Think-tanker as US ambassador

Newspapers have already mentioned Ashley Tellis as possible US Ambassador to India. Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and formerly  Special Assistant to US President George W Bush and, earlier still, Special Adviser to US Ambassador Robert Blackwill, in which capacity he was, over a decade back,the prime American driver in New Delhi of the nuclear deal. He is the most likely appointee, not little because he has enormous traction with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government. His advice apparently is so prized he has ready access to prime minister Narendra Modi that few other Americans and fewer Indians enjoy. The affable Tellis’ best attribute is a keen mind, smooth and convincing manner, and the gift of gab. He can make what’s essentially in the US’ interest appear — even when it is patently not — to be even more in India’s! That’s a tested and proven talent which Washington no doubt considers an invaluable diplomatic asset, not to be wasted. As far as the Indian government is concerned, Tellis apparently manifests “the brain gain”, not “brain drain”, that Modi said at the annual pravasi diwas celebrations in Bangalore the NRIs/PIOs represent. Except  (in this case), the gain is America’s. But why quibble, “gain” is gain.

Tellis may get a nod for yet another reason. With him as US ambassador, Carnegie will have a one-two punch in Delhi, with the C. Raja Mohan-led chapter of that Washington thinktank cultivating a bedrock of support in this country for the US line, which makes any US ambassador’s job that much easier.

Tellis has the inside track on the appointment. But two other persons are reportedly also in the running, both women as well as think-tankers — Lisa Curis, former CIA analyst and senior researcher at the rightwing Heritage Foundation in Washington that fills out Republican Party policies with appropriate content, and Alyssa Ayres, US deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, 2010-2013, currently at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Ayres has a close India connection in her spouse, Sadanand Dhume, formerly a reporter with the extinct Far Eastern Economic Review and now with yet another thinktank, the American Enterprise Institute.

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 Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Think-tanker as US ambassador

  1. The Think Tank chickens come home to roost.

  2. I hope we don’t end up buying F-35s after this, Modi has a habit of buying something useless from wherever he goes its kind of part of his foreign policy.

    However Sir! your views about Lt Gen DB Shekatkar commitee report?.

  3. andy says:

    Ashley Tellis for sure is a smooth operator in the vein that @Bharat pointed out,remember him hard selling how the US help in building aircraft carrriers for India would be such a great idea(of course with an air wing comprising of F35s)made it sound almost like a benediction for the Indian navy.Nearly had me convinced, till the F35 was inserted into the narrative.

    I am sure he uses his ex- Indian(Mumbai) background to the hilt while interacting with the PM.GOI would do well to remember that Tellis is an American now and thats where his loyalties lie.

  4. GhalibKabir says:

    Would appreciate your views,

    I get your narrative Karnadji, but what I don’t understand is why should the assumption that India is such a jelly state be true? Russians have been friendly but have denied us key technologies for the Arihant like the High end Steel (they help elsewhere no doubt) while the French and Israelis have charged us a bomb for many things with poor ToT … Is India so weak that it cannot handle the US similarly benefiting from what is needed or

    is the foreign office so inept that it cannot convince the Russians about islanding key technologies from US interference? I mean I do not think the Russkies are that rigid in realpolitik terms that it cannot be handled with appropriate give and takes…

    I don’t like US ‘help’ either, but considering the geo-political geo-economic scenario, would it not be prudent to intelligently manage parallel relationships reasonably till the time we are strong enough on our own legs?

    • &^%$#@! says:

      WRT: “….but what I don’t understand is why should the assumption that India is such a jelly state be true?”. Have you any significant instances where this assumption has been challenged/disproven?

      • GhalibKabir says:

        I will give an example of the US: the nuke test and subsequent sanctions, WTO negotiations, Relations with Iran ( i know we tactically reduced imports once) and negotiations on the nuclear deal (I checked comparable conditions on other nations & realized India had negotiated decently)

        However, my point is not that, by Karnad’s descriptions , then equally the Russians during the 1990s and even the Chinese till the early 2000s could have been described as having similar attributes on specific issues/instances.

