The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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A Conversation with David Mulford, U.S. Ambassador to India from 2004 to 2009
Published on March 9, 2012

When he received the nomination to serve as U.S. Ambassador to India in 2003, David Mulford was no stranger to the international scene. He studied economics at Lawrence University, then went on to graduate school at Capetown University, Boston University and Oxford, earning a doctorate in Britain. He entered the banking industry, specializing in the emerging eurobond and eurocurrency markets, and advised the Saudi government in the financial area. He later served in senior positions in the Treasury Department during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations with a focus on international affairs before joining Credit Suisse, one of the largest banks in the world. By the end of his tenure in 2009, India had, as he put it, “joined the world as one of the high growth economies.” He spoke with me on the phone from London.

Are there clues as to why India succeeded where the other nations on the subcontinent did not?

“First of all”, Ambassador Mulford said, “India is an ancient civilization that has occupied the same space for something like five thousand years, and it has occupied that space despite the fact that it has been overrun and conquered and ruled by different groups from time to time.” He spoke with the authority of a man who not only reads history for pleasure but has seen its consequences up close.

“During those periods of rule by outsiders”, he continued, the conquerors were often “absorbed into Indian culture” through intermarriage and osmosis. This applied to the Mughals, “who came down from Persia and were the key rulers of large parts of India for a couple hundred years.” The subcontinent had a softening effect on invaders, such that “India gradually has surrounded and, in a way, conquered its conquerors.”

A Nation Saved by Democracy

In addition to occupying the same geographic space, the Indians have “performed one of the miracles of the modern world.” After independence in 1947, Indians established a vibrant and legitimate democracy.

“You can check all the boxes. It has free elections, a functioning parliament, a free press, it has rule of law, it has courts that work; it has accomplished a working democracy in a short period of time.”

But whereas the United States sponsors democratization programs and tries to “proselytize” the rest of the world on the subject of democracy, Indians take a different view. “They regard democracy as the means of government by which they have been able to form a united nation and govern themselves successfully without breaking up.” Democracy grew up organically in the United States, but it was the saving grace in India. “It is really looked at in India as the reason they’ve been able to make a successful country, and it is a purely internal thing.”

As an internal matter, Indian democracy is also not considered by the country to be a model for others. While Indians are proud of their policy, it’s a pride that doesn’t reach “the point where they would go out and market that.” This amounts to a big difference in perspective with the United States.

Master of Diversity

“India is a great nation”, said Mulford. “It perceives itself as a great nation. You have to deal with India in that context.” He continued: “It’s a fundamental fact of Indian life that they have a very important view of themselves, just as we do, and I believe that most Indians think that India is exceptional.”

“As one thinks about the future of the world”, he said after a brief pause, “India is what I would call a master of diversity.” Hinduism is the primary religion, but some 20 percent of the country practices Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, and other faiths. Hindi is the primary language, but some 60 percent of the people speak more than a dozen other languages. This diversity extends into the realm of ethnicity, which is difficult to measure but is undoubtedly a rich mixture, and into regionalism, where great cultural divides separate ports from the hinterland, cities from other cities, industrialized areas from the wilderness.

“It has made this diversity work”, Mulford continued. “That is an enormous advantage, in my view, in a world which is increasingly preoccupied with diversity.” He contrasted this with China, where any deviation from the mainstream model is quickly suppressed. Mastering diversity at the national level, he argued, means that India will be better prepared for a world that becomes even more diverse.

Mulford drew another comparison to the European Union. “Europe is diverse in the sense that there’s a bunch of different countries that have joined together”, he explained, but it is a different kind of diversity from India or the United States, where there is cultural assimilation and an openness to immigration. In contrast, the Muslim population in India, for example, is not radicalized because that would be anathema to Indian culture, in which the Muslims are typically accepted.

The Civilian Nuclear Deal

As the number of nations equipped with nuclear weapons increased in the first decades of the Cold War, the international community rallied to put in place constraints that would restrict the proliferation of this technology. The task was difficult because the knowledge, expertise and equipment required to produce nuclear weapons overlaps considerably with what’s required to produce nuclear power. Power was regarded as a positive good, while the weapons were something to be avoided. How, then, to achieve this?

