Type to search

Ambassador Series

An Interview with Nancy Jo Powell, U.S. Ambassador to India

Ambassador Nancy J. PowellIndia Nancy J. Powell is a Career Ambassador, the highest rank in the Foreign Service. Since April 19, 2012, she has served as the first female United States Ambassador to India. Previously, she worked as the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources. Powell has also served as the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Pakistan, Ghana, and Uganda. During her career, she has earned awards such as the 2006 Homeland Security Service to America Medal for Avian Influenza preparations, and the 2003 U.S. State Department Arnold L. Raphel Award. 

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I joined for a variety of reasons. I had been teaching in a small rural Iowa high school, and I thought this was a chance to see the world. That was my number one goal. I look back now and realize that I did not have a very good picture of what the Foreign Service does. In contrast to people who come into it today with a much better idea of what the role of the Foreign Service is, I learned on the job about the Foreign Service. I also liked the idea of being of some service to the United States of America. Particularly in my first two jobs, I spent a lot of time working with American citizens who were in some kind of trouble overseas, first in Canada and then in Nepal.

The Politic: What is your day-to-day experience like in your work as the ambassador to various countries and as Director General?

I will answer that in several different ways, because one of the things that is truly incredible about the Foreign Service is just how varied it is. It is one of the things that has kept me in. I have now been in the Foreign Service for 36 years; if I had to do the same thing everyday, I would have left a long time ago. But no two days are ever the same in the Foreign Service, and it does not make any difference whether it is your first posting or one after 36 years. It’s different everyday — the world changes around you, and you have a much bigger impact here than living at home in the United States. It is much more immediate; if something is happening in Egypt, if something is happening in Syria, if there is a security incident somewhere in the world, it has an immediate impact — I like that. Some days it would be nice to say this is my schedule and I am going to do exactly this, but it doesn’t work out very often that way. Within the Embassy, particularly in the Embassy in New Delhi, it is what I call a mega-mission. We have more than thirty U.S. federal agencies at post, and we are working across a wide spectrum of activities.

The core things that we do are just like those of an embassy in Togo or in Kuala Lumpur: helping American citizens, completing visa issuances, supervising the management of our mission, and making sure that we are in compliance with federal regulations like safety and personnel. We also follow the politics and the economics of the country, which in India is an absolutely more-than-full-time job for a large number of people. We try to determine how the United States can best work with that to our advantage and to India’s advantage? How can we work on a variety of global issues together? At my staff meeting this morning, we talked about climate change, bilateral investment treaties, and about the fact that a group of Chief Executive Officers from India and the U.S. are meeting with cabinet members on both sides today in Washington. We talked about a woman who is trying to get more American students to come to India. We talked about visa issuances. And that was just a 20-minute staff meeting!

The Politic: Is there one experience that shaped any one of your policies, or that you can point to directly and say that it made an impact on the way that you do your work?

I would answer that in two ways; there were two game-changers for me. One was a trip that I made before I joined the Foreign Service that served as an introduction. I was part of a group of 25 teachers from the Midwest who went to Pakistan for a summer. There were similar programs in Egypt, India, and Pakistan, and our goal was to learn how to teach about the Third World and how to prepare materials for our classes. I met the objective of the class, but I also learned about the Foreign Service and decided that this was something that I wanted to pursue.

I had a similar in-career opportunity when I was then posted to Pakistan in the late 1980s. I was asked to go down and run our consulate in Lahore for six to eight weeks and found that I really liked that work of managing a post. It was a relatively small post, but there was a lot going on in Pakistan. That led me to move away from the sort of political analysis and political work I had been doing to looking at mission management. I spent much of my subsequent career serving as the deputy in two missions, and as Consul General in Calcutta. Those two — I would point to those as the game-changers for me.

The Politic: It also sounds like you had an illustrious and extensive career in education.

It was 6.5 years; it was not all that long. [laughter]

The Politic: That is service too. I think any teacher will say that is as much “service” as anything you can do in the government. To go off of that, what one thing would you recommend to students hoping to work in the Foreign Service?

I am probably not going to be as succinct as you want; I have more than one. Number one: be as well informed as you can be. I would point to a website, www.state.gov/careers, that can provide enormous amounts of information about the various kinds of careers in the State Department. Do not do what I did, but be better informed about the various opportunities that are out there. It is a very interactive website so that you can ask questions, and you can find out where our experts are around the country in various universities and towns. They come and do programs at universities, so I would encourage [students] reaching out and really being aware of those opportunities.

Number two: take whatever opportunities you have to travel and to understand the world. I had done very, very little travel before joining the Foreign Service. I traveled via books, and that is a legitimate way to travel if you do not have the opportunities. But students today have many, many more opportunities to travel.

