by Daniel Spector, ‘Simon-Evertt.com,’ July 22, 2016
For nearly two years, Simon Everett has been designing and coordinating area studies courses at the Department of State for diplomats who are heading to their next assignments overseas. We’re fortunate to have an exceptional cadre of regional experts leading those courses. They have lived and traveled all over the globe. They’ve studied the political and economic dynamics that shape societies, rubbed shoulders with heads of state, and tackled difficult problems affecting the lives of millions of people. Along the way, they’ve collected a wealth of eye-opening experiences. In fact, their stories are so intriguing that we decided to interview them. We’ll be sharing those conversations (slightly adapted for readability) in blog posts like this one.
In our inaugural post, we present the wit and wisdom of our friend and colleague, Ambassador E. Ashley Wills. Amb. Wills taught our very first course (on India) way back in October 2014, and he has since led several other courses on Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives. A career diplomat who served as the U.S. Government’s top representative in Colombo and Deputy Chief of Mission in New Delhi, Amb. Wills is a font of practical insights and colorful anecdotes. And this interview (which we’re splitting across two posts) will give you a glimpse of both. Enjoy.
Simon Everett: You’re a career diplomat who spent more than three decades in the Foreign Service. What skill did being a Foreign Service Officer teach you that you couldn’t have learned in another field?
Ashley Wills: It certainly taught me tolerance and listening skills. I am now able to look at a problem from the other person’s point of view better than I think I would have been able to do in some other profession. The Foreign Service trained me to be analytical about life generally, and certainly about the professional questions I dealt with as a diplomat. So I was able to learn how to detach myself. But I want to add a qualifier: I think diplomacy is an emotional undertaking. It’s underrated in that regard. You can’t be an effective diplomat if you don’t feel passionately about something, and so I think that’s also something that came with the business.
SE: We have debated proper punctuation on many occasions, so we know you share our affinity for the English language. But you’re also a polyglot who speaks five foreign languages. Which was the most difficult to learn? And did you find speaking any particular language more essential to the course of your work as a diplomat?
AW: The most difficult for me to learn was Persian. I learned how to speak it pretty quickly, but it took me a while to adjust to the written language. In the end, I didn’t go to Tehran anyway because of the hostage incident. Serbo-Croatian and Romanian were important language-learning opportunities for me because I had to speak them both to do my work at the embassy and to live my life. Both Yugoslavia and Romania were communist countries when I was there, and English wasn’t widely spoken. I remember vividly when I got to Belgrade in 1988 – it turned out the country only had a few more years to exist – there were only eight or nine of us who were language-qualified. I had just come out of FSI; my speaking skills, as with anyone who has just learned a language, were better than my comprehension. Because I was nominally fluent, the Ambassador would take me to events. I was in conversation with a Yugoslav general within my first few weeks in the country. It was at a cocktail party, and there was a lot of white noise. I sat there smiling like an idiot as if I knew what he was saying. He could have been saying, “I’m going to come break into your house tonight,” and I’m smiling as if to say, “Oh, sure, come on by!” People think you know more than you do, but eventually your skills catch up. You have to dive in and accept mistakes – that’s something else the Foreign Service taught me. You’re going to mess up but you have to dive in. I was 23 years old, and just married; the #2 guy was lousy at languages. He asked me to go with him to the provinces on a business trip, and I ended up being his interpreter for most of the time. At one point he found himself speaking more than he was accustomed to…when he meant to say “Saint George,” he was actually saying “George’s Ass.”
SE: You were first assigned to South Asia as the minister counselor for public affairs at Embassy New Delhi. What were your first impressions of the subcontinent? Did anything surprise you?
AW: It was 1995. In my whole career – 34 years in the business – I never experienced culture shock like I did when we first moved to India. I had been in about 26 years or so, and still it was an amazing place. I regard it as the most astonishing country I’ve lived in. Everything is extreme; nothing is moderate in the whole country. That can be very pleasing because of remarkable beauty and subtlety and depth, but other aspects are off-putting – noise, filth, poverty. It’s a nation that challenges you, but it’s a culture that is so complex. I lived there five years and studied the culture as much as I could and I still can’t say I’m an expert.
SE: How would you describe the state of U.S.-India relations at the time? And how do they compare to today?
AW: For most of India’s independent history, beginning in 1947, we had a very up-and-down relationship. India was a socialist country, a third-world leader; very anti-colonial in its approaches. Beginning in 1990, it had to change. It was forced to change. By the time I got there in 1995, we were beginning to get along better. In the five years I was there, our relationship improved steadily with one glaring exception: in May of 1998, the Indians detonated three nuclear devices – much to our surprise. That triggered automatic sanctions, and our relationship cooled for a while. But I’m happy to say we worked hard to restore the momentum and were able to do so. Less than two years later – March of 2000 – President Bill Clinton made a visit and it was wildly successful. Since then, through the Bush administration and now the Obama administration, the trajectory has been quite positive. We’re not allies – India wouldn’t want to be in that kind of relationship with us – but we have a more positive and professional relationship than ever before in India’s independent history.