        I think rather being jellyish, we have a problem articulating our vision and steps to get there clearly. This causes us to underpunch or undervalue our global strength as a lack of strategic culture hobbles us then. That is a long way from being a jelly state and me thinks this is just not playing with the semantics of it.

      • S3 says:


        Vision, you say? You should ask yourself whether even the market for such a vision exists. I am reminded of a story I read once, about the fall of the Roman Empire:


        From our viewpoint, we see what was the history of the Roman Empire. But, from inside, as we saw, it wasn’t clear at all. But let’s assume that someone had it clear, already at the time of Marcus Aurelius. I said that there might have been something like an ASPE; “association for the study of peak empire”. Or let’s imagine that a wise man, a Druid from foggy Britannia, an ancestor of Merlin the wise, was smart enough to figure out what was going on. You don’t really need computers to make dynamical models, or maybe this druid made one using wooden cogs and wheels, the whole thing powered by slaves. So, let’s say that this druid understood that the troubles of the Empire are caused by a combination of negative feedbacks and that these feedbacks come from the cost of the army and of the bureaucracy, the overexploitation of the fertile soil, the fact that Rome had exhausted the “easy” targets for conquest.
        Now, it is a tradition of Druids (and also of ASPO) of alerting kings and rulers of the dangers ahead. After all, Merlin did that for King Arthur and we may imagine that the druid we are thinking of felt that it was his duty to do that with Emperor Marcus Aurelius. So, he decides to go to Rome and speak to the Emperor. Suppose you were that druid; what would you say to the Emperor?

        Good question, right? I have asked it to myself many times. We could think of many ways of answering it. For instance, if gold is running out from the Empire’s coffers, why not suggest to the Emperor to mount a naval expedition to the Americas? It is what Columbus would do, more than a millennium afterwards and the result was the Spanish empire – it was also based on gold and it didn’t last for long. Maybe the Romans could have done something like that. But they didn’t have the right technology to cross the oceans and, at the time of Marcus Aurelius, they had run out of the resources to develop it. So, they had to remain in Europe and to come to terms with the limits of the area they occupied. The Empire had to return its economy within these limits. So, there is only one thing that you, as the wise Druid from Britannia, can tell the Emperor: you have to return within the limits that the Empire’s economy can sustain.

        So you walk to Rome – kind of a long walk from Eburacum, in Britannia; a place that today we call “York”. You are preceded by your fame of wise man and so the Emperor receives you in his palace. You face him, and you tell him what you have found:

        “Emperor, the empire is doomed. If you don’t do something now, it will collapse in a few decades”

        The Emperor is perplexed, but he is a patient man. He is a philosopher after all. So he won’t have your head chopped off right away, as other emperors would, but he asks you, “But why, wise druid, do you say that?”

        “Emperor, ” you say, “you are spending too much money for legions and fortifications. The gold accumulated in centuries of conquests is fast disappearing and you can’t pay enough legionnaires to defend the borders. In addition, you are putting too much strain on agriculture: the fertile soil is being eroded and lost. Soon, there won’t be enough food for the Romans. And, finally, you are oppressing people with too much bureaucracy, which is also too expensive.”

        Again, the Emperor considers having your head chopped off, but he doesn’t order that. You have been very lucky in hitting on a philosopher-emperor. So he asks you, “Wise druid, there may be some truth in what you say, but what should I do?”