It is helpful in the Foreign Service if you have had a job before you join the Foreign Service — not coming right out of school, but having either commercial experience, teaching experience, like I had, or NGO experience. You have a little better sense of the rest of the world that way, because you are dealing with it when you are in the government. Being able to see it from a different angle and not going right into government is helpful.

The Politic: Would you say having any of those career experiences abroad would be more helpful?

You could do it both ways. Certainly, in terms of your first posting, it is easier if you have been overseas and conquered those homesick days and those other things that happen during your first experience. It is probably more personal than professional, but we all have to go through [homesickness] as we travel into a different culture. I have moved — I have kind of lost track — somewhere between 15 and 20 times back and forth during my career.

If you’re a person that really likes to put down roots, you need to know that before you join the Foreign Service. Having traveled overseas will help you decide that. So maybe you should join the State Department or USAID or the Civil Service. There are certainly ways to serve in foreign affairs without having to be posted overseas, but having the experience of traveling or living overseas can help you decide which of those opportunities is better for you as an individual. I’ve seen people who simply couldn’t cope, because they wanted to be in one place. The idea of moving that often was just not what they wanted to do with their lives or their children’s lives. We have to keep in mind that most Foreign Service officers are parts of families, and the families move too. My dog didn’t particularly care where we went as long as she got to go along. If you have a 13-year-old or a spouse, you have to be a little more considerate about that. Can they work? Is there a good school? Are they going to be safe? So there are a lot of family and personal issues that come into those decisions as well.

The Politic: So that has never been personally difficult for you. You found moving to be suitable despite not knowing what you were getting yourself into?

I actually did. I laugh because as a child I moved once, and I was traumatized by the move. If you had asked my mother at that point which of her two children would go around the world and move every three years, she would not have picked me. My brother was very adaptive, but I’ve learned. I found it was fun! But that is not everybody’s cup of tea.

The Politic: In your day-to-day running of the mission in India, or in your experience just working in the State Department, how much independence in decision-making do you actually have in your job and in crisis situations? How much of your decision making is dictated by the policies that are already set?

You can watch a spectrum of things. On a certain number of things, there is a great deal of independence, and we work here in the mission in what I hope is a coordinated way across our various agencies with a certain amount of program independence.

One of the things you have to keep in mind with India is that we have had a diplomatic presence in India since 1792. I think the Consul General in Calcutta in 1792 had a great deal more independence. It took a long time for the directions to come back and forth. I now have both the luxury and probably a little bit shorter leash as a result of being able to pick up the telephone or to send an email. We will soon be looking over the next couple years of American and Indian relations from an American perspective. I have already seen the paperwork that is been prepared in Washington.

Ideally what you have is a great deal of coordination. What we bring here is the sort of day-to-day reality of, “Do we think that will work? Do we think that that is a good idea given the environment here?” Washington brings an idea of, “What is the funding going to be for the State Department?” I can think of 65 different things I would like to do in India, but somebody is going to have to say, “You have only got money for three of them. Let’s talk about which three are the most important.” So that back and forth is very, very important.

In a crisis situation — and I have been lucky not to be in too many crisis situations — the immediate reaction has to be on the ground. The chief of mission, the ambassador, has the authority to direct all of the agencies at post to respond to an emergency, whether it is a natural disaster or a fire or a terrorism incident. There are two cases that I would point to in my career where there has been a crisis. I was in Pakistan when Ambassador [Arnold] Raphel was killed in a plane crash with the President of Pakistan [Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq], and I was in Pakistan again when there was an attempt to blow up our consulate in Karachi. In both cases, we were immediately on the phone with Washington, we were talking to people, and we were working with them. I happened to be in Washington when the two embassies were attacked in Africa; my embassy in Uganda may have also been targeted. My immediate reaction was to go work on the task force, and to be part of that team, so there is fairly little then that you do independently.

We have all worked together on teams. Certainly I, as do many of the people in this mission, have the ability to have a lot of input into those decisions. People see an opportunity, and they come prepared with an idea. I will ask them to put a budget with it. I will ask them, “Who is going to do this? Can you do this in your time, or are you going to need another position?” Then we will go back to Washington to see if we can get that incorporated.

I am going to use India as an example: we have people in Washington who are very, very concerned about climate change. We have an opportunity now with the new attention that President Obama and Secretary Kerry have brought to the issue. We have people here who spent part of last week looking at what the Secretary said here, what the Indians said, what the current situation is with that cooperation, and where the challenges are. They put together a plan for organizing our climate change discussion with India. That is now back in Washington. They’re looking at it because the Department of Energy is involved, the State Department is involved, USAID is involved, and there are around seven ministries involved on this side. That is an example of a rather independent action here that then gets coordinated in the policy sense. The idea that one of these people could have gone off and done it on his own just doesn’t happen very much anymore. That probably would be counterproductive. But they were able to take their own imagination, their experience, and their knowledge of India to help shape what Washington is going to think about now with the climate change.

