Interview with Ambassador Frank G. Wisner

Ambassador Frank G. Wisner (R) speaks to Tejinder Singh, Editor, India America Today

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In a detailed and thought provoking interview with Tejinder Singh, Editor, India America Today, Ambassador Frank G. Wisner, a veteran US diplomat and former ambassador to India, addressed the challenges facing the democracies of India and the United States.

With a diplomatic career spanning four decades and eight American presidents, Ambassador Wisner used his vast experience to chart out a plan to get a Free Trade Agreement on track and worked to cement a strong and meaningful strategic relationship.

After President Barack Obama’s much hyped visit, where are we in the Indo-US relationship equation?

The president’s visit was clearly a high water mark, but I believe that the relationship at core is in very good condition; that is, there is a strategic convergence between the United States and India on several levels.

On an international, political, and security level, our interests and those of India are close –  closer together and recognized as closer together — the basis of a partnership and a common view about objectives has emerged.

While we won’t always pursue those objectives in the same manner, we recognize that you’ve got to have deep cooperation if Asia’s power balance is to be assured, Chinese power is to be managed, and the crisis in South Asia to be dealt with. That’s a major change, seeing a major partnership between our two countries.

On the business level, of course, there are many difficulties born of politics in Delhi, politics in Washington – I understand all that. But look at the range of trade and investment opportunities that exists and the achievements that have already been struck. Look at the government-to-government economic collaboration. The landscape between the United States and India has been fundamentally changed.

And India’s economy, it may not grow 9 or 8 percent and America’s economy may not grow at optimum levels given our recovery from recession, but there are huge opportunities for the two of us. We regard one another as privileged business partners, so I believe we will continue to move ahead, not without hiccups. That’s going to be part of the game.

There’s going to be disagreements over tax, Vodafone, non-real retail and many measures like this, but the strategic reality is that India is a vitally important market for American corporations and America is a terrific opportunity for Indians for technology, for products, outsourcing, and selling India’s products.

All this makes for a very dynamic environment and I am therefor an optimist about both political and security and the business relationship.

 You mentioned security and with the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden coming up, how do you see the security equation now?

I believe that the war against terrorists is something both of us must be deeply preoccupied with, as we have the responsibility of protecting our citizens from these kinds of ghastly assaults.

But at core I am going to argue a different point and that is there is a strategic context within which we work that rises above even the media challenge of life and this terror brings to us, and that is, how do you maintain a balance, notably in Asia where the world is focusing in the years ahead? How do you make certain that great parties in Asia stay in balance to assure the peace and not threaten one another? And find ways to cooperate, create a structure of engagement, a structure of possibility? That’s the big challenge and here I believe the United States-India equation is really important.

The United States will have a strong relationship with China, have a strong relationship with Japan. Japan and India will have a strong relationship and India and China will have an important relationship. It’s keeping that balance that is going to give both economic and political security opportunities to our two sides. The US-India equation is really important in the maintenance of that balance. 

Do you see this relationship developing more and more, even with the hiccups you mentioned?

I do, though I am very careful to argue that India has its own national interests and own way of pursuing those interests and the United States has its own style and its own interests. I can see us moving in parallel lines that do not converge. They move in parallel, keep parallel approaches.

Both of us engage China and hedge against an axis in Chinese power. Both of us want peace and security in Afghanistan. How you proceed and how we proceed becomes important. Both of us want Iran to be a responsible nuclear power. Both of us want stability in the Middle East. So our objectives are the same – we can be similarly directed and engaged, but choose our own methods for getting there.

The simple issues like Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan getting stopped get a lot of attention in India. What is wrong with the system?

Of course they do and they get a lot of media coverage. These occurrences, most unfortunate, have to be managed well. I certainly see they are not managed terribly well. I like to think about it in a slightly different way. Look at the volume of Indians visiting the United States and Americans now traveling to India.

Are there going to be complexities at the airports? There are going to be some issues here and some issues there, but do Americans want to interact with Indians and vice-versa? Of course, and that is the real reality and how we manage the given incidents is a bit of an issue of public relations and policies and adjusting those policies, there is no, no, repeat – no reservation. 

With the nuclear deal hibernating and American companies feeling the frustration, what is going on there?

There is a very tough legislative issue that the government of India is to face to deal with liabilities on the nuclear front and there are other issues.