        “Emperor, first you need to plant trees. the land needs rest. In time, trees will reform the fertile soil.”
        “But, druid, if we plant trees, we won’t have enough food for the people.”
        “Nobody will starve if the patricians renounce to some of their luxuries!”
        “Well, Druid, I see your point but it won’t be easy…..”
        “And you must reduce the number of legions and abandon the walls!”
        “But, but…. Druid, if we do that, the barbarians will invade us…..”
        “It is better now than later. Now you can still keep enough troops to defend the cities. Later on, it will be impossible. It is sustainable defense.”
        “Yes, it means defense that you can afford. You need to turn the legions into city militias and…”
        “You must spend less for the Imperial Bureaucracy. The Imperial taxes are too heavy! You must work together with the people, not oppress them! Plant trees, disband the army, work together!”
        Now, Emperor Marcus Aurelius seriously considers whether it is appropriate to have your head chopped off, after all. Then, since he is a good man, he sends to you back to Eburacum under heavy military escort, with strict orders that you should never come to Rome again.

        This is a little story about something that never happened but that closely mirrors what happened to the modern druids who were the authors of “The Limits to Growth.” They tried to tell to the world’s rulers of their times something not unlike what our fictional druid tried to tell to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The heads of the authors of “The Limits to Growth” weren’t chopped off, but they were surely “academically decapitated” so to say. They were completely ignored. Not just ignored, ridiculed and vituperated. It is not easy to be a druid.

        So, here we found another similarity between our times and the Roman ones. We are subjected to the “fish in the water” curse. We don’t understand that we are surrounded by water. And we don’t want to be told that water exists.

        As things stands, we seem to be blithely following the same path that the Roman Empire followed. Our leaders are unable to understand complex systems and continue to implement solutions that worsen the problem. As the wise druid was trying to tell to Marcus Aurelius, building walls to keep the barbarians out was a loss of resources that was worse than useless. But I can see the politicians of the time running on a platform that said, “Keep the barbarians out! More walls to defend the empire”. It is the same for us. Tell a politician that we are in trouble with crude oil and he/she will immediately say “drill deeper!” or “drill, baby, drill!” Negative feedback kills.

        But I would like to point out to you something: let’s go back to what our fictional druid was telling to Emperor Aurelius. He had this slogan “Plant trees, disband the army and work together”. I had invented it in a post that I had written on the collapse of Tuscan society in 16th century; it is another story but one that shows how all societies follow similar paths. Anyway, can you see what kind of world the Druid was proposing to the Emperor? Think about that for a moment: a world of walled cities defended by city militias, no central authority or a weak one, an economy based on agriculture.

        Do you see it…..? Sure, it is Middle Ages! Think about that for a moment and you’ll see that you could define Middle Ages as a solution for the problems of the Roman Empire!

        So, our Druid had seen the future and was describing it to Emperor Aurelius. He had seen the solution of the problems of Empire: Middle Ages. It was where the Empire was going and where it could not avoid going. What the Druid was proposing was to go there in a controlled way. Ease the transition, don’t fight it! If you know where you are going, you can travel in style and comfort. If you don’t, well, it will be a rough ride.

        We may imagine a hypothetical “driven transition” in which the government of the Roman Empire at the time of Marcus Aurelius would have done exactly that: abandon the walls, reduce the number of legion and transform them into city militias, reduce bureaucracy and Imperial expenses, delocalize authority, reduce the strain on agriculture: reforest the land. The transition would not have been traumatic and would have involved a lower loss of complexity: books, skills, works of art and much more could have been saved and passed to future generations.

        All that is, of course, pure fantasy. Even for a Roman Emperor, disbanding the legions couldn’t be easy. After all, the name “Emperor” comes from the Latin word “imperator” that simply means “commander”. The Roman Emperor was a military commander and the way to be Emperor was to please the legions that the Emperor commanded. A Roman Emperor who threatened to disband the legions wouldn’t have been very popular and, most likely, he was to be a short lived Emperor. So, Emperors couldn’t have done much even if they had understood system dynamics. In practice, they spent most of their time trying to reinforce the army by having as many legions as they could. Emperors, and the whole Roman world, fought as hard as they could to keep the status quo ante , to keep things as they had always been. After the 3rd century crisis, Emperor Diocletian resurrected the Empire transforming it into something that reminds us of the Soviet Union at the time of Breznev. An oppressive dictatorship that included a suffocating bureaucracy, heavy taxes for the citizens, and a heavy military apparatus. It was such a burden for the Empire that it destroyed it utterly in little more than a century.