The Politic: So you worked under three U.S. Presidents…

I actually worked under seven. I went back and counted. [laughter]

The Politic: You worked under three as an ambassador and as Director General. You worked under seven U.S. Presidents …

One of them for two weeks, by the way, because I came in just before President Carter took over.

The Politic: You aren’t a political appointee, so I wonder what your opinion is about political appointees serving as ambassadors.

Over time, I have only worked for one political ambassador personally and directly in the field. That was in Nepal back in 1980, so it was a long time ago. This was someone who knew Nepal very, very well. He didn’t know the State Department very well, but he brought a very different perspective to our relationship with Nepal.  I have used that as a model for me.

Particularly as Director General, I worked with all of the political appointee ambassadors. I was responsible for helping them get acquainted with the State Department and for helping them assume this role (it was new for them). That new perspective — many of them bring a business background; many of them bring NGO or other experience — can be very beneficial to us if it is channeled in a way that helps us not to get caught in a sort of a bureaucratic mindset. It is very important to acknowledge that there are extremely successful political appointee ambassadors. There are some that are less successful; you can say the same thing about the career people. I saw my role as trying to help both sets of people to develop the skills they needed to run their missions. The idea is to make them part of the State Department team, part of the U.S. Government team, and to make them effective.

My ambassador in Nepal was an extraordinarily good diplomat. He is a lawyer — he taught at a law school and was a politician — but he brought a very different perspective. His successor was equally successful but had a much more structured, bureaucratic approach regarding our policies toward Nepal. So both of these things can work.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of U.S. foreign policy that you would change if you had the opportunity?

John Kerry meets with Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, far right, February 21, 2013. Also pictured is Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Nirupama Rao, U.S. Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, and Nancy J. Powell.

John Kerry meets with Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, far right, February 21, 2013. Also pictured is Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Nirupama Rao, U.S. Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, and Nancy J. Powell.

I had that opportunity as the Director General, which is the personnel officer to the State Department. The team that I worked with looked very hard at carrying out both the White House and Secretary Clinton’s desire to have a Foreign Service that looked more like America — that was more diverse. When I came into the Foreign Service 36 years ago, it was very much a white, male, East coast/West coast Foreign Service. I have laughed at the fact that my Iowan origin was considered to be more of a diversity factor than the fact that I was female or the fact that I didn’t come from Princeton or Yale or Stanford. Those things were unique at that time in the Foreign Service.

We have come a long way in trying to recruit a much more gender-balanced Foreign Service, and one that includes many, many more members from diverse minority groups. I had a very active role in promoting that as the Director General. We have sixteen people, who for the most part are current ambassadors or have served as Foreign Service ambassadors, who are now out in universities. It used to be that they taught classes or held seminars, and on the side they would talk about the Foreign Service. Now they’re out recruiting for the Foreign Service, particularly making sure that people who might not otherwise know about the opportunities are aware of them. We have several programs for undergraduates that are targeted to attract minorities. That is one way that the Foreign Service is changing. Secretary [Madeleine] Albright was here last summer and commented that, in the small group that briefed her, we had a disabled individual, we had an Indian-American, we had an Asian-American, we had a Kurdish-American, we had an African-American, and we had a female Ambassador. All of those people were career Foreign Service.

The other thing that I really tried to do in the role as Director General was to look at our leadership. The military has a very structured leadership-training program; when Secretary Powell came in, he realized that the Foreign Service and the State Department did not have a similar curriculum. We did not have a period to go and learn about being a leader in various stages of our careers. So he started a program, and each of his successors has built on that. We continued that during the time that I was the Director General, particularly looking at how we select consuls general, deputy chiefs of mission, and chiefs of mission from our career ranks. Moreover, we look at how we help prepare those people to make sure that they will be a success. As I said, we did some of this with the political appointees as well, but they came in and had very short time. This is a career-long preparation for doing [foreign service] and for working with the inter-agency.

The Politic: If you could tell an American one thing about India, or an Indian one thing about America, what would that be?

On both sides, there is not an appreciation of the sheer diversity of both of our countries, whether it is the geography, the various groups of people, the religions, or the languages. The appreciation gained from meeting just one American or one Indian is not enough; you need to have a broader understanding of the country.

There is also not just one thing we focus on in our foreign policy with India and vice versa. Our relationship is broad, increasingly deep, and — at the base of it — has a huge people-to-people component. Over 100,000 Indian students are in the United States at any given time, and as many as 600,000 Indians went to the United States for business or tourism last year. I would like to see an increasing number [of Americans] coming to India, because I think that would increase American understanding. Telling someone ‘one thing’ does not work very well with either India or the United States is not helpful. We are more complicated than that, but we share a diversity, and we have many, many interests and ideas going on at the same time.


Embassy of the United States to India: http://newdelhi.usembassy.gov

Click here to return to Diplomatic Discourse