U.S. Diplomacy: 1793 v. 2014

First, a brief recollection of an infamous early event in U.S. diplomatic history. In 1793, while William Short and Gouverneur Morris were negotiating in France and Spain, across the Atlantic the (mis)behaviors of one Edmond-Charles Genêt were besetting the new American republic at home. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, France’s representative in the U.S.:

….soon exceeded his diplomatic authority. Hailed as “Citizen Genêt” by Americans who favoured the French cause, he conspired with those who opposed Pres. George Washington’s policy of neutrality. (See Citizen Genêt Affair.) His efforts to bring the United States into the war [France was fighting against Great Britain] and his high-handed arming of privateers in American ports to operate against the British brought relations between the United States and France to the brink of war and risked the loss of France’s sole source of credit abroad. In August 1793 Washington, who was firmly committed to a policy of neutrality in the European conflict, requested that Genêt be recalled. Realizing that he faced arrest [due to shifting revolutionary power struggles] if he returned to France, Genêt chose to remain in the United States; he married the daughter of George Clinton, governor of New York, became a U.S. citizen, and settled down to farming.

Fast forward to our 2014. The Guardian:

An Indian diplomat was re-indicted Friday on US visa fraud charges that touched off an international stir after she was arrested and strip-searched last year….

Perhaps worth noting: that diplomat, one Devyani Khobragade, India’s then deputy consul general in New York, did not even try to involve the U.S. in a war either.

….The episode roiled US-Indian relations, with India taking such steps as removing concrete traffic barriers around the US embassy and revoking diplomats’ ID cards. After being indicted, Khobragade complied with a Department of State request to leave the US, and the Indian government then asked Washington to withdraw a diplomat from the US embassy in New Delhi. The US complied….

Which is where matters realistically should have been allowed to rest. As with Genêt’s seriously overstepping diplomatic bounds, diplomats have always been ejected for real, or trumped up, reasons. One would have expected roughly this chain of events in reaction to Khobragade’s alleged actions: she is expelled from the U.S.; the U.S. pays a small price in kind so India can save face; behind the scenes discussions are held emphasizing that we all – Americans and Indians – don’t want this endangering relations, and don’t want something like this occurring again; and everyone agrees to move on.

Matters did not take that course. Federal domestic U.S. prosecutors secure a re-indictment of that now deported Indian diplomat. She is vociferously defended by the government of India, so will in all likelihood never set foot in the U.S. ever again because India will almost certainly never hand her over to the U.S. to face that re-indictment in court anyway.

Nevertheless, in Washington, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf stated on Friday that the department had opposed dismissing the charges:

“….Our position regarding immunity, that the U.S. Government took in the brief opposing the motion to dismiss, was that she had full immunity only for a very brief period, a day….”

Yet in the wake of her arrest and “strip search,” we also saw a State Department scrambling to contain the diplomatic fallout. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “regret” at Khobragade’s treatment in custody. Shortly after that, we heard the same Ms. Harf explain the department wished India to understand it was “an isolated episode,” and that the U.S.-India relationship “….is an incredibly important relationship. That has in no way changed.”

However, Indian officialdom appeared to feel decidedly otherwise. And this re-indictment in March merely re-fans the flames. So State officials may soon revert to fretting publicly as they had initially in December.

We know already of diplomatic headaches arising from non-U.S. citizens facing the death penalty in U.S. local jurisdictions that appear indifferent to “international law.” In this case, the damage the federal Justice Department’s ongoing pursuit of Khobragade is doing to what had been increasingly warm U.S. relations with India appears considerable. Evidently uneasy about that, referring to the case’s top Manhattan prosecutor (an India-born immigrant to the U.S.), one foreign service professional is anonymously quoted as saying, “….he’s not the one who will be serving in missions in India.”

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Indeed currently the U.S. is up to its eyeballs internationally. With Russia annexing Crimea and its intentions toward the rest of Ukraine unclear, the Syrian civil war raging, Iranian nuclear ambitions, North Korea’s intermittent sabre-rattling, China threatening Japan, and innumerable other global challenges, India – “the world’s largest democracy” and an important U.S. trading partner – is an invaluable friend to have. But what had been a slowly healing diplomatic wound has had its scab ripped off, and with Khobragade’s re-indictment obviously re-infuriating the Indian government that wound is unlikely to heal fully anytime soon.

Even if Khobragade was not (and is not) immune from U.S. prosecution for her alleged crimes in the U.S., noticeably lacking has been a visible U.S. exercise of wider good judgment about how to deal with her without poking India repeatedly in the eye. Instead India is lectured highhandedly by domestic U.S. law enforcement about how she “was treated no differently than others who are arrested,” and even supposedly received “courtesies” – when, as a diplomat, and even if not immune, she was definitely not like “others.” Worst of all, we see the prestigious State Department, whose first secretary was Thomas Jefferson, and which is tasked with spearheading U.S. diplomacy around the world, essentially finding itself suddenly relegated to the tail of the Justice Department’s domestic prosecutorial kite.

In long ago 1793, the U.S. federal government was not even five years old and the State Department was similarly brand new. Consisting then of Attorney General Edmund Randolph and a few clerks, the “Justice Department” as we now understand it did not really exist. Had it, the U.S. might well have ended up at war with Genêt’s France.

“Disengaging” From “The World”?

On one hand, we had heard for years that the U.S. was too engaged; it was the world’s policeman, or the world’s cowboy, or the imperialist. On the other hand, we had been told, and continue to hear, that the U.S. must be prepared to intervene anywhere, anytime, within, apparently, minutes. All that is worth bearing in mind, as we read this by Peter Foster, in The Telegraph:

….the current geopolitical landscape, which is being shaped by a “notable decline” in US foreign policy characterized by Barack Obama’s ultra-pragmatism in foreign affairs….

….the idea that the US is both challenged by a rising China but also withdrawing from the world, [is] creating deep uncertainty among old allies over how far the US is prepared to underwrite the existing world order….

….in a new world order where everyone now doubts where they stand, the US remains confident it can look after itself. But as the US disengages, Britain, particularly a Britain drifting away from Europe, should be much less sanguine.

I never know quite how to approach such talk. “The idea” underlying the piece’s premise is simply wrong: the U.S. is not “disengaging,” and will not, from “the world.” Americans are not living in “1920”. They know that.

Rather it appears that after a decade of wars and economic upheaval at home, Americans are currently just a bit weary. In short, they are not “disengaging” so much as resisting finding themselves drawn front and center into seemingly every dispute – especially military – everywhere. However, even if their leaders occasionally blunder, Americans earnestly wish their U.S. always to be a solid, reliable ally.

Early today, RAF Lakenheath reported sadly:

1/8/2014 – ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England — Four Airmen were killed in a U.S. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crash at about 6 p.m. yesterday near Salthouse on the Norfolk coast.

Names of the Airmen killed in the crash will be released 24 hours after next-of-kin notifications.

U.S. military officials are coordinating the recovery efforts with the U.K. police and the Ministry of Defence. The authorities have secured the crash site and established a cordon….

Almost 6,000 U.S personnel are at RAF Lakenheath. Britain remains, for Americans, an extraordinary ally and friend. Despite what some journalists have convinced themselves, that is not changing anytime soon.