ADDRESS BY AMBASSADOR RONEN SEN ON
“MAKING AMERICAN INTEREST GROUPS APPRECIATE INDIA’S CONCERNS AND PRIORITIES: A PUBLIC DIPLOMACY EXERCISE ABROAD”
AT JADAVPUR UNIVERSITY
ON 13 SEPTEMBER 2010
Hon’ble Vice-Chancellor Prof. Pradeep Narayan Ghosh;
Hon’ble Professor Radharaman Chakrabarty, President of
the Jadavpur Association of International Relations;
Distinguished Members of the Faculty;
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honoured to have the opportunity of addressing you at this highly reputed centre of learning in the fields of engineering, science and arts. I am aware that your university has one of the best departments on political science and international relations in our country, and that I am speaking to a knowledgeable and discerning audience.
I have been asked to speak to you this afternoon on our efforts in sensitizing US interest groups to appreciate India’s concerns and priorities, and to what extent this was a manifestation of a successful public diplomacy exercise abroad. Before I come to this subject, I would like to make some general observations.
In one sense, the term “public diplomacy” is an oxymoron, a fundamental contradiction in both conceptual and practical terms. Each country seeks to pursue its own national interests, while preserving its independence of action and autonomy in decision-making. Ultimately, however, the most effective diplomacy is aimed at an optimal balance of maximizing its national security or socio-economic development objectives, while minimizing the corresponding dilution of national sovereignty. No amount of rhetorical posturing can alter this basic reality of international negotiations. This applies to all countries, large or small, though of course in varying degrees, with the rise and decline of the economic and strategic strength of individual countries or of regional groups. Concepts such as national autonomy or complete self-reliance have always been divorced from realities. This is all the more so in the process of globalisation, not only of markets but of global threats posed by failing States, religious extremism, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, pandemics and so on.
The second aspect is that some crucial decisions relating to major issues of national security have necessarily to be taken in total secrecy and strictly on a need to know basis. We had to suspend even the prescribed rules of prior Cabinet clearances in a number of cases. Our nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 were two instances. The Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971 also had to be negotiated in complete secrecy. The element of surprise in the timing of its conclusion was as important, in fact more important, than its content, in terms of its geo-strategic impact.
Premature public knowledge of such decisions, and let alone parliamentary or public debate would have been counter-productive and compromised our interests.
The third aspect is that negotiations on a number of international issues cannot be conducted through the media. Public debate may, in fact, limit the options of the governments and their room for maneuvere to reach agreements which would be in their longer term mutual interests. On certain issues, confidential consultations with major opposition groups are obviously desirable, particularly on issues of national security, prior to a parliamentary debate. Even in a number of mature democracies, calculated and calibrated leaks to the media are often used to promote debates on lines considered useful by some lobbies.
Striving for consensus is desirable in any democracy. This applies particularly to coalition governments where no single party has absolute majority in both Houses of Parliament. Decisions taken in response to immediate political compulsions, however, sometimes amount to kicking the can down the road for a revised decision in better circumstances. These certainly ensure political longevity. But consensus does not necessarily manifest political leadership, let alone statesmanship. There is a saying which is true figuratively, if not literally, namely, that the only fish which go with the current of a river are dead fish! Statesmanship involves the subordination of personal or party interests to long-term interests of the nation and of humanity at large. It involves steadfastness of conviction and resolute pursuit of goals in the face of overwhelming odds.
Rajiv Gandhi had the attributes of true statesmanship. He had told me once to remember that whenever there was a perception of conflict of interests between his role as Congress President and his national responsibilities as Prime Minister, the latter should always prevail. He went ahead with his pathbreaking visit to China, despite fairly widespread reservations within his own party. He pursued his policy on Sri Lanka, in the face of domestic misperceptions, for promoting India’s interests and regional stability. He narrowly escaped an attack by a Sinhalese man and was later brutally assassinated by a Sri Lankan Tamilian LTTE activist. He paid for his convictions with his life. It was ironic that V.P. Singh, who vehemently criticized the Indo-Sri Lankan accord in his election campaign, insisted on referring to this agreement in positive terms, in his first letter as Prime Minister to the then Sri Lankan President.
