INTERVIEW

America would never ask a friend or partner to choose between itself and another country: US Ambassador to Nepal

  • US Ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry talks to the Post about the three things the United States is focussed on in Nepal
- Post Report, Kathmandu

Apr 15, 2019-

US Ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry may have been in the country only for six months, but it’s been a busy time for the US diplomat. From holding high-level discussions and debates over the relationship between the two countries—particularly during the month-long controversy surrounding Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s statement on Venezuela—to actively engaging with Nepalis on social media to promote US initiatives in Nepal, Berry has smoothly transitioned into his new role. The ease with which he’s taken to his new responsibilities can be attributed to his experience—he is known as a seasoned “Nepal hand” within the United States State Department, given his role as deputy chief of mission in Kathmandu from 2007 to 2009.

In a joint interview with The Kathmandu Post and Kantipur daily last week, Berry said that the United States was largely focused on three things in Nepal: deepening democratic principles and practices along with inclusive transparent governance; long-term economic growth and prosperity for Nepalis; and encouraging Nepal to push further in exercising its independence and national sovereignty. Excerpts:  

You were vocal about what Nepal needed to do before the recent investment summit. Now that the summit is over, how do you see the outcome in terms of what the government did and how the summit went?

The value of the investment summit will be judged by what happens now. New laws have been adopted; now it’s time to define those regulations and implement them. American investors or investors from non-command economies have to look at the content and what that actually produces in terms of making it attractive. It’s no secret that for investors, there is a lot of competition for that investment. I think being able to adopt a narrative around this is very important. And I think the key to that narrative is a summary of the legal changes in laws that have occurred. It is still early to tell. There was a respectable level of pledges that have been made and the challenge now is to make sure those commitments are honoured, respected because that can begin to produce real movement.

Did you find anything appealing about the summit? Do you think there is scope to attract American investors here?

For American investors, it is certainly enough to grab their attention when you talk about issues related to political stability or the goals the government has set for itself in realising 2030 middle-income goals. But there is still a thirst for exactly what is the content of the changes that will produce those goals. So, I think there is interest, but there is much greater interest in seeing what is the sum total of these changes.

Nepali officials were expecting more US investors at the summit and were hoping you would take some initiatives to bring them here.

We have to recognise that, of course, the US is not a command economy. Businesses are not coming here because I tell them to come here. They are going to be looking at not just the legislations, but also how that regulation is being presented in a way that is digestible to them. They need explanations and some sort of guide to the changes. Most importantly, they’re going to look at the implementation. There is a particular threshold for risk that companies are willing to take.

Nepal-US ties are now in their 73rd year. How do you assess this relationship as current ambassador and where do you think it will be by the end of your tenure?

I understand the motivations that brought America here. I can tell you that over those 73 years, we are in as strong a place as we’ve ever been. I had a chance to talk to some students groups in the last few days and I have been talking about partnership. We need to understand that the elements that make up this partnership are truly bilateral. That means there are benefits accrued to both sides. If you look at our development assistance, which was really at the core of our initial engagement 73 years ago, those small seeds of engagement have produced pretty good health outcomes and education outcomes.

Our development systems now span five key sectors and we are looking at budgets that are delivering real results. One of the greatest pleasures I have had as an ambassador is getting out of Kathmandu to see what’s happening in the Nepal where most Nepalis live. From education, health care, democracy and governance (especially in relation to the move towards federalism and decentralisation) and disaster and reconstruction efforts—these are all our key effort areas.

We have robust bilateral relations because we operate from the same shared values. When you have governments and societies that are committed to free and open principles, we’re going to see a natural confluence of interest there. That’s why we’re in a very strong place.

Where will we be in three years? I hope that in a very tangible sense we are midway through the implementation of the Millenium Challenge Compact which is showing great promise, and is starting to make people take note of what’s happening in Nepal in terms of the economics. I am excited we are at a stage where we are working with the National Reconstruction Authority, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other partners. And I’ll certainly do my part to further this engagement.