        Our Druids may be better than those of the times of the Roman Empire, at least they have digital computers. But our leaders are no better apt at understanding complex system than the military commanders who ruled the Roman Empire. Even our leaders were better, they would face the same problems: there are no structures that can gently lead society to where it is going. We have only structures that are there to keep society where it is – no matter how difficult and uncomfortable it is to be there. It is exactly what Tainter says: we react to problems by building structure that are more and more complex and that, in the end, produce a negative return. That’s why societies collapse.

        END QUOTE

        You can find the whole thing here, if you are interested:

        And all this only brings us back to the same question that Admiral Arun Prakash asked in his review of Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) — who is going to listen?

      • &^%$#@! says:

        I do not know your nationality, but your reply is very typical of Indian nature -labelling the most craven behavior as “high strategy”. Prudence restrains me from giving specific responses based on fact in a public forum. BTW, Russia in the 1990’s and China till the early 2000’s were proven and established world powers with a long history of asserting themselves, which were going through a temporary phase of re-adjustment. The US ambassador in Moscow or Beijing is by no stretch of imagination a pro-Consul. I wonder whether the same can be said about the US envoy in New Delhi.

      • S3 says:


        And why would India’s people not behave the way you say they do? They are taught since birth that Brahma does not care whether you are a sage or a demon, just do tapasya and he will grant you a boon. Who knows, maybe ending the sale of indulgences was the reason that Europe took over the world. So why do some people say that Christianity is a danger to India?

      • The druid link has a lesson to learn for Indians viz the Europeans and Chinese which is that they study and teach their classics what ever is left of it. We under a state of colonized minds consider our knowledge as mythology and useless so don’t study it nor teach it.

        In terms of sustainable progress Indic civilization has all the underpinnings for it. Ours is a culture that abhors overexploitation since we consider nature sacred. So yes the dark ages of Europe may well have to do with the destruction of the pagan society of Europe. Just as current profess Europe has to do with separation of church and state. The use of church for foreign conquests still continues though.

        Regarding Brahma and his boons this again comes from lack of reading of our classics. Dharma and Adharma are clearly defined. Everything does not go as dharma.

      • S3 says:


        “The druid link has a lesson to learn for Indians viz the Europeans and Chinese which is that they study and teach their classics what ever is left of it.”


        From Europe I give you Frederick the Great:

        “Christianity… is an old metaphysical fiction, stuffed with fables, contradictions and absurdities: it was spawned in the fevered imagination of the Orientals, and then spread to our Europe, where some fanatics espoused it, where some intriguers pretended to be convinced by it and where some imbeciles actually believed it.”

        From China I give you Li Xiaoguang:

        “Ancient civilisations are revered, and yet ancient civilisations are not wise like venerable human elders are wise. A civilisation further back in time is younger, not older. The current civilisation is always the senior, because the present enjoys a longer history than the past.”

        That’s the first sentence of your first paragraph! Do you come up with all of this atavism by yourself, or do you learn it from the Muslims whom you served for a millennium?

      • @s3 If you are desi your arguments prove what I was saying Indians need to read & teach their classics else we get ignorant generations like this.
        Rather leave the classics for later start with Bhagwat Gita in Indian language translation may be you get a taste of Indian philosophy from there.

        Western classics is not bible but what they consider western civ, for them starts with reconstituted Greek knowledge.

        Chinese are big on Confucian philosophy etc. Their whole construction of modern Chinese empire is based on ‘over’ glorified past.

        If you are not desi then all I would say is, the knowledge you are being fed is horse waste.

      • S3 says:


        LOL. Didn’t you know that Mao smashed everything of Confucius he could get his hands on? Or did you think that CCP stands for Chinese Confucian Party? Try this though:

        See? You’re not the only pagans out there.