While keeping all these aspects in view, I feel that public diplomacy can also play a vitally important supportive role in promoting better understanding of our concerns and priorities, both abroad and in our own country. The inextricable links between our domestic and foreign policy priorities is not fully understood in our country. For instance, most people still do not realize that Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China, and Reagan’s quiet over-ruling of proposed US supplies of advanced AWACs to Pakistan, had more dal and roti implications than the worst drought of the last century in India in 1987. Public debate can also play a critical role in bridging the gap between rhetoric and reality.
I do not remember who had made the perceptive remark that realities often change in sharp angles but public perceptions change in parabolic curves. On a number of issues there is lack of adequate appreciation that the world changed dramatically in the post-cold war period, and so has India. Without sacrificing our core concerns, we have to adjust creatively to the changed realties in the world. We had, for instance, realized by the time of Belgrade summit meeting in 1987 that relevance of the Nonaligned Movement was on an irreversible trajectory of decline. Our initial concerns about NATO’s out of area operations after the end of the cold war were reviewed after its supporting role in the US ousting of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Today one of the few countries which still take NATO seriously is Russia! I also remember the days of Amar Nam Tomar Nam Vietnam. Even in those days, however, I was taken aback by the greater interest shown by some Vietnamese leaders in the functioning of the Bombay Stock Exchange rather than in that of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. For quite a number of years the only country, perhaps apart from Cuba, where “anti-imperialist” rhetoric is still prevalent, is in some sections of society in India, including, curiously, many of our intellectual elite.
Public diplomacy can also, with the caveats I had mentioned earlier, balance our need to know approach with the need to share approach. This applies not just to our foreign policy, but also our defence, space, atomic energy, counter-terrorism, foreign economic and other policies. There should be much more informed debate on these issues.
We have, as a society and indeed as a civilization, a great tradition of transparency and accountability in governance, and of free public discourse on all issues including those of religious beliefs. We are also among the most vibrant of democracies with a pluralist and federal polity. It is, therefore, strange that India as a State is one of the most opaque and secretive in the world, including in terms of release of official documents which remain perpetually classified. Despite our Right to Information Act, the “public” is denied access to decades old documents “in public interest”. Public diplomacy will be facilitated by even conditional access to most documents to academic institutions and think-tanks, which could provide valuable inputs in the decision making processes of the government.
Let me now, at long last, come to the specific subject I was asked to speak about, namely, my experience in trying to persuade American interest groups to appreciate India’s concerns and priorities. Our objectives included a wide range of interests ranging from the mango to the moon; from lifting the decades old US import barrier to Indian mangoes to carrying US payloads on our first mission to the moon. There were an unprecedented number of initiatives taken on trade, technology, investments, defence, energy, passenger and air cargo transport, and numerous other areas of cooperation, making our relations with the US the most broad-based relationship that India has with any country in the world. A number of these initiatives entailed active lobbying in various forums and with different individuals, entities and organizations.
Instead of covering the different approaches aimed at achieving each of these objectives, let me give you an indication of the common factors we had to take into account. These included, inter-alia, the following:
(i) Our lobbying efforts in Washington D.C. with the U.S. Administration, the U.S. Congress, and major think tanks were of crucial importance. However, the United States, like India, has a federal polity. We had, therefore, to extend our direct outreach to State Governors, Mayors of major cities and key figures in local legislative bodies. It was also better to meet influential Senators and Congressmen in their own constituencies.
(ii) Though New York is a major global financial centre, most major corporate headquarters are spread all over the United States. Local CEOs could influence both State and Federal governments and lawmakers.
(iii) Contacts had to be maintained not only with CEOs of major companies, and large industry associations, like the US Chamber of commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, but also sectoral associations and those of small and medium industries. Interaction with trade unions was also necessary in efforts to counter protectionist sentiments caused by inadequate or incorrect information.