SE: You were appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka at a tense point in that country’s history. You would go on to become a key player in the 2002-2003 peace process. What lessons did you learn from that effort that could be shared with diplomats attempting to resolve long-standing conflicts in other parts of the world?
AW: I benefitted from a coincidence of events. We had been standoffish with respect to Sri Lanka for more than 15 years by the time I got there. Civil war began in 1983, and – while we were very sympathetic with the government and wanted to keep Sri Lanka united – Sri Lanka’s military forces kept committing human rights violations in their attempt to quash the Tamil rebellion. So, we couldn’t embrace the government in the way we would have liked. The war continued on and drained resources of the Tamils, the government, and the diaspora. By the time I got there, both sides were spent. It helped tremendously that I had most recently served as Deputy Chief of Mission in India, the superpower of South Asia. India doesn’t want things going on that it doesn’t know about and have a part of. So when my appointment was announced, I was able to talk with India’s military, political, and intelligence leaders about the fact that I was going to Sri Lanka and would like to try to do something positive there, but I didn’t want to give affront to India. I wanted them to have buy-in, and that worked. Their new High Commissioner for Sri Lanka, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, was an old friend of mine. We arrived in Colombo at the same time, and we worked closely on what we were doing. The Ambassador of Norway was also interested in doing something out of the ordinary. Norway was known as something of a “boutique mediator” (as in the example of the Israelis and the Palestinians). I told them the U.S. wouldn’t take a leading public role in this, but we’ll be the “back-room support.” We’ll sponsor you, Norway, in an attempt get the parties to negotiate a cease-fire. The Norwegian ambassador was able to consult with Delhi, and I was in a good position with my own regional bureau. (They were totally fixated on India and Pakistan…they were OK with my intent, just as long as I didn’t commit troops!) There were numerous private meetings for a period of about six months to build a constituency within the Sri Lankan government. We used an intermediary to contact the Tamil Tigers, and eventually they agreed to a cease-fire, which astonished everyone who knew anything about Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans had an election and a man was chosen as Prime Minister who was very open, compared to his predecessor. That’s all a long-winded way of saying timing is so important. Timing and luck. It just so happened that Gopal Gandhi went there at the same time as I went there, and that the Norwegian ambassador became involved. We were able to do something a little unconventional, a little offbeat, and it worked for about two years. I left, the political equation in Sri Lanka changed, and it turned out that the Tamil Tigers weren’t really interested in a peaceful outcome. The negotiations fell apart in 2004. I consoled myself that in the time it lasted, a lot of people didn’t die who otherwise would have.
SE: Is it possible for statecraft to be effective without personal connections among key players?
AW: It helps a lot if you have an existing and positive relationship with someone. The Indians would have resented American involvement in their part of the world if they hadn’t known me and had faith in Gopal Gandhi, their High Commissioner. So in that case it was really decisive. But there have been occasions in my career when I took part in a negotiation and I didn’t know the other parties at all, and sometimes – as in any situation – you instinctively connect without someone on the other side and you can begin to do positive things without any history. In other situations, I took an instant dislike to the other party, and it made things a lot harder when I didn’t have that connection.
South Asia through the looking glass: an interview with Ambassador E. Ashley Wills (Part 2)
Here, we continue our interview with former Ambassador to Sri Lanka and retired Foreign Service Officer, Ashley Wills.
Simon Everett: At Embassy Colombo, you were also accredited as the U.S. Ambassador to the Maldives. Did being “dual-hatted” present any particular challenges?
Ashley Wills: No. In fact, it was a very good thing from my point of view because of the situation in Sri Lanka – a civil war was going on; the cease-fire began in the spring of 2001 – things were still very tense there. The stakes were high. There had been bombings, a lot of people killed, and there were checkpoints throughout Colombo. I made it a point to go to the Maldives at least once per quarter, and it was a release for me to get away from the tension of Sri Lanka and deal with a country that was more stable. I found it an outlet. There were more difficult moments with our relationship with the Maldives, but it’s a small country and although its problems are not small from their perspective, they’re small compared to those of Sri Lanka. So I was able to carry on a good relationship with the government of the Maldives without having to spend a lot of time there. The time I spent was relatively relaxing.
SE: Bhutan is one of only three countries with which the United States doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations. But, informally, contact is managed through Embassy New Delhi. You’re among a small but growing number of Americans who have visited the mountain kingdom. Can you tell us about your time there?
AW: As the Deputy Chief of Mission in New Delhi, I was nominally responsible for our relationship with Bhutan, such as it was. I went there two or three times. It’s a gorgeous little country with a royal family that is pretty enlightened by any standard, but it’s also a country with a long past living in isolation from the rest of the world. Bhutan was just beginning to open up when I started going there. I remember on the second visit, I happened to be there when the first television broadcast was made in the country. This was 1997 or 1998 – so not that long ago. I learned a lot from my time in Bhutan because the government there wanted to move away from royal rule and towards a real democracy. And it’s started to happen. There is a legislature, there’s a constitution, there’s growing voter participation. It’s an impressive place. They have an unusual standard for their country, they call it a “gross happiness index.” They try to measure factors that aren’t measured in other countries – the environmental situation, the health of the average person, literacy – it’s an impressive idea.
