In Memoriam: Harry Barnes in India

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Obituaries memorializing the diplomatic achievements of Ambassador Harry G. Barnes, Jr., who died in Vermont on August 9 at the age of eighty-six, have focused on his role in Chile, where his promotion of democratic institutions famously incurred the wrath of General Augusto Pinochet, the country’s military dictator. They ought to have paid more attention than they did to Barnes’s outstanding record as U.S. envoy to India. As the first career ambassador to hold that position in a generation, he played a major role during his 1981-1985 assignment in New Delhi in substantially improving ties between the two countries.

These relations had been dismal when the newly-elected Reagan administration chose Barnes for the job.  The familiar roller-coaster that has characterized bilateral ties over the years was on a steeply downward trajectory. The major controversial issue between the two this time was the sharp difference between their approaches toward the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which was entering its second year as Reagan took office.

Breaking with the policy of the predecessor Carter administration, Reagan had vigorously revived the long dormant U.S.-Pakistan security alliance and made Islamabad the lynchpin in its Afghanistan strategy. His administration had only disdain for what it regarded as New Delhi’s acquiescence in the Soviets’ invasion and its unwillingness to play any meaningful role in the U.S.-led international effort to force them to withdraw. India, for its part, was angered by the American decision to supply arms to Pakistan, ostensibly to strengthen it against potential aggression by Moscow. As it angrily (and correctly) complained, many of these weapons were more suitable for use against the Indians than against the Soviets.

The fact that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led the Indian government only made matters worse. Mrs. Gandhi had long been suspicious of U.S. motives and intentions in South Asia and elsewhere.  Her negative feelings towards Washington were reciprocated by many in the Reagan administration.

Barnes was of course aware of this discouraging state of play when he campaigned for the ambassadorship. In an oral history interview conducted by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training in 2001, he said that it had helped get him the job. “I think,” he speculated, “that I benefited from the fact that nobody was paying that much positive attention to India at that point, so [the selection of a new ambassador] didn’t get to be one of the appointments which drew a lot of [top-level] attention.”

Whatever the reason, Barnes was the first Foreign Service officer to become ambassador to India since the mid-1950s. In the intervening quarter-century it had become conventional wisdom in Washington that only a political figure could effectively play that role. The Indians, it was argued, would regard the appointment of a career diplomat as evidence that the United States had downgraded the relationship. They had indeed become accustomed to a succession of American envoys who had plausible claims to eminence in American public life and could, in the Indian view, exercise influence in top U.S. circles in a way that Foreign Service officers could not. The Indians assumed that this influence would be beneficial to their interests, as in fact it was in most cases. Perhaps partly in recognition of these Indian prejudices, Barnes arranged to have Warren Burger, the chief justice of the United States and a fellow Minnesotan, swear him in as ambassador at a well-attended State Department ceremony.

In his four years in New Delhi, Barnes would undercut these contentions and prove to the Indians that a savvy professional diplomat who understood and had the bureaucratic skills to “work” the complexities of Washington’s multiple centers of power could be just as effective — and in his case more so – than an eminent political appointee in moving U.S.-Indian relations forward in a direction they welcomed. Of his ten successors as ambassador half have been Foreign Service officers. The Indians have had no complaints.

Barnes was also the first U.S. ambassador to have served in a diplomatic position in India before taking charge of the embassy. His first Foreign Service assignment had been at the consulate general in Mumbai (then Bombay). He had also been deputy chief of mission in Nepal. (The record hasn’t been much better since. Only two ambassadors assigned to New Delhi since he left India had served in the country earlier; and only one of these, and one other, had served elsewhere in South Asia.) Barnes may also have been the only ambassador to India who was able to converse in Hindi.

I was country director for India when Barnes was appointed. I was impressed with the vigor and imagination he brought to the job even before he left Washington for New Delhi. His background as a senior official in the State Department’s executive secretariat and his more recent service as director general of the Foreign Service, the department’s top personnel position, had given him an excellent understanding of the way to get things done in Washington and an acquaintance with many senior officials who could help.

One of Barnes’s most imaginative enterprises in these early days was his energetic effort to persuade the top brass in the State Department and the National Security Council to agree to recommend to President Reagan that the president meet privately with Prime Minister Gandhi when the two of them attended an international conference on cooperation and development at Cancun, Mexico, in October 1981. Some scoffed that a tete-a-tete between the stridently anti-Communist Reagan and a woman many in his administration regarded as a disagreeable Soviet sympathizer would be a recipe for disaster.  I have to confess I was dubious myself. But Barnes recognized the president’s warmth and charm and thought that Mrs. Gandhi would be susceptible to them. The meeting went off very well: nothing substantial resulted but both leaders enjoyed one another’s company, the object of the exercise. This would set the stage for the gradual improvement of relations that Barnes championed during his four-year stint.

As Dennis Kux points out in his seminal 1993 study of U.S.-India ties, Estranged Democracies, Barnes’s game plan in New Delhi had a remarkably contemporary ring: he aimed “to look for things that India and the United States could do together, could cooperate on, as a way to build a bilateral relationship that could eventually stand on its own feet.” He quotes Barnes: “Basically the thrust was to look at the whole range of the relationship and try to find those aspects that might be susceptible of some development in order to try to put the relationship…in a broader, fuller context without so much focus on our relationship with Pakistan.” This was an early version of the “no zero sum game” approach to U.S. policy toward India and Pakistan that later administrations adopted.