Do you think there’s been a thaw in ties between Nepal and America after the fiasco over Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s statement on Venezuela?

After 73 years of getting to know one another, there was no ice to begin with. I don’t think of a thaw, because I don’t think there’s been a freeze in the first place. Obviously, we disagree on the Venezuela statement, but our relationship is too broad and too multifaceted to be derailed or substantially harmed by a single statement. I am far more interested in looking at the building blocks of this partnership and seeing what it is producing. What I can tell you is that it is producing good outcomes here in Nepal.

We have been building people-to-people links as long as we have been here. I have learned constantly about the private partnerships between American companies, organisations or individuals who came here, who were struck by the hospitality and vibrancy of the culture and have decided that it is time to do something. It’s been just six months that I have been here and I am finding that I am much more popular now. I have a guest house here that is almost constantly full. I recently had a visit from the parents of a friend from my home state of Colorado who, after spending a few days here, asked how they could be helpful here.

That’s why I am not necessarily worried about little bobbles along the way because no relationship is perfect; we are going to have differences in opinion. We need to keep the core of our relationship intact. We have a clear understanding of what our interests are here, as does your government, and those overlap consistently. I think to diverge too much from that is to ignore what the long term goal is.

Following the foreign minister’s visit [to the United States], do you think it is more important now to have such high-level visits and interactions?

I am committed to seeing more senior-level contacts exist because, in practical diplomacy, such visits can be extremely helpful in furthering foreign policy goals. When you get senior leaders together, who have a capacity to make commitments on behalf of the government, these visits can be action-forcing events. They bring issues, they bring agreements to a head, which can be decided upon and implemented.

In the past, because of the fairly frequent change in the government of Nepal, it’s been sometimes difficult for us to engage at that senior level. I think we are entering new territory in terms of our engagement. Our interest and engagement here are persistent and longstanding. I was especially happy that the invitation to the foreign minister to visit Washington came up soon. I am hopeful we will see reciprocal high-level visits, even during this year. I think that is the appropriate level of engagement for partners.

During the visit of our foreign minister, the official statement from the State Department mentioned Nepal’s central role in a free and open Indo-Pacific. This created a lot of buzz in Kathmandu. What does that mean exactly?  

This is really a policy idea that grew out of the roots of Japanese policies. We seized upon it because we think there is a lot of value here to talk about a free and open country, region, world. Because we think we all benefit from that.

As our approach to the Indo-Pacific region, the strategy is defined as something that is a label for a policy of engagement. It’s unfortunate that there is a lot of misinformation out in the public sphere somehow that it is an alliance to which people are asked to join; that this is a grouping that is exclusive of others. I find that enormously frustrating because it is absolutely, patently untrue. There is nothing there to join—this is the name of our policy. It is rooted in a free and open society; it is rooted in regional connectivity in an economic sense, in a political sense; and it is not exclusive. I want to be really clear on that.

One of the important defining statements in Indo-Pacific strategy was delivered by our former defence secretary James Mattis about a year ago. He was asked about this with the suggestion that this was exclusionary to China. And he said that America would never ask a friend or partner to choose between itself and another country. That is not what we do. That’s not what this is about. It’s about as clear as you can enunciate that. This is a conversation about values and anyone who wants to work on the basis of those values, those internationally recognised norms, come to the table. This is an open conversation. But I feel that there is a reductionist tendency here to make this policy fit in a box that makes it seem like a counter proposal to [China’s] One Belt One Road initiative. These are not the same things and I would challenge anyone who says that they are. One is a discussion of policy, while the initiative under OBOR is really looking at infrastructure development and other things.

We have a communist government and we are a landlocked country. How do you think Nepal can play a central role in free and open Indo-Pacific region in this scenario?

I want to look more at what the government policy is. I want to take a look at what kind of aspirations there are and what plans are being set up for the future. I think that maybe there is too much of an emphasis on the label. Communist or not communist, it does not matter, because we have been engaged here in a consistent manner—when Congress was in power, when Prachanda was the prime minister, when GP Koirala was the prime minister and MK Nepal was the prime minister. So those labels are not exceedingly important to the nature of our relationship.

