| Matching interests
Without going all the way with Peter Ustinov’s belief that “a diplomat these days is nothing but a head-waiter who’s allowed to sit down occasionally”, there is no denying the devaluation of ambassadors. Some might even say that they have never been as important to others as they are to themselves, and that Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy only confirmed the man on the spot’s marginal role in international relations.
Robert D. Blackwill’s departure will not, therefore, damage India’s burgeoning ties with the United States of America which once prompted the Marxist Sitaram Yechury to wonder if India was trying to become the new Pakistan. “There is a tide in the affairs of men,/ Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune...” So, too, in the affairs of nations. Though a Vulcan (Condoleeza Rice’s name for George W. Bush’s inner circle of advisers), Blackwill was the outcome of that tide, not its cause. The coalescence of interests that brought the two countries together will keep them going.
The process began during Bill Clinton’s second term when Washington felt that it had not been wise to put all its south Asian eggs in Pakistan’s military basket. The pressure of rising China and growing Islamic fundamentalism forced the US to seek other options. Richard F. Celeste, who had served for four years in the Sixties as staff assistant to Chester Bowles, the ambassador who was a close family friend of the Nehrus, presided over the change when he returned as ambassador. Celeste was warm, sympathetic and approachable. His wide circle of friends ranged from Jojo Karlekar, an engaging young Calcutta social worker, to Satish Gujral, the artist. Clinton sent him to India to execute a bridge-building decision that had already been taken.
Celeste himself credited Hillary Clinton with the initiative but that, too, was an over-simplification. However much she had enjoyed travelling in India, her husband would not have acted on her urging if it had not been in his administration’s interest to do so. Wives, like ambassadors, are also the tools of higher policy.
This is something that envoys, extraordinary ambassadors, plenipotentiaries often find difficult to digest. I was waiting once at the reception counter in Delhi’s South Block when a man stormed up, peremptorily announced himself as India’s high commissioner to a small African country and demanded to be taken at once to a certain external affairs ministry official.
The receptionist looked through his pile of pre-cleared visitors’ slips, did not find the high commissioner’s name, and telephoned his contact who was not in his room. A request to wait infuriated the visitor. “I am the high commissioner to ...” he began when the receptionist cut in softly, “Yes, sir, I know. But I can’t send you up unless they tell me. Meanwhile, sir, will you please enter your particulars in this book'” The high commissioner loudly complained that it was an affront. After he had gone, the receptionist murmured more to himself than to anyone else, “What can I do' They don’t understand that they are no longer VIPs once they come back. They still want the lal carpet and lal salaam!”
Indian diplomats (like all Indian bureaucrats) attach the most weight to official trappings but others also become dependent on transient glory. A survey once showed that of all professionals in Britain, former ambassadors die quickest after retirement. I was offered that tid-bit when friends in Canberra told me that a genial and popular Australian representative in New Delhi had dropped dead within six months of laying down office. When I asked the cause, his former colleagues replied with one word, “Retirement.”
Blackwill is not going to retire. He is a man of letters. His valedictory statement says he is going back to Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “I will thus join my illustrious colleague, John Kenneth Galbraith, in proudly representing my country for two years as American ambassador to India, and then returning to Harvard to teach and to write.” It’s an interesting comparison. Galbraith is, of course, a man and an intellect to reckon with. Just as April Glaspie, the former American ambassador to Iraq, bungled her interview with Saddam Hussein before he marched into Kuwait, Galbraith misunderstood Jawaharlal Nehru over Goa and complained of having been misled. He blossomed into an “India hand” after retiring. I remember sitting in my hotel room in Wellington, New Zealand, many years ago transfixed by the small screen which showed Galbraith visiting Rudyard Kipling’s house, Naulakha, in Vermont in the US.
He might have been a retired viceroy instead of the former ambassador of a country that prides itself on being the world’s oldest democracy. But, of course, a British aristocrat would have been far too well bred to wallow in imperial nostalgia as Galbraith did. Choosing as his theme the poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, that Kipling wrote when the US defeated Spain and seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other colonies, he sauntered about the house salivating over lines like “Your new-caught sullen peoples,/ Half devil and half child.” Galbraith enjoyed relating them to his experiences in India, especially to his interaction with Krishna Menon. The film was an astonishingly vulgar and outrageous ego trip by a man whose enormous vanity led him to create spurious history.
This is not an uncommon trait in America’s men in New Delhi. A few might be grandees to start with; most quickly become grand in a city that was socially servile to Caucasians of all ranks even in the high noon of non-aligned assertiveness. America’s second ambassador, Loy Henderson, probably represented the apogee of grandeur. His wife was a White Russian émigré and they lorded it in great style in a maharajah’s mansion in New Delhi with liveried flunkeys behind each chair at dinner. Nehru was an uppity native whom Henderson couldn’t stand.
Personal equations may have changed but not the style or substance of the relationship. Since the US has succeeded Britain as the global imperial power, its representatives in India feel entitled to viceregal hauteur. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died the other day, was not free of pro-consular delusions. Even the statesmanlike Thomas R. Pickering, the first US ambassador to the reformist Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh government, would not agree with my contention, when we discussed his mandate in Honolulu, that some of the matters he proposed taking up lay within India’s domestic jurisdiction. Sadly, Indian officials and politicians, ever looking for crumbs to pick up, do nothing to disabuse US diplomats of their folie de grandeur.
Bharatiya Janata Party dignitaries are probably more ingratiating than any of their predecessors. American ambassadors also now represent a force that is both more ruthless and more pretentious than ever before. Bush affects some of the postures of Woodrow Wilson who argued that “the world must be made safe for democracy” and that “America is the only idealistic nation in the world.” But he does not share Wilson’s concept of “peace without victory” (at the end of World War I) or his idealistic belief that “no nation (was) fit to sit in judgment upon any other nation.”
Perhaps the comparison is not fair to Bush for Wilson, too, was a political operator. His Orwellian-sounding Committee for Public Information raised the spectre of the Red Scare, warned of a German plot to rename America New Prussia, and had pacifist Americans baying for Germany’s blood. Hollywood could not export features without also exporting official propaganda films. Perhaps only the balance of global power in the early 20th century obliged Wilson to exercise restraint.
Today’s intrusive and overbearing American ambassadors reflect an intrusive and overbearing lone superpower. We can expect to learn even more about post-Iraq America from Washington’s next man in New Delhi.