In India, Barnes pursued this approach with quiet intensity. One of the most activist envoys the United States has sent to India, he traveled widely, developed a large assortment of friends and contacts, kept Washington closely informed about developments and prospects, and flooded it with ideas of his own. He was especially active in promoting ways the United States and India could break the long and bitter deadlock over the issue of fuel for American-supplied nuclear reactors. Washington cited U.S. nonproliferation legislation that forced it to cut off fuel shipments because the Indians would not agree to put all of their nuclear facilities under international safeguards; New Delhi insisted that the United States was breaching its contract with India to supply the fuel. Barnes promoted and helped negotiate a settlement under which the two countries agreed that France would substitute for the United States as supplier.

India’s acceptance of this compromise was facilitated by its interest in improving relations with the United States. As we saw it in the State Department at the time, the Indians seemed to have belatedly recognized that all their shouting against U.S. supply of sophisticated weapons to Pakistan was getting them nowhere. Washington was simply ignoring these protests. The Indian government appeared to us to have concluded that they would be better served by pursuing a more constructive approach. We also reckoned that Prime Minister Gandhi was concerned that India was increasingly perceived in the United States and elsewhere as much more closely aligned with the Soviet Union than a professed leader of the non-aligned movement should be.

Against this more promising background, Barnes concluded that Mrs. Gandhi would respond favorably to an invitation to visit the United States. Because of the key “front-line state” role Pakistan was playing in support of anti-Soviet efforts in Afghanistan, the Reagan administration, had decided to invite its president, General Zia ul-Haq, for a state visit in late 1982. Barnes pressed Washington to invite Mrs. Gandhi, too, on a separate but equal (and differently structured) visit. The administration eventually agreed. Barnes became the principal American choreographer of the journey. The prime minister was on her best behavior and bilateral relations perceptibly warmed. The Indians were no doubt pleased that Mrs. Gandhi’s visit preceded President Zia’s by four months. We Americans were pleased that she had come to Washington before she went to Moscow.

Barnes also succeeded in his push for new and expanded forms of bilateral cooperation in agriculture, long a major element in the U. S. relations with India. He was less successful in his effort to promote the sale of U.S. weapons to New Delhi. Despite some promising signs from the Indian side, he and other proponents of an arms-sales relationship did not succeed in overcoming suspicions in both governments about the wisdom of such a program.

Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984. By that time I had left Washington to become ambassador to Bangladesh. So I could only observe from a distance Barnes’s efforts to develop U.S. relations with the successor government led – as he and everyone else expected it would be – by her son Rajiv. These efforts included his bringing to fruition the lengthy effort to conclude a memorandum of understanding on the daunting issue of the transfer of sensitive technology from the United States to India. It culminated with his leading role in promoting and helping organize the useful visit of the new young prime minister to the United States in 1985.

Barnes completed his assignment soon afterwards and went on to become ambassador to Pinochet’s Chile. He had scored no “breakthrough” in U.S.-India relations, but in the circumstances of the early 1980s no such dramatic progress was conceivable. But he left bilateral ties on a far sounder footing and with much more substance than he had found them four years earlier.

Although much of this progress reflected India’s changing priorities and the greater willingness of the United States to accept these, Barnes deserves a good share of the credit. His assignment demonstrated how a determined and imaginative career diplomat can develop fresh approaches and work effectively with his own administration and the host government to move relations in the right direction despite formidable obstacles in both countries.

Howard B. Schaffer

August 21, 2012


  1. William Bissell says:

    Dear Amb. Schaffer,

    You have done a great service by acknowledging the contribution of Harry Barnes.

    Thank you,


  2. Donald Camp says:

    Thanks for the great memorial to a fine man. It is also worth noting that he continued, late into retirement, to work for reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Among other efforts, he worked with Indian and Pakistani academicians to find a way to use science and scientific research to ease tensions on the Siachen Glacier. He was indefatigable and this was perhaps his last goal.

  3. Ron Spiers says:

    Nice essay. Appreciated by his neighbor in Pakistan and Vermont.

  4. Thomas R Carter says:

    It was my privilege to know Ambassador Barnes during the time that I represented the Cooperative League of the USA in India. One anecdote possibly sums up what a wonderful man he was. On a Saturday morning he called me to talk about a subject I’ve long since forgotten. We spoke for an extended time. After the call concluded, my wife said, “Do you realize that you’ve been calling the American Ambassador ‘Harry’ for the last half hour?”

    The Cooperative League had a major program and relationship with India’s National Dairy Development Board. The Dairy Board was an extraordinary organization with deep commitment to its mission and integrity in all it did. It was led by Dr. V. Kurien. Head of the Delhi Office, and now the Dairy Board Chair, was Dr. Amrita Patel. At one stage there was a very difficult set of issues that jeopardized the USAID-Cooperative League-NDDB relationship. Ambassador Barnes went to considerable lengths to establish a personal relationship with Dr. Kurien and Dr. Patel, an effort that contributed to creating a climate where the problems could be solved.

    During the span of years that I lived and worked in India, I had the opportunity to know several of our Ambassadors and to see almost all of them in action. There were some remarkable individuals among them — Chester Bowles, John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Richard Celeste were truly outstanding. But, in my view, Harry Barnes was the finest of all.

    Tom Carter

  5. NELSON says:

    I knew to Ambassador Barnes in Chile. His contribution was very important to return the democracy in Chile Mr. Barnes was awarded Chile’s highest honor in recognition of his contribution to the restoration of democracy. He was great person, human, friendly. etc. etc. We extend our condolences to his family. Señor EMBAJADOR HARRY BARNES descance paz, no lo olvidaremos.
    Nelson – Chile

    His contribution to retune the democracy Mr. Barnes was awarded Chile’s highest honor in recognition of his contribution to the restoration of democracy. We extend our condolences to his family

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