        Western civilisation does not start with The Bible? Europe was ruled by the Church. Then it wasn’t. It got separation of church and state. How exactly do you think the Enlightenment thinkers justified this? Using Jesus Christ’s statement: “Render unto God that which is God’s, and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” You think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which I personally consider to be pabulum) would have been approved by the slave-holding Greeks and Romans? You can say that the West was built on reconstituted Greek knowledge all you like, but that would be as true, and as useless, as saying that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

  5. @s3 I won’t entertain you further since you are more opinion than thought. Read more about Confucianism centers being opened by China around the world. Chinese communists do not denigrate their past like Indian communists do. They glorify and use it for creating cohesion.

    Bible is just one book. You don’t build a body of knowledge with one book. There is truth in what you are saying that western secularism of separation of church was only accepted when it was shown as consistent with xtian world view. And nothing inconsistent with Xtian idea of religion gets equal respect.

    If you don’t know that west teaches Western history and civilization with origin form Greeks, then you should just see how and from whence they trace origin of ‘rational thought’ and ‘science’.

    As far as India is considers 90% of school passouts In India think science is western in origin. 100% don’t know this.

    ‘Modern estimates suggest that Aryabhata’s computation was 39,968km (24,835 miles), just off the currently accepted value of 40,074km by an incredible 0.27%.’

    • S3 says:

      The mullahs who run Iran have read more about Socrates than the congressmen and senators in Washington. It is said that Khomeini built his Islamic republic on the model of Plato’s republic, with the greatest power being in the hands of Plato’s philosopher-kings aka mullahs. Does that mean that I should regard Islam and the West as being the same bird that evolved from the same dinosaur? Yeah I know that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but does that tell me anything about birds?

      Anyway, you claim to be some sort of expert on ancient Indian thought. Tell me this: if Brahma gives boons to asuras knowing that they would be used against devas, how is that different from America giving weapons to Pakistan knowing they would be used against India? And if Ashley Tellis is Brahma’s representative, why should you not bow and kneel before him?

      • There is no restriction on who can acquire power. How one uses power determines whether they are on path of dharma or adharma. Your example of Pakistan Army is apt here. Acquiring power and using it to unleash terror is adharma. Clearly defined.

        Anyways points you make about biblical under pinings of western secularism are made by Prof S N Balagangadhar he also speaks of using the Indian lenses for understanding India which will first have to be learned by Indians. That is the point I was making about reading our classics.

        Lets close this debate. For any further discussions on this read his works and then write to Prof Balagangadhara. I am not expert in this.

  6. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    GhalibKabir says: January 13, 2017 at 12:07 pm – “Is India so weak that it cannot handle the US similarly benefiting from what is needed or is the foreign office so inept that it cannot convince the Russians about islanding key technologies from US interference?”

    This is one general problem of being born an Indian. We think too much for the benefit of others.

    Soviet/Russian help should have been the last one we ever needed. That is not what happened is not likely to happen. We needed help in 1970s but if we are still seeking help in 2020s then there is something sorely wrong with the way things are.

    20 years hence when the US has faded and Chinese and Russians have created another Asiatic trade-strategic behemoth our establishment would effect a ‘correction’ and again go back to source hi-tech chinese help in the interest of Asian brotherhood.

    India first is only a something on the PPT slide. In real world it becomes far more important that:
    1) we import ‘best’ technology
    2) strike a balance between US and USSR (sorry Russia)
    3) not speak ill of the great and masterful strategies unfolded by your leaders to assure us a great future. After all 60 years of wrongs cannot be righted in 2.5 years.
    4) off course the holy cow (armed forces) should also not be criticized. what would a civvie know of minus 35 degrees and swamps and desert scorpions.

    • GhalibKabir says:

      Where have I thought of the benefit of others my friend? neither does the foreign policy establishment I think. Rather than timidity being the reason, I would say the lack of geo-economic clout concurrent with lack of strategic vision (resulting in limited geo-political clout) is the primary reason why we have been punching below our weight.

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