We will very much like to see expanded opportunities for our insurance companies, banking possibilities open, retail possibilities, which I think will be very valuable in India to have institutions, companies like Walmart. I am sure there are a similar number of issues on the Indian side, including questions on visa access in the United States. 

All of this said, look at the investments flowing in both directions that are underway now. Look at the huge volume of Indian investment in the United States and American investment in India. Look at the doubling of trade every several years. 

Those who say the relationship is stalled or we need time to stop and take our breath and consolidate, they’ve got it all wrong. This relationship now has a momentum that is embedded in it and we can manage the little crises and differences if we are careful with one another. We now have ballast, if you will, that makes it possible for this ship of Indian American relationship to sail in stormy weather. I would like to think we could sail to a strategic outcome, a deepening of the relationship. 

I happen to believe very strongly in working towards a free trade agreement that would make a lot of difference. I recognize there are a few hurdles in this country and India before we get there.

You mentioned free trade agreement and you mentioned hurdles, what is your suggestion to both the governments to get over them?

Well, that’s a very important question and first we need to get things done that we need to do right now. Its about a bilateral investment treaty which is an early preparatory step towards world free trade and lets get behind this. I think then we need to structure the approach to a free trade agreement.

It won’t be possible to open up both the markets on day one, 100 percent to the other party.

What can we open now, what we can open midterm and what we will open up in the longer term? How do we protect industries that are sensitive to both sides during the period of transition?

While you grow, there is an intense volume of exchanges and you create more jobs and less resistance, so I think it is the process that has to be agreed on. Once you agree on the objective that the United States and India should have a free trade agreement, so lets start with: get the pelican steps done, investment treaty, settle on the principles, and then work out a calendar of how our free trade agreement will be structured, and then sit down and negotiate the pieces.

What is your message to both the Indian government and the US to pursue not only a South East Asian perspective, but also a global one?

In South East Asia, we have a period now in which nations along the Asian littoral are working out their relationship with China. They are going to have a huge relationship with China and a very important one. But they want to retain sovereignty, territorial integrity, cultural independence and for that to happen they need strong ties with the United States. India and the US need to be engaged with each of the nations along the edges of Indonesian, Thai, Malays, Vietnamese, Philippines and build those patterns of relationships.

In the balance, India, the US, and China, will see a much more stable and secure future.

On the peripheries part of India, Sri Lanka is being pushed to act with US sponsored resolution at the UN Human RIghts Commission. What are your comments on these developments?

I don’t know at the end what the government in Colombo will decide to do. My own view is that it is important after a brutal civil war that has occurred in any country, especially in Sri Lanka, that everyone reach out. The different contending sides reach out and aim towards a reconciliation and that means counting for and not punishing, but letting everyone know what happened so that you can at that point recognize what the past was, agree with what the past was, however painful, so that you can move forward in the future together.

So the example I first saw in the South Africa reconciliation process, not people were punished for the roles they played, but in which they admitted what had been their history, what had happened so that you could build a new future. This is what makes sense to me.

I welcome the fact that the government of Sri Lanka established the commission and that commission came up with a number of findings. I hope the government of Sri Lanka will implement those findings. This is their own commission, it’s a Sri Lankan responsibility and not an American or Indian or international responsibility. Its for the health of the country itself that it design its own process of reconciliation and then live by it. The world can encourage it but the world can not substitute for it or force it. The desire to reconcile has to spring inside of Sri Lanka. 

What is your take on the ongoing situation in Pakistan?

Its a very difficult situation. The United States is headed towards a day in 2014 with no troop presence in Afghanistan and that will change the environment’s importance, but it won’t change the responsibility we have for the long term stability in South East Asia and particularly in managing and assisting our friends in Pakistan in rebuilding their collective institutions, their civil society, their government, their economy, and I look forward to a long term American commitment in that regard. 

I believe what we need to do is very important for India. India needs a stable Pakistan. To build an economically strong Pakistan, it is going to be very tough to get there, but it is going to take a lot of common understanding between India and the United States.

It is going to be tough and I do not want to underestimate it. Once the American forces are out of Afghanistan, a lot of the political logic for a deep American engagement evaporates. That’s the way things are. So we are going to have to be very careful and set reasonable goals with India, we, with Pakistan, with Afghanistan, if we are going to get the stability we need.

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