Thursday, September 30, 2010
The Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia is visiting San Diego to take part in the annual Gandhi Memorial Lecture at UC San Diego. Ambassador Robert O. Blake Jr. is fresh from addressing the UN General Assembly and busy with preparations for the President Obama's first visit to India.
Maureen Cavanaugh: US foreign policy is much debated and analyzed when it comes to the hot spots of the world. But, the United States maintains direct diplomatic relationships with almost every nation. That means we have policies, agreements and mutual obligations. Often those relationships are complex, interdependent and strategic. And our diplomacy must be maintained by officials who are experts in the region they represent.
My guest is one such diplomat: Robert O. Blake Jr.,Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. He's in San Diego to deliver The 27th Annual Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture at UC-San Diego. And, Ambassador Blake, good morning.
ROBERT O. BLAKE, JR. (Assistant Secretary of State, South and Central Asia): Good morning, Maureen. How are you?
CAVANAUGH: I’m fine, thank you. And you are in traffic or on the side of the road making your way to San Diego as we speak.
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Correct.
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Sorry I couldn’t be there in person.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I wonder if you would tell us and tell our listeners which countries are included in your bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs?
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Certainly. I’m responsible for all of the countries around India except Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is handled by my colleague Richard Holbrooke, and then I’m also responsible for all of the five Central Asian countries, the ‘Stans, as we call them. So a very broad and important part of the world that is of increasing importance to the United States.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as you say, Afghanistan and Pakistan come under a different diplomatic status now. Special Envoy Robert Holbrooke (sic) is the diplomat in charge of those two nations.
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Correct.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have any diplomatic duties involving Afghanistan or Pakistan?
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: I do because a lot of the work of my bureau revolves around supporting our important activities in Afghanistan. For example, my bureau is responsible for negotiating a lot of the military agreements that we have with many of the Central Asian countries that permits the transit of non-lethal goods for our troops through those countries and then, of course, I’m also responsible for India, which plays a very central role in Afghanistan and also provides a lot of assistance, development assistance mostly, to that country. And then, of course, we do what we can to encourage better relations between India and Pakistan, which is a very important part of the solution to this overall problem.
CAVANAUGH: What are some of the major trends that we’re seeing in South and Central Asia right now? I would assume as we hear so much about India’s economic growth that there’s a potential for enormous economic growth in that part of the world.
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: That’s right. Our trade with India has doubled over just the last five years. It’s also a country that is growing very fast itself, thanks to economic policies that were put in place beginning in the early 1990s by the current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Our own projections say that India is probably going to be the third largest economy in the world by the year 2025, and it’s also a country that is increasingly comfortable about working with the United States to confront some of the big challenges of our day, things like climate change and nonproliferation, food security. And so that’s why the president and Secretary Clinton have put in place a new strategic partnership with India and that’s why the president’s going to be going to India in early November for a very important state visit.
CAVANAUGH: I want to talk a little bit more about that later in our conversation. I’m speaking with Ambassador Robert Blake, Jr. He’s Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. And, as you said, you have a great many nations, the ‘Stans, as you call them, used to be part of the Soviet Union. Are these countries emerging as our allies?
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: I think they’re – they, too, are increasingly comfortable about working with the United States. One of the very important developments in our relations with all of the Central Asian countries has been that President Obama has been successful in resetting our relations with Russia and that has given all of these five Central Asian countries some space to do more with the United States themselves and I think they really welcome that opportunity. I think all of them want to trade more, they want more investments in the United States. They’d like to send more of their students to the United States. And so we’ve begun a series of annual bilateral consultations with each of these countries that are chaired by me in which we’ve taken a really systematic look at how we can improve relations across the board, including on some of the very tricky human rights issues that many of these countries still face.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, that’s a – I was going to be talking about that as well. They – Some of these nations have really questionable human rights records. What can we do to encourage change?
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Well, you know, I think first of all it’s about establishing trust with these countries so that they think that we’re doing things that are going to be in their own interest to do. And I think they are in their interest. Let me – Let’s take Tajikistan, for example. Tajikistan has a 1400 kilometer border with Afghanistan. A great deal of the narcotics trade that goes up into Russia goes through Tajikistan. It’s a country now that faces some terrible challenges. It’s a very poor country and a very young country where 52% of the country’s under the age of 21. So they’ve got to find employment for all of those people and it’s very important that they provide economic and political space for all of those young people. And at the moment, I think that space is narrowing, particularly on the political side. So we have a very good dialogue with the president and the foreign minister and others, and with simple society in Tajikistan about ways that they can open up more and why it’s in their interest to do that because if they don’t, it really gives an opening to some of these extremists that are looking to organize inside Tajikistan.
CAVANAUGH: Ambassador Blake, I know a lot of your efforts lately have been focused on Kyrgyzstan. That’s a nation that’s trying to become the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia. Tell us about that and about the challenges that this nation faces.
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Well, that’s right. As you say, the Kyrgyz people are going to the polls on October 10th to elect what we expect will be the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia. So the Obama administration sees this as a really unique and important opportunity to establish, really, a parliamentary form of government in that important region. Kyrgyzstan has gone through some very difficult times over the last six months. You recall that there were anti-ethnic Uzbek riots in June that left many – several thousand people dead maybe. I mean, the official estimates were in the hundreds but it may have been much more than that. And so it’s very important now that they use the democratic process to help stabilize their country. They have a very able president who’s serving in an interim role for the next year, and she has really thrown her shoulder behind supporting this democratic process. So, again, we see a really important opportunity here and the United States has put in more than $5 million to help civil society in Kyrgyzstan, to help build the central election commission and the many other institutions that will help to ensure a successful election there.