The answer was for nations who desired nuclear energy to foreswear the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Countries signed onto the 1974 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, foreswearing the pursuit of weaponry in exchange for civilian access to nuclear energy. Five “Big Five” states were permitted nuclear weapons: those that officially already had them. This included Britain, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union. States that possess nuclear capability are expected not to engage in nuclear-related transactions with states that are not in compliance with these international agreements.

India did not sign the treaty and pursued its own nuclear weapons program. It detonated its first bomb in 1974, earning it a sharp degree of isolation, and detonated another in 1998, this time earning it international sanctions. It was, therefore, quite a big deal when the United States negotiated with India and changed U.S. law to recognize its civilian nuclear program and permit India access to the world of civil nuclear commerce after 35 years of isolation. India was not required to give up its strategic nuclear program, but it did have to accept IAEA international safeguards on its civil nuclear industry.

The treaty “took up almost four years to negotiate and conclude”, recalled Mulford, who was at the center of these efforts. As a result of the deal, India became “the only country in the world outside of the Big Five which has nuclear weapons, has been permitted to keep them and has been given access to the world of civilian nuclear technology.”

This was all easier said than done, of course. International voices had to be convinced that an exception should be made for India. Details with India also had to be worked out to verify that the civilian technology would not be used for untoward purposes, such as illicit transfer or nuclear weapons development. This George W. Bush Administration, which invested a great deal of political capital in the effort, rallied support in Congress. In an era of intense partisanship, large majorities in both houses approved of the deal, which went to India for approval.

India’s exceptional democracy quickly got to work and almost killed the deal. The coalition government was gripped by a ferocious internal debate over the treaty, with leftist members threatening to bring down the government. In the final event, the result was “total paralysis for 11 months” until the Indian government took the risk to push the treaty forward in the parliament. The leftists followed through on their threat, but failed to pass a no-confidence measure.

“It was a dramatic indication of the unique nature of India”, Mulford observer, “of the power of its democracy.”

Unwelcome Surprises

Henry Kissinger once described President Bush’s opening to India as being as important as President Nixon’s opening to China. But how should Americans understand the relationship in practical terms? Are we allies with the Indians?

 “The word ‘alliance’ is never used”, Mulford replied. It is difficult to exaggerate the positive impact of the civilian nuclear deal, however, especially when one considers the history of the bilateral relationship. While the two countries are democracies, for the first four decades of its existence India was essentially in the Soviet sphere of influence, while archenemy Pakistan was tied to the United States. Common interests were few and far between during the Cold War, until the Soviet collapse. Indian reformers liberalized the economy, and the relationship accelerated on an upward trajectory.

Mulford recalled two “negative surprises” that he encountered during his tenure as Ambassador. The first was the fact that the Indians regarded the United States as “an undependable supplier and friend” in the realm of defense policy. The Indian military made few purchases from U.S. manufacturers. “You couldn’t trust America because the second something went wrong, the Congress would vote sanctions”, he recalled hearing from Indian counterparts. Overcoming this resentment was a challenge, but Mulford said he believed the U.S. was successful.

The second unwelcome surprise centered on counterterrorism efforts. When Mulford arrived in India, the war in Afghanistan was two years old. The relationship was blossoming, as the size of the U.S. diplomatic presence in India surged and representatives from a wide array of U.S. government agencies set up shop. “The interface with India just exploded and was very positive in every single field you can think of, except counterterrorist operational cooperation.” Unfortunately for the relationship, the Indians simply perceived that the U.S. had a double standard on terrorism. It condemned terrorist attacks in universal terms, but refused to swing a hammer at Pakistan when it launched attacks on India.

Then in late November 2008, as Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, a group of Pakistani-backed terrorists infiltrated the Indian city of Mumbai and staged a series of deadly attacks. More than a hundred people were killed. “I stayed on at the request of Mr. Obama’s people for an extra two months”, Mulford recalled. An American forensics team was dispatched to assist the Indian authorities, and cooperation has increased markedly ever since.

With the time for our interview coming to a close, I asked Mulford one final question: What does he think about American exceptionalism?

“I think America is exceptional. Period.”


Tristan Abbey is senior editor of Bellum: A Project of the Stanford Review.