Blackwill and the art of diplomacy

Former US ambassador is hitting all the right notes during his India visit

shreerupa

Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | June 11, 2014



Robert D Blackwill, former US ambassador to India (2001-03), in his physical impression can be somewhat deceptive. When sitting he appears to be almost diminutive but is tall even by American standards and his kindly, almost absent-minded face does not prepare you for the sharp repartees that come your way ever so often in the course of a conversation. Who else could describe Lee Kuan Yew's relationship with India as one of "unrequited love" or the India-US relationship transformed at the beginning of the last decade as a "Smithsonian artifact" or American self-righteousness as "always doing the right thing after trying every alternative"?

Blackwill comes to India at a significant moment in the Indian history. Significant on two counts: for the first time, a non-Congress party has come to power with an overwhelming electoral majority whose leader, prime minister Narendra Modi, was imposed a visa ban from entering the US following the 2002 riots, and secondly, during the riots, Blackwill was the ambassador to India and it would be a fair assumption that he would have given his inputs then on the matter.

Blackwill met foreign secretary Sujatha Singh yesterday and is scheduled to meet the prime minister tomorrow. At an Aspen Ananta event in Delhi, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) member asked Blackwill if an apology to Modi from the US government was in order. Any other diplomat would have found it tricky to negotiate such a question. But not Blackwill.  He kept silent for only a moment and said, “Probably it was the wrong thing to do that time… he is not the CM of Gujarat anymore but the PM of India now, and with that he has turned a new page. But I would not go so far as to ask for an apology. I don’t think even Mr Modi is looking for that.” Astutely, he put the onus on Modi by portraying him as someone who does not dwell on the past, especially if the past is murky. Ten on ten for diplomacy.

He also revealed rare humility at a public event when he recalled a conversation with Yashwant Sinha, finance minister in the Vajpayee government. When Blackwill had gone to convince him to enhance foreign investment, Sinha quipped, “Ambassador, when you say foreign investment, you see General Electricals, when we say foreign investment we see East India Company.”

The thrust on trade and investment diplomacy (the US is India’s largest trading partner) and the re-emergence of old players is particularly significant in the context of the US presidential elections of 2016. It is also interesting that in Blackwill’s speech, the India section could easily be mistaken for a Modi speech; the emphasis on economic diplomacy, putting the economy in order, the need to enhance the India-Japan-US trilaterals, the need to maintain a balance of power vis-à-vis China and using “sovereign checkbooks and other economic tools to achieve strategic objectives which in the past were often the stuff of military coercion or conquest”.

In his signature style of anecdotal witticisms, Blackwill in an article in the Financial Times sums up his awe for the Indian civilisation thus: “Standing in Jaisalmer, close your eyes for a moment and see the camel caravans coming through this desert town a thousand years ago, which I now realise by India’s civilisational standards is only yesterday - a fellow on the street might have said to me, ‘Yes, they came through Jaisalmer, just a little while ago.’ ”

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