June 21, 2011: Peter Burleigh is just arriving in Delhi for his second stint in less than three years as the U.S. chargé d’affaires during what is expected to be a long interregnum between ambassadors. This is a useful time to reflect on how ambassadors figure in the shaping of U.S.-India ties, and how well both countries are tending the diplomatic side of their emerging relationship.
To start with the present: Ambassador Burleigh, who succeeded Tezi Schaffer as ambassador to Sri Lanka, is a superb diplomat and one of the best of the South Asia “biradari” in the U.S. diplomatic service. He has served in most of the South Asian countries, including an early tour in Calcutta; he speaks four South Asian languages. His background in both bilateral postings and as acting U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations gives him an enviable breadth of understanding of both U.S. and Indian foreign policy and strategic thinking. He would be a great ambassador to India in his own right..
The temporary nature of Burleigh’s appointment reflects the dysfunction of the U.S. system for making major government appointments. The process of vetting appointees before their formal nomination and presentation to the Senate takes months, and is devoted less to determining a nominee’s suitability than to trying to avoid ever more esoteric sources of controversy that might derail a nominee’s confirmation. And the Senate confirmation process is all too often caught up in the political poison that courses through Washington these days. One would think that the nominee to be ambassador to India – a country that enjoys strong, often enthusiastic support from both sides of the political aisle – would not be particularly difficult to confirm. The administration, unfortunately, cannot afford to make that assumption: it is obliged to plan on a long gap. Not wanting to leave an embassy as important as Delhi in the hands of someone best known to the Indian government as “the number two,” it has opted to send out a long-term relief pitcher, who already bears the title of ambassador from his earlier assignments. Burleigh is a splendid choice; it is unfortunate, however, that the system makes such decisions necessary.
Where does the ambassador fit into the process of developing and shaping the India-U.S. partnership? Major policy decisions, in both Delhi and Washington, are made at the top. The structure of the relationship is set by major factors that are beyond an individual ambassador’s control – Indian and U.S. strategic interests, for example, and the expansion of the private trade and investment that drive the economic relationship. But the envoys in Delhi and Washington create and sustain the relationships, personal and governmental, that give this basic structure life. They serve as an early warning system for the home governments; they alert their respective leaders to both opportunities and dangers; they participate actively in setting priorities; they are often the primary face of their country’s public relations effort; they bring their energy to the senior levels of both governments to ensure that this vital partnership does not languish from inattention.
For many years, the United States was represented in Delhi primarily by non-career appointees. These included some who were legends in their own time. During the Cold War era, Chester Bowles stood out, especially during his first tour in the early 1950s, as a man who was able to mobilize both his tremendous personal relationships and the resources of the U.S. government to place a bet on democratic India as a model of Asian success and a potential great power. Bowles’s concept was premature. He would have been thrilled, however, by India’s economic success of the past two decades. Howard Schaffer worked both with him and with another legendary figure, John Kenneth Galbraith. Aside from his talents as a world-class economist, Indians valued Galbraith for the close personal and political ties he enjoyed with President John F. Kennedy, a huge asset for him.
Starting in the 1980s, the United States sent a mix of career and non-career envoys to India. With rare exceptions, they were names to be reckoned with. The ones that served before 1980 had difficulty “moving the needle” toward a more substantive relationship. Robert Goheen, under whom we both served in the 1970s, enjoyed huge respect, and had the affection for India that came from his childhood in Maharashtra, but the circumstances were not yet ripe for a breakthrough. The non-proliferation issue was too neuralgic (he served at the time of the U.S. legislation that forced cancellation of the Tarapur nuclear supply contract). In his final months, India’s public support for the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan went over extraordinarily badly in Washington. His tenure was in a way the last gasp of the Cold War.
U.S.-India ties started moving forward earlier than many people realize. Harry Barnes established some of the infrastructure for educational and scientific cooperation that persist to this day. Richard Celeste, former governor of Ohio, got his start working for Bowles. His far-ranging friendships brought the United States into the byways of India with new intensity. Frank Wisner, more the classic diplomat, had an unparalleled ability to keep himself discreetly and effectively plugged into India’s policy deliberations. Robert Blackwill, an intellectual and strategic thinker, saw the U.S.-India relationship as a bond between great powers, the vision that shaped the Bush Administration’s approach to India, culminating in its decision to move forward with the U.S.-India nuclear agreement. David Mulford’s focus on financial and investment issues matched Blackwill’s focus on strategy. Tim Roemer, former U.S. congressman from Indiana, took over the embassy in Delhi with a mandate to continue the expansion of a partnership that had been crafted by both political parties, in both countries. He brought a deft hand to the task; it is too bad that his departure announcement will be remembered for having coincided with the announcement that the two American bidders were being cut from further consideration for the Indian aircraft purchase. Both Mulford and Roemer benefitted from the positive sea change in U.S. perceptions of India and the importance of U.S.-Indian relations. Unlike many earlier envoys, they did not have to battle against a conventional wisdom that discounted India’s significance. But they did have their work cut out to prevent damage from inattention.
India has also had some legendary ambassadors in Washington. L. K. Jha, a brilliant civil servant, developed warm and productive relations with Henry Kissinger and other senior members of the Nixon administration despite major bilateral differences over the Bangladesh war. Shankar Bajpai was one of the earliest to recognize the importance of making India more visible in a wide range of U.S. elite circles, and to do something about it. Naresh Chandra, who had held practically every critical senior civil service post in the Indian government, was especially skillful in working issues through his own government. Lalit Mansingh, former foreign secretary, gave a huge boost to India’s expanding visibility on Capitol Hill, an arena that had no doubt been a considerable frustration during his earlier tenure as deputy chief of mission in Washington. Ronen Sen’s big job was to shepherd the India-U.S. nuclear deal through to completion, a task that required every ounce of his skill and knowledge of the internal dynamics of both governments. Meera Shankar has brought to the table an encyclopedic knowledge of her brief, and argued it with skill and grace.
It is hard to generalize about such a diverse group of talented people. Successful ambassadors always set priorities, and nearly always need to “troubleshoot” issues as they come up. In the case of India-U.S. relations, creating visibility and excitement is a particularly important task. This is an important relationship, but it is also “high maintenance.” Many of the day-to-day issues that concern the two governments live deep in the least user-friendly parts of both governments (examples: trade policy, export controls) – areas where bureaucratic procedures are hard to change, and where domestic political landmines abound. Both countries are quick to sense neglect on the part of the other.
Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama, like their predecessors of both parties, want to strengthen the strategic understanding between the United States and India. But they cannot do this without energetic and imaginative representatives in each other’s capitals. The dazzling information technology that has bound the two countries together can help take advantage of the personal touch that a good ambassador provides. But there’s no substitute for the personal touch itself.
Teresita and Howard Schaffer