President Barack Obama’s admirable choice of Nancy Powell as the next United States Ambassador to India brings to that critical job in American diplomacy a talented career Foreign Service officer widely recognised as the State Department’s most experienced and capable South Asia hand on active duty.
Ms. Powell will be the first woman to head the embassy after 21 men — a distinguished list, including seven Foreign Service officers and 14 non-career appointees. She will be the only American diplomat ever to have served as chief of mission to no fewer than three South Asian countries. She led the Islamabad embassy during the Musharraf government and, more recently, served as Ambassador to Nepal. Unlike any of her predecessors in New Delhi, she has had two earlier diplomatic assignments in India — as Consul-General in Calcutta and head of the political section at the embassy she is about to lead, both in the 1990s. She has also been deputy chief of mission at Dhaka.
Ms. Powell’s “out-of-area” assignments have taken her to Africa as Ambassador to Ghana and Uganda and include postings to many senior policymaking positions in Washington. Her present prestigious job as Director-General of the U.S. Foreign Service makes her one of the top officials in Secretary Hillary Clinton’s State Department.
We think Mr. Obama has made a very smart decision in choosing her for the New Delhi posting at this time. We have known Ms. Powell well, both personally and professionally, for over thirty years. We have always admired her not only for her regional expertise but also for her great skill and courage in dealing with knotty diplomatic problems; her common sense; her low-key, unflappable style; and her remarkable “people skills.” Perhaps most importantly, she has a long history of telling truth to power, without rancour or bluster, both in Washington and in her foreign assignments. She is a great person and a great diplomat. We are betting she will be an outstanding Ambassador.
And she will hit the ground running. She won’t need the on-the-job training that most newly-assigned envoys require. She is familiar with the Indian scene and has a host of friends and contacts from her earlier assignments in Calcutta and at the embassy. The two years she spent as Ambassador in Islamabad will provide her with insights on Pakistan that will be valuable at a time when events there are likely to prove particularly challenging both to the United States and India. Her experience in Kathmandu and Dhaka will also be a big asset as she compares notes with Indian officials on Nepalese and Bangladeshi developments.
Ms. Powell will arrive in New Delhi at a point when U.S.-India relations need more than the usual careful nurturing. After the dramatic turnaround of the U.S.-India nuclear deal and the warmth and excitement of Mr. Obama’s visit to Delhi just over a year ago, the relationship has lost momentum. Both governments’ domestic challenges are the major factor here, but this is a high-maintenance relationship. It does not do well on automatic pilot.
The India-U.S. partnership that has been under construction for the past decade is based on a growing convergence of interests between the two countries, and fits into the increasingly Asia-centric priorities both now hold. They have had their greatest success in the bilateral area. When one looks at the issues on their agenda, it is a tough list.
- The quest for an “end game” in Afghanistan is a source of considerable anxiety to both India and the United States, and Pakistan’s role looks increasingly problematic. India and the United States have already had difficulty defining meaningful and realistic terms for cooperative policy; that will not get any easier. Whatever satisfaction there may be in Delhi over the current poisonous relations between the United States and Pakistan must be tempered by the realisation that they reduce Washington’s ability to exercise constructive influence in Islamabad.
- The possibility of cooperation, or at least parallel U.S. and Indian policies, in East Asia and on some aspects of the Middle East, on the other hand, has improved in the past year, and the new Ambassador has an opportunity to build up the U.S.-India partnership in both regions.
- The India-U.S. security relationship, probably the most important new ingredient in the two countries’ post-Cold War partnership, has a strong foundation in common interests, especially in Indian Ocean security. However, security ties are plagued by housekeeping problems – issues like logistical support and end use verification, where the two countries’ standard operating procedures are incompatible and where they have had great difficulty negotiating mutually agreeable solutions.
- Civilian nuclear trade, the most dramatic breakthrough of the past decade, has yet to move forward. The biggest disagreement concerns the question of nuclear liability.
- Growing bilateral trade and investment ties are one of the most durable accomplishments of the past twenty years, and are likely to remain a strength for the U.S.-India partnership. But the long list of unresolved trade and investment problems, many of which go back three decades and more, has soured the atmosphere at working levels of the U.S. government, while hardy perennials like visa issues have had the same effect in India.
- Cooperation in the multilateral arena, which received a boost when Mr. Obama endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat on a reformed U.N. Security Council, remains difficult. Indian and U.S. priorities for the council and visions for its future are poorly matched, and the Security Council decisions with the greatest political weight for the United States are frequently those that India sees as symbols of its own strategic autonomy.
The India-U.S. partnership is more than just a list of issues. It also reflects common values, such as the commitment to democracy. It fits into each country’s strategic vision — including India’s commitment to strategic autonomy and the U.S. concept of itself as a global leader, visions that have sometimes pulled the two countries in different directions. It gets played out in dozens of negotiations, in which the two countries’ styles and positions may make it difficult to reach agreement.
Serving as translators
An Ambassador, however skilled, will not be able to resolve the problems and exploit the opportunities on this list singlehandedly. But Ms. Powell, like Ambassador Nirupama Rao in Washington, is ideally placed to set priorities among the many issues their countries are dealing with, stressing those with the greatest potential for good or ill, and finding the negotiating tools to create opportunities. Even more, they can serve as “translators” between the two countries and their respective strategic visions. They can articulate, and in some respects symbolise, a common vision for the India-U.S. partnership. And above all, knowing how their own governments work, they can ensure that both countries’ top leaders remain personally engaged.