CAVANAUGH: Ambassador Blake, I think a lot of people hear about the nations of, say, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan and they hear about perhaps ethnic rioting and they don’t really know what to make of it because they don’t really have any grasp of what’s actually happening in that country, the history, etcetera. Does that make your job more difficult?
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Well, we always want to have the support of the American people and the support of the American congress for what we’re doing. That’s part of the reason that I’m out here in San Diego, is to help to explain to people around our country about what the United States is doing, what the activities of the State Department are, because, as you say, oftentimes, people don’t really understand what we’re doing. But I think you’ll see that people like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are the first to defend the budget and the importance of the State Department because preventive diplomacy is – in the long run, it’s going to be a much better investment than trying to pick up the pieces from problems that erupt.
CAVANAUGH: So, in other words, you mean a lot of your work that’s successful, we won’t hear about because there won’t be anything in the headlines that tells us that…
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Well, that’s what we hope.
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: That’s what we hope. And so that’s, for example, I mentioned earlier Tajikistan. It’s a country that’s really on the brink, so if we can find a way to mobilize not only American assistance but assistance from some of the international financial institutions like the Asia Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank, and if we can, again, encourage our friends in Tur – in Tajikistan to have a more open government to allow more religious freedom, we think we can avert what is potentially a very fragile situation.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as you mentioned, President Obama is scheduled to make his first state visit to India in November. Tell us a little bit more about the hopes for that visit. What are the two world leaders hoping to accomplish by meeting?
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Well, I think, as I said earlier, we think that India is going to be an increasingly important part of America’s foreign policy in this future. The whole center of gravity of American foreign policy is shifting to Asia. And within Asia, India is a rapidly rising power. It is already the largest democracy in the world. It’s a country that will have the third largest economy by the year 2025. And, most importantly, it’s a country with which we have converging values and interests. And in the last ten years or so, we’ve seen a real transformation in our relation and in our record of cooperation with the Indians. So that’s why the president has called India an indispensable partner for the 21st century, and he’s really made a priority of trying to improve relations. And so now we are not only working cooperatively on a huge range of bilateral issues, many of which can be seen here in the San Diego area, but we’re also increasingly working with India to help confront some of the big global challenges of the day. And I think that’s where this relationship can really have benefits, not only for our two peoples but for the rest of the world.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us more about some of those San Diego connections?
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Certainly. I mean, we’re – one of the things that I’m going to be talking about here are a lot of the business-to-business connections. It’s often not very well understood that India has, in fact, become a very important investor in the United States and that you have companies like the Mahindra Company that is building tractors and selling tractors here and employing many thousands of American people. You have a group called Reliance Industries that’s going to start – that’s going to employ 100,000 Americans to start shale gas exploration and production. You have several companies here in the San Diego area that are doing a lot of research and development with Indian companies, some pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies. We have the very important defense trade and defense cooperation. The Pacific fleet, of course, is based here and they are doing a lot of work with the Indians. The Indians have the largest exercise program of any country with the United States and so I think they’re very proud of our defense cooperation. So there’s really a lot of things that can be done and then, of course, there’s a very vibrant Indian-American society here in San Diego. And I think one of the things that is a real touchstone of our relations has been the ballast and the underpinning that the 2.5 million Indian-Americans provide to our relations because they can serve as such an important bridge between our two countries and so those are some of the reasons why I think not only our relations are important but also why San Diego is important.
CAVANAUGH: Now as I say, Ambassador Blake, you are in town, as you mentioned, for the annual Gandhi Memorial Lecture at UC San Diego. I think you gave us a preview of some of the things you’ll be talking about but what is it about the Gandhi Memorial Lecture that has enticed you to come here and what specifically will you be speaking about as the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi?
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: Well, I’m really going to be talking a lot about – just about what exactly I just said. I think the part about Gandhi that I always like to emphasize to everybody else is, first of all, he put a real emphasis on social justice and I think that’s part of the common values that really unite the United States and India, and these democratic values that I talked about earlier. And I think that’s what really sets us apart from some of the other countries maybe in Asia. And it’s what really has helped drive a lot of the progress that we’ve seen in our recent relations. It’s also about change. President Obama campaigned on a platform of change, and Mahatma Gandhi himself said, you know, be – to his followers, he said, be the change that you want to see in the world.
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: And so a lot of my lecture is about that kind of change and why, in fact, American business and the American people and the Indian people are really driving the change, not only in their societies but around the world, that will really benefit the world. So…
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: …those are going to be some of the themes.
CAVANAUGH: Ambassador Blake, we’re out of time. I want to thank you so much for taking a moment out of your travels to speak with us. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BLAKE: I’m delighted. And I’d be glad to come back any time.
CAVANAUGH: Ambassador Robert O. Blake Jr. is Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. And the 27th Annual Gandhi Memorial Lecture takes place today at 5:00 on the UCSD campus. If you’d like to comment, you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.