END OF AN ERA: Ambassador Nancy Powell Steps Down

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor.com

This week we have witnessed the end of a unique area.  For most of the last few years, and for the first time in history two women were charged by their respective countries with the herculean task of keeping steady hands on U.S.-India relations.  Nancy Powell was the U.S. Ambassador to India from April 2012 until her announced retirement in May of this year, while Nirupama Rao was Indian Ambassador to the United States from October 2011 until her retirement in December 2013.

NAMASTE & GOODBYE!!! (courtest mydosti.com)

The lives of both women were fascinatingly intertwined as detailed in our profile in 2012, which has been reproduced below.  Their appointments after long civil service careers proved the importance of their posts, and also the faith that the leadership of their home nations had in them.  So it is par for the course that both chose to retire from government service after being the Ambassador to one another’s countries.  It was also so nice to witness the friendship and respect that the two leaders seemed to develop for each other- although interfacing with one another unfortunately did not constitute much of their responsibilities.  If it did, things might have been better.

On cue.  There is a sadder note to all of this: Nancy Powell is choosing to retire from an illustrious foreign service career on a somewhat sour note after having to endure a severe and lingering breakdown in US-India relations over the Khobragade affair.  As I have written before, there was plenty of blame to go around on both sides.  We can examine further what may have caused Ambassador Powell to retire, but today we are simply going to salute Ambassador Powell for her years of service in many countries and under sometimes difficult personal circumstances, as we do Ambassador Rao.

Enjoy your retirement, ladies.



May 5, 2012

A historically significant paradigm is playing out in U.S.-India relations, somewhat below the radar, receiving minimal fanfare because the meme about Iran sanction disagreements between the two nations has dominated headlines.  With all the gender inequality still pervasive in both countries, it’s appropriate to applaud some girl power when we see it.  With the successful confirmation of Nancy J. Powell to the post of U.S. Ambassador to India, and her reporting for work on April 19, 2012 there is an unprecedented level- by far- of female leadership guiding the delicate bilateral relationship today.

Ambassador Powell is the first female to hold this post.  She has been a career State Department official, serving in various capacities over the years including Director General of the Foreign Service, Director of Human Resources, and Ambassador to Pakistan, Ghana, and Uganda.   She has also served as Deputy Chief of Mission (the equivalent of the Ambassador’s top deputy) in Bangladesh and Togo.   She worked up through relatively lower positions including  Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Consul General in Calcutta, and Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at U.S. Embassy New Delhi.  She is a 1970 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa.

The parallels between Ambassador Powell and Indian Ambassador to the United States,Nirupama Rao are easy to draw.  They are nearly the same age: Rao graduated from Mount Carmel College in Bangalore in the year…you guessed it…1970.  Ambassador Rao is a longtime Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer and has been just as much of a careerist in Indian public service as Powell has been for the U.S. bureaucracy.  Her previous posts included Minister of Press Affairs in Washington, Deputy Chief of Mission in Moscow, stints in the Ministry of External Affairs as Joint Secretary for East Asia and for External Publicity, which made her the first female spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry, as Chief of Personnel (the counterpart to her counterpart in New Delhi in the HR capacity), Ambassador to Peru and China, and High Commissioner to Sri Lanka.  Interestingly, Rao has posited that the Indian system is the best and most fair for women several days ago at the University of Florida commencement.  That’s a bold statement.

However, a separate fact is clearly not debatable based on the resumes.  Neither Powell nor Rao are political hack appointments, an all-too common practice for ambassadorships in both countries.

That’s not all.  Let’s not forget that Powell’s boss is another woman and a hyperactive Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton who was a few votes away from the U.S. presidency- and perhaps just four years away from another serious run at it.   Yet another female politician, Ms. Preneet Kaur occupies the seat of Minister of State for External Affairs, one of the top few posts in India’s foreign policy establishment.  Sonia Gandhi is pulling the Congress party’s strings, and that includes foreign policy.  And as evidenced by Clinton’s India visit, Chief Minister of Bengal Mamata Banerjee is a player in Indian foreign policy too, especially on the economic side.

Add to all of this the news that former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condi Rice (whose stated proudest moment relates directly to India) is considered a front-runner in the Mitt Romney running-mate sweepstakes, and we could soon have a foreign-policy oriented female Vice-President in place even if Obama loses to the opposition party come November.

Though it may still be a man’s world, that’s proving not to hold true in this little area of diplomacy.  Several open questions remain:  (1) Whether the woman’s touch might help improve any prospects for peace and cooperation in the real world of cut-throat, hardball diplomacy still dominated by hawks, many of them mistrustful and xenophobic men; (2) Whether their appointments are a harbinger of more to come in the foreign policy communities of their home countries; and (3) If these ambassadors, who ultimately serve at the pleasure of their political masters, will survive past the upcoming 2012 presidential election to be held in the United States.

We will certainly watch with interest.


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