What kind of role do you expect from Nepal then?

If you go back to the adherence to democratic principles, democratic institutions and democratic practices that produce the free and open society that we all aspire to be, my only expectation is that Nepal would act within its own best interest and will commit to those values.

How does the United States view Nepal’s participation in the China-led Belt and Road Initiative?

Nepal needs a good, strong relationship with all its neighbours, including China. For economic growth and development, which this country and its people richly deserve, you have to have investment from your neighbours. You have two of the largest economies, not just in the region but in the world. You need their investment, you need their partnership and that has been abundantly shared.

The scrutiny that we have encouraged is not Chinese-specific. It is specific to any country that is implementing their programme in Nepal, ourselves included. The questions are: when you look at the project, does it uphold national sovereignty? Does it maintain transparency? Does it ensure financial sustainability? Does it keep locals engaged? And does it remain geopolitically prudent? We are not interested in any games that would put Nepal’s national security interests at risk. What we want here is a stable, democratic, responsive, inclusive government.

Does it protect the environment? And lastly, does it inhibit corruption? In any country, one of the greatest threats to economic growth towards responsive government is corruption. My own country grapples with this. There is no country in the world that doesn’t grapple with corruption. It can be poison for the vitality of the country. It is important to focus on what government agencies are doing to combat corruption. If there is even a perception that corruption is a barrier to investment, we’ll see American companies not show up because they know they can’t play by those rules in the US, because that can come back home to haunt them.

Folks in Kathmandu often like to talk about a geopolitical rivalry. China has been coming into Nepal very aggressively in recent years. India has always been here, and the US has been here for 73 years. What is the US position on this rivalry?

I don’t subscribe to that view of rivalry. This is not a race, it’s not a contest. The relationship that we built over 73 years stands on its own. I think the quality of the engagement, the grants that we’ve brought to the table to ensure that Nepal is not indebted going into the future are extremely important. I am less interested in talking about a theoretical rivalry than I am about discussing what it is that America brings to the table here every day. I want to talk about the quality and our best efforts. That’s what America does. I am aware of the conspiracy spin. I have been working in and out of South Asia for almost 30 years now. But I want to deal with facts.

Every time I read a story that dwells heavily on conspiracy thinking, the first question I would pose—and you need to suspect what I tell you just as you do to anybody—is “does that many any sense?” Because if it doesn’t, then it’s probably not true. Because why would a country, or an individual or an entity, act in contrary to its own best interests? That doesn’t make sense to me. So I am fully committed to sticking to our efforts here. That’s what I think Nepal and the Nepali people deserve.

In recent months, there have been attempts to curtail certain kinds of freedoms in Nepal. Is America going to make a statement on this?  

I think anytime you see civil society freedom is being curtailed, that is a concern, whether it is on press freedoms or any other exercise that is a part of democratic right as defined by the constitution.

One of your administration’s policies—the “global gag rule”—banning foreign aid to groups providing or promoting abortion directly affects funding for Nepal-based organisations that do important work on reproductive health. Have you had any conversations about, or are you aware of how the policy affects people in Nepal?

Adherence to the gag rule is one of the more persistent aspects of changes of administration in the US. It is not unusual that the administration took that step because that also existed under the previous Republican administration. Of course, we have to adhere to those policies. I don’t believe there have been major impacts because of that—I’d be interested to know if there are. What I know is given the breadth of our health engagement, this is a fairly small part of that overall engagement.

Do you think that the victims of Nepal’s conflict will get justice through the transitional justice mechanism and through this administration?

I hope so. I think any transitional justice process needs to address the concerns of victims. That’s the most important thing. Having had the chance to see transitional justice initiatives in other places, the only success that matters is one that’s local. This is not a one-size-fits-all thing because conflicts are not like that, the dynamics are not like that. What needs to happen is a uniquely Nepali solution to this. But ultimately, the only conclusion to transitional justice that matters is that everyone has a stake in it.

 

Published: 16-04-2019 06:30

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