President Joe Biden has finally succeeded in securing the United States Senate’s approval for Eric Garcetti to become his country’s ambassador to India. Garcetti will arrive in Delhi after Biden has completed more than half his term.
He is Biden’s close political ally and served for nine years as the mayor of Los Angeles. He was nominated in 2021 but his confirmation was held up in the United States Senate. This was because some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had reservations about him.
This was because of charges, as reported in sections of the media, against him of making racist comments and that he had not paid real attention to allegations of sexual misconduct against one of his close aides.
Biden decided to stand by his friend despite the opposition to his appointment. Clearly, Biden has done well by his friend but has he done well by India by keeping the ambassador’s post vacant for so long?
This question has to be asked because Biden has had vast experience of foreign relations and diplomacy since as Senator, he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Hence, he would be well aware that leaving an ambassadorship vacant for more than half his term, even because of domestic political compulsions, has the danger of being interpreted as a signal of indifference especially towards a country with which the US is seeking to comprehensively strengthen relations.
It is likely that the Biden administration had sought the understanding of the Modi government to the US President’s desire of not caving in to domestic political pressure on this issue.
It is obvious that the Modi government did not want to embarrass Biden and may have assured him that the vacant ambassadorial slot would not cause a shadow on the bilateral relationship.
However, the fact is that Biden could have himself either expended sufficient political capital to push Garcetti’s nomination or selected some other appropriate person to become the US ambassador to India; he did neither.
The Garcetti nomination and appointment once again profiles the inadequacies of the traditional process by which the US appoints ambassadors. This procedure is inherently disrespectful of other countries. Why? As an ambassador is the accredited envoy of one Head of State to another the sending state takes the approval of the receiving state.
The sending state is expected to conclude all its internal processes before seeking the approval of the receiving state. Once that approval is received the appointment of the ambassador is announced and he/she becomes functional after the presentation of credentials. What the US does is different.
The US first seeks the approval of the receiving state and thereafter approaches its Senate to endorse the nominee. Many senior appointments, including those of judges of the US Supreme Court have to be cleared by the Senate. Ambassadors are part of such appointments.
What the US should distinguish is between appointments that concern only its domestic jurisdiction and those that involve foreign countries. It is true that the US Senate has the powers to withhold its approval even of treaties and agreements which the executive branch has entered into with another country or group of countries and it has exercised this power in the past; perhaps the most famous instance was the Senate’s refusal for the US to become a member of the League of Nations which its then President, Woodrow Wilson, had championed after the First World War.
Here too it can be argued, and with justification, that the US should complete its domestic processes before entering into bilateral or multilateral agreements. The fact however is that the international community has given great leeway to the US always in these matters because of its constitutional system. It is unlikely though that the US would give, especially since the time it has been the world’s pre-eminent power, the same latitude to other states.
The absence of a US ambassador in Delhi for so long while relations between the two countries moved ahead well, once again, raises the question of the importance of ambassadors.
How much do they really count in the conduct of interstate ties, especially in an age of instant communications and when the senior most political leaders of different countries are often in direct personal contact? The answer to this question is that professionally competent and astute ambassadors can make an enormous difference to relationships.
They act as bridges especially if they are trusted in the receiving state and have the confidence of their own leadership. Good ambassadors develop the ability to find congruities in the interests among concerned countries and that results in upgrading of bilateral ties either in specific sectors or across the board. For this purpose they also have to develop a deep understanding of the countries where they are posted and of their governmental systems.
Ambassadors also do the ground work for attempts that are made to resolve issues and differences and conflicts between nations. The final decisions are made by political leaders but their role in seeking to narrow the troubles and create understanding is important.
All these are not theoretical propositions but are witnessed on a daily basis in international relations. It is necessary to make these points especially now when there is a feeling in many sections of the people, including in India, that ambassadors’ functions are only to arrange visits and promote aspects of soft power of a country.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.