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.
Look out for Part 2 of our conversation with Amb. Wills in an upcoming blog post.