SE: The United States is filling a vital role in helping Nepal recover from last year’s earthquake and aftershocks, which have caused one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in recent memory. Can you describe the criticality of USAID and American charities in disaster relief efforts like this one?
AW: I think it’s absolutely vital. They’ve suffered a cataclysmic disaster. The country’s infrastructure was not advanced to begin with, and now much of it has been damaged or destroyed. The U.S. has been a leading support to Nepal and that has continued through this earthquake. USAID has been putting forth a tremendous amount of resources to help the country rebuild, and to provide temporary shelter. Nepal, unlike Bhutan, had a very unfortunate past with a royal family, and it is trying to move out from that unhappy overhang. But the earthquake is going to challenge this country to move toward democracy (or to improve its democracy) because so many resources are going to have to go to recovery. Nepal has a great advantage: it’s a country that is greatly admired around the world for its beauty, for the positive nature of its people, and for its ecology. It’s a very attractive place for a certain kind of traveler, and these people are going to keep going to Nepal and providing the kind of earnings that can help Nepal in the decades to come.
SE: In Bangladesh, the booming ready-made garment (RMG) industry is a major employer and a key source of foreign currency. In fact, many of the clothes Americans wear are made there. What should the American consumer know about the RMG industry?
AW: The RMG industry is a huge factor in Bangladesh’s economic health. It provides a tremendous amount of foreign exchange earnings to the country. Bangladesh produces textiles of all sorts for the U.S. market, various European markets, and major Asian markets like Japan. As is the case with poor countries around the world, its fidelity to modern labor standards is uneven. There have been some shocking accidents in Bangladesh, factories that are producing exports, to include to the U.S. We have been working with NGOs in Bangladesh to improve the standards of safety in these garment factories. Progress is being made, but it’s slow. It faces so many environmental challenges because of flooding. Its government is not yet a well-developed democracy – it’s prone to corruption. It is also, I’m afraid, facing a period of growing intolerance. Generally speaking, Bangladesh is not prone to embracing radical Islamic ideas, but there are – in a country this populous – a lot of people who aren’t in the majority, but still feel that Bangladesh should be rigidly Islamic. Until these people can be set to the margins, it’ll be difficult for the government of Bangladesh to move ahead.
SE: Let’s stay on the subject of trade for a minute. Among your many accomplishments, you were also the first Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for South, Southwest, and Central Asia. What role does trade play in American policy across South Asia?
AW: It’s of growing importance. It’s always been important with our relationship with India and with Pakistan as well, and as I mentioned, with Bangladesh. We don’t trade as much with the region as we do with other regions, but the rate of growth is very positive. Our trade relationship with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal has been very positive over the last decade; we have a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in place with Sri Lanka. In the case of Bangladesh and Nepal, we have regular consultations, and some day we may have TIFAs with them, as well. The big success is with India. When I left there in 2000, our two-way trade totaled $25B, and now it’s surpassing $100B. It’s likely to grow even faster in the years ahead. That’s a good thing; the U.S. relationship with another country usually improves in association with trade. We’re a business-minded country. We want to do business overseas. We don’t have a traditional relationship that goes back decades with any country in South Asia. But that’s changing, and it’s altogether a good thing.
SE: You speak fondly of your time in South Asia. Can you share any anecdotes about life in the region?
AW: I said India was the most astonishing country I ever lived in. I’d have to say Asia more broadly is going to open people’s minds perhaps like they’ve never experienced before. Every country in South Asia – although very different from its neighbors — is complex. The culture is very old. So many world religions were founded in South Asia, and they clash or get along in ways that we can’t understand very easily because our culture has been predominantly Christian. Maybe we’re beginning to get a sense of it because Islam is growing in the U.S., and so are other religions. Now perhaps we’ll have a better sense of how religion in South Asia can be a unifying factor, sometimes a divisive one, which makes the culture so arresting for a diplomat who is trying to understand which forces are important in the country, and how influence is meted out in a country. In South Asia, it takes a while to learn that. The other thing that helps in South Asia is that so many educated people speak English. It helps if you can speak Hindi, Tamil, Sinhala, Bangla…but you can get reasonably well along in English, so it makes things more accessible.
SE: Last but not least, college basketball season is only a few months away. Any predictions for your Virginia Cavaliers?
AW: I think they’re going to be good again, but not as good as last year. What I’m sad about is the football team, which has been lousy for several years, and maybe will be lousy again. I’m always optimistic, but it’s hard to be. I’m sure you noticed, but the baseball team won the national championship last year. And there’s something called the Capital One Cup, which is awarded to the university with the strongest athletic teams in all sports combined over the course of the year. Virginia won last year, edging out Stanford.
SE: Thanks for your time, Ashley. It’s a pleasure, as always.