(iv) The 2.3 million India-American communities represented a potentially powerful lobbying-block, particularly as influential constituents of their Senators and Congressmen. The community represented the best educated, most law-abiding, most entrepreneurial and one of the wealthiest segments of American society. With a disproportionately large number of doctors, educationists, businessmen, particularly hotel owners, the range of their daily contacts with fellow Americans were much wider than average US citizens. They were large contributors to political candidates, but a major drawback was their incredibly low turnout as voters in both local and national elections.
(v) The US media is also dispersed all over the country. These included major newspapers. Most Americans, however, preferred to read local newspapers and tune in to local radio and television channels. This, in turn, influenced the thinking of US Congressmen and, to a somewhat lesser extent, US Senators.
(vi) The U.S. had an excellent system of very close and regular interaction between government agencies and universities and think-tanks all over the country. We sought to strengthen our contacts with these institutions.
(vii) American Jewish groups were effective supporters of Indian causes in the US Congress. So were the Black Caucus and some other groups.
I found that, on the basis of my personal experience, the following approaches to be helpful for the most effective projection of our objectives:
(i) Like Americans, Indians generally tend to be fairly garrulous. I had learnt, over the years, that it is invariably better to listen more and talk less. We need to resist the urge to interrupt an interlocutor or to score debating points. Winning an argument is certainly not the best way to influence policy makers. A far more effective approach is to listen, attentively and with respect, to the person, and respond by expressing appreciation of his views. Thereafter, some points could be conveyed for his or her consideration, and a promise made to get back with further clarifications. The conversion of an undecided person, let alone a critic, to an advocate is a process. Expecting instant positive responses is unrealistic.
(ii) The standard briefs received from headquarters should invariably be conveyed faithfully and fully to the Administration. However, a one size fits all approach is not advisable during interactions with Governors, Senators and senior Congressmen, including Committee Chairs and Ranking Members of various Committees. The background and interests of such persons, with a high sense of self-esteem, should be studied in depth and presentations individually tailored for each one of them.
(iii) With regard to the media, I found that, instead focusing primarily on giving speeches or interviews, it was preferable to persuade independent columnists, commentators, academics and other reputed persons to appear on television and write op-eds. This involved much more time and effort in one-to-one meetings. But the results in terms of credibility and effectiveness were worth all the extra work.
(iv) Interest groups in the US, or any other country, cannot be easily persuaded to appreciate and accept India’s interests or priorities, unless these conform to their own interests and they have stakes in the outcome. No relationship, whether personal, or between countries, can be one-sided. You will remember the old saying, “Why is that fellow trying to avoid me and bad-mouthing me behind my back? I don’t remember having done him any favour.” Our focus was, therefore, on a relationship based on mutual benefit; not on what America can do for India, but what we can both do for the benefit of each other, and for global good. This was not just an assertion of principle, but making it a reality. During a four year period during my tenure, Indo-US trade doubled, but US exports tripled, reducing the trade balance in our favour. Despite ill-informed rhetoric about outsourcing to India, trade in services was roughly equal in both directions. Foreign direct investment from India to the US rose dramatically, more or less matching US investments in India.
I was gratified that these goals, which I had announced within a week of my arrival in the United States in 2004, were realized during my tenure. I had launched a programme of making individual Senators and Congressmen better aware of Indian investments and the number of jobs thereby preserved or created in their States. I was not satisfied with the implementation of this initiative.
Let me now give you an overall idea of how my colleagues and I undertook the most challenging public diplomacy initiative in the United States, namely, the historic Indo-US nuclear deal. The deal was truly audacious in its vision and scope. It would never have materialised without the extraordinary leadership of President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The negotiations of this agreement were extraordinarily complicated and difficult. It was often a touch and go situation. We were fortunate to have an outstanding team of negotiators, including current West Bengal Governor, M.K. Narayanan, former Foreign Secretaries, Shyam Saran and Shiv Shankar Menon, and former Chairman of our Atomic Energy Commission, A.R. Kakodkar. President Bush was unwavering in the commitment and impatiently brushed aside reservations within his Administration. Secretary of State Rice, National Security Adviser Hadley and Under Secretary Nick Burns pushed the deal through the US Congress. Prior to that Bush intervened personally and called numerous Heads of State and Government of countries of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and getting a clean, single country-specific waiver for India from the NSG guidelines. This was unprecedented in international relations.
