and that policy is pushed by his appointees heading important embassies. George W Bush’s world view in which India, as a fellow democracy, was accorded, heightened value and place in the world was mirrored in American policies seeking to help India become, in Rice’s words, a “major power”. It especially helped that another “Vulcan”, Robert Blackwill, sought and was given the Delhi embassy and much of the foreign policy successes racked up during Bush’s first term when major initiatives, such as the nuclear deal, were taken is attributable to Blackwill’s being able to talk to the President directly and to get his way in the vicious bureaucratic in-fighting that’s the norm in Washington. He simply ran around and over such interference as the State Department now and again put up. Equally, political appointees feel accountable and end up resigning if presidential goals are not met, as happened in the case of Timothy J. Roemer, a former legislator, who failed to sell the F-16 or F-18 to the Indian Air Force in the recent Medium-range Multi-Role Combat Aircraft sweepstakes that President Barack Obama had pushed hard for.

The Indian system of ambassadorial selections for important embassies, on the other hand, is usually uninspired, a matter of bureaucratic prerogative, with the serving Foreign Secretary, in recent times, trying his/her damndest to stick on to the post with extensions in service until the Washington position falls vacant, whereupon his/her access to, and personal equation with, the Minister for External Affairs ensures the retiring Foreign Secretary is offered the job of ambassador in America. Lalit Mansingh and now Nirupama Rao fall into this category. Sometimes, senior diplomats such as K. Shankar Bajpai and Meera Shanker, make it as a last posting in their careers or like, Ronen Sen, are despatched post-retirement. For obvious reasons, these workaday diplomats and civil servants preside over less dazzling embassies and enjoy markedly less access to the White House than political appointees – think Vijayalakshmi Pandit and B.K. Nehru, and Palkivala.

Careerists presiding over an embassy, however, mean there are no surprises, the boat isn’t rocked, and very little new, in terms of policy wrinkles or suggestions, ever emanate from that source. This is exactly the reverse of what an embassy, which by its very nature should be heavily proactive in a place like Washington, DC, is supposed to be. Political appointees-as-ambassadors usually have better vision and set themselves grander goals than surviving the stint without mishap, which last is what most life-long bureaucrats are focussed on achieving. Reflecting the growing disillusionment with Manmohan Singh’s policies, the Obama Administration too seems to have reeled in its ambitions, fallen in line with the Indian government’s lowered sights, and installed Powell, a careerist, in Delhi.

[Published in the ‘New Indian Express’, Friday, April 6, 2012, at ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Strategic Relations with the US & West. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Indo-US ties downgraded

  1. vihan says:

    I always though Tim Roemer left because one or two of his kids were entering college in the US. I think Tim himself and even Ashley Tellis stated this in interviews. However, I would also take a more conservative view and factor in the US failure in the MRCA deal.

    • Washington elite is trying desperately to cover up for its inability to sell F-16/18 owing to completely misreading Indian signals. The signals were that if the US had an advanced platform on offer, it would get the nod. It forgot about the former condition and expected the nod nevertheless. Roemer, honor-bound, essentially fell on his sword.

  2. vihan says:

    Would be interesting to see how the new US Ambassador handles what will probably be called MRCH :

    Navy planning to issue one of world’s largest chopper tender :

    • This is going to be another snarling catfight, and if the US comes up with a half-way decent strike/sensor-laden maritime ops hepter, it will get it. Perhaps, as compensation for MMRCA order it failed to secure.

  3. Jagdish says:

    I think on the flip side, leaving aside strategic countries or some neighbors, in all other nations, we should appoint individuals who’s primary agenda is to promote trade and investment. These embassies should be champions of Indian products and services. This is what China does. How about a sales quota for our IFS babus?

  4. There may not be yearly trade/Indian export quotas as such for our ambassadors to achieve. But since the later years of the Narasimha Rao regime, it has been a standing reference to judge the effectiveness of our embassies. Ironically, our chanceries in developing states are doing a better job of it than the Indian diplomats placed in Europe, Japan, and the US.

  5. barry says:

    I suspect the appointment of a ‘careerist’ has more to do with the ability of the GOP to block confirmation of Pres. Obama’s choices in the Senate than any downgrade in relations with India.

    • And also the fact that there are no good “political” candidates in the Democratic Party fold right now seeking the ambassadorial post in Delhi able, as you say, to muster bipartisan support in the US Senate.

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