In the meantime, while the Congressional clock was ticking, and while we were rapidly running out of time for US Congressional approval, periodic meetings of the UPA-Left continued to be held at a snail’s pace. We were ultimately left with just about a fortnight for US Congressional approval. The Bush Administration was thus left with the unenviable task of persuading the US Congress not only to approve the agreement but also to find a way of bypassing its mandatory three-stage Congressional process of approving such agreements, the first stage of which required a minimal 30 legislative days of Congressional consideration. No Senator or Congressman expected that the US Congress would agree to take such an extraordinary and unprecedented step and that too during the final days of a Congressional Session, while coping with the worst financial crisis since the great depression in the last century. Nonetheless the US Congress finally confounded all specialists and approved the nuclear deal with an overwhelming bi-partisan majority.
What was the role of our Embassy in all these developments? I felt that extraordinary situations warranted extraordinary and unorthodox measures. At every stage, my focus was not on conventional processes but on outcomes. My Embassy colleagues and I got directly involved in every stage of the internal process of the drafting of the US legislation in both Houses of the Congress. We kept day-to-day track of changes in their internal draft formulations. We also closely monitored amendments, which were likely to be introduced by Congressmen and Senators. I ignored diplomatic norms by directly conveying to the Chairmen, Ranking Members and others that some of the formulations under consideration by them would be unacceptable to us.
I also conveyed the implications of draft formulations and our likely reactions to the Speaker and the Majority and Minority Leaders of both Houses of the US Congress.
Simultaneously, my colleagues and I mobilized the Indian-American community at large, and also a select group of influential US citizens of Indian-origin, in particular, to lobby with Senators and Congressmen, to make specific changes in the legislation as it evolved in the US Congress. Each one was entrusted with separate responsibilities. Major Indian-American associations were also briefed. Periodic meetings were convened by me to review progress. The response from the Indian-American community was extraordinary. Their enthusiastic support transcended their political affiliations not only as US citizens, as Democrats or Republicans but, equally significantly, also their traditional links and loyalties to Indian political parties. Their unwavering support and the time and resources they devoted in this process were in sharp contrast to the divisive debate in their mother country. This sense of unity in the Indian community in a common cause was unprecedented, in terms of its scale and intensity. This augurs well for the future of Indo-US relations.
The US Chamber of Commerce, the US-India Business Council, and other industry associations were mobilized to support this initiative; CEOs of major US companies also visited me before visiting Capitol Hill to convey their support. They kept in close touch with us on issues of concern to us on the draft legislation. It is noteworthy that the overwhelming number of US corporate leaders who lobbied actively in favour had no direct or even indirect interests in the nuclear industry.
In a coordinated and multi-pronged approach, simultaneous steps were taken to mobilize support in the US media, think tanks, universities, and other organizations. Republican and Democratic Party Conventions to nominate respective Presidential candidates also provided the opportunity for us to influence formulations in both Party Manifestos in areas of interest to us.
Such activities, involving direct participation and intervention of a foreign envoy in domestic policy making, were unusual. But they did not raise too many eyebrows in a mature and open democracy, like the United States. On a more modest scale, such activities were also undertaken in the United Kingdom.
Given this background, I am somewhat amused at dark hints of a “foreign hand” in the recent legislation on nuclear liability adopted on the basis of bipartisan support in our Parliament. I am sure that we will be less prickly, and more mature, as we gain greater confidence in ourselves and in the integrity of the institutions in our democracy.
I hope that some of my observations will lead to a candid and stimulating inter-active session with this distinguished gathering.