Randy W. Berry, US Ambassador to Nepal, is a career diplomat and a member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counsellor. Berry has served as a diplomat since 1993, and spent more than twenty years abroad on assignment for the U.S. State Department. Before assuming office in Nepal last year, he worked as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour. He earned his B.A. from Bethany College, Kansas in 1987 and did graduate work at Adelaide University, Australia in 1988.
Berry talked to Gopal Khanal, Ritu Raj Subedi and Modnath Dhakal of The Rising Nepal on topics of Nepal-US relations, its development assistance and Indo-Pacific Strategy, among others. Excerpts:
It has been seven decades since Nepal and the USA established relations. How do you assess the bilateral ties between the two countries?
We have very old engagement, and it’s a relationship founded on bilateral confidence and common values. America is a long way away and we don’t share borders, we don’t share continents. But America is a friendly democratic state with inclusiveness and equality. USA is a very diverse country so is Nepal. Major challenge for such countries is to address the aspirations of the diverse communities.
We have maintained federal democratic state for the last two-and-a-half decades but still we are finding challenges in realising the aspirations mentioned in the constitution. Hence, I would like to request you to stick to the democratic values like freedom and openness. But it takes a long time to establish its fundamentals. The USA and Nepal might be on a different path yet share similar democratic norms and principles.
Our engagement with Nepal government is based on three dimensions. The first is to promote political stability and security, greater transparency and good governance. The second is to create economic opportunity and growth and the third is to make Nepal a strong trade partner with the USA. Our national security interest is best served by most of the same identical policy of the government. But the result is to support the country in basic policy. This relationship is truly unique, it’s unparalleled and has witnessed decades of consistency. It’s very strong and is being made stronger. Apart from the government to government engagements, there are various kinds of other relationships like people to people and culture to culture. We have active conversation on the types of policies that build the relationship between the two nations. There is a mutually productive environment.
Nepal has entered a new phase of economic prosperity following the decades of instability and moved ahead with the motto of ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’. How is the USA looking at these developments? How can your country support Nepal in it?
I would like to answer the second part of the question first. The United States gives priority to political stability, inclusive democracy and economic growth so our nature of support to Nepal will include these dimensions. Nepal’s aspirations have gone up with the recent political developments, stability and implementation of federalism. Economic growth and opportunities as well as access to education are key to the success in achieving the national motto ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’. Many people know that the USA also believes in national happiness which is documented in the famous phrase ‘Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness’. I think the best way to make people happy is to put more money in the pocket of grassroots people.
The US has granted duty free market access to 66 Nepali products since Obama administration. How has this facilitation helped Nepal’s international trade?
Statistics show that it has been beneficial to Nepal. The USA is importing more Nepali goods than any other country except India. It is happening under the Nepal Trade Preference Programme (NTPP) which has created vibrant trade between the two countries. The US is maintaining this policy since it is helping the Nepali economy, growth of which is the priority of the USA as well. We have promoted this programme, even though we are facing trade deficit with the countries like Nepal. NTPP or any aspect of our bilateral trade agenda is to create vibrant trade for my country as well as yours. While Nepal is exporting its products to the USA and producers here are benefitted from it, our people are getting the benefit of those goods. What is disappointing is the NTPP is not utilised to its full potential. There are certain categories which can promote greater uptake which are yet to be exploited.
Nepal has been a part of Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) which has recently announced the support of 500 million US dollars support to Nepal’s connectivity projects. How can it push forward Nepal’s prosperity agenda?
If we look at the general environment and economic opportunity in the country, it has lots of potential. The construction of high-voltage transmission lines and maintenance of strategic roads will provide further support to development initiatives. The MCC projects are jointly funded by the USA and Nepal government as the latter puts in 130 million dollars in it. It’s a common objective – to create world class major infrastructure within the next five years. It will contribute to the country’s future not only as an energy sufficient country but as an energy exporter as well. The impact of the MCC compact will be immense because it comes with clear terms, transparency, accountability and anti-corruption measures with fairness and openness in procurement and implementation as well as sharply defined budget. There is a very little flexibility in the contract. I think that it is good because a lot of contractors and investors will be impressed by the implementation of such time-bound projects. It will demonstrate the success of the project on time and on budget. It’s also about building investment confidence in Nepal and abroad. This is not about the US government giving money to Nepal to do something, it’s a combined investment of the both countries that will demonstrate that Nepal is an investment destination.
You said MCC is one of the best projects that can enhance Nepal’s capacity in infrastructure development and maintenance. It is also good that the project includes the latest technology transfer in road maintenance. Against this backdrop, if Nepal succeeds in completing the projects in time, should it hope for further support of such kind?
The technology transfer is an absolutely critical part of this cooperation. If you look at the US-Nepal cooperation in a historical perspective, it’s about investing in people, expertise building and sustainable development. We want to bring in our expertise that is required here and that can help in economic development. The broader development perspective includes social justice, sustainability, and productivity. Investing in people and making them stronger should be the priority of any development work. In response to the second question, I would empathetically say- Yes. The MCC is promoting compacts around the world and what we have seen is that the successful implementation of the first part has seen the announcement of further support. However, it is not necessary that the future projects are from the same area. The decision about it is based on the implementation capacity of the recipient country, its needs and the importance of the project. We have seen countries moving from one compact to another compact and creating economic opportunities for their people and investment environment.
Last year, there was a visit of Nepali Foreign Affairs Minister to the US which happened after a gap of about 17 years. The US Secretary of State had also termed it ‘historic’. In this context, should Nepal hope that there would be any reciprocal visits from the USA in near future?
The visit was a historic one and I think that it should have happened long ago. Both the countries are benefitting from the relationship. I don’t believe in the donor-recipient kind of relationship. We want to develop a kind of relationship that Nepal wants. About the high-level exchange, I will say yes but I don’t know when.
Nepal’s foreign minister said that he discussed the issues of Indo-Pacific Region in the meeting with his US counterpart. But later it was reported in the media that they discussed about the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Would you enlighten us on the issue?
I think there was a problem in translation which changed the ‘Indo-Pacific Issue’ to strategy. May be there are not appropriate connotations for the word ‘strategy’ in Nepali language. However, I would talk about the elements that were raised during the meeting. The Indo-Pacific Strategy is about the concept of free and open society. Greater transparency, accountability, freedom of media, freedom of speech and assembly are at the core of democratic values that the US wants to promote.
What I believe has happened with the Indo-Pacific meeting that people interpreted it as whether you can join it or not. It’s a completely erroneous question as there is nothing to join. It’s a mistaken presumption. Experts are in discussion whether Nepal should join the Indo-Pacific Strategy but it’s just a name given to the policy of the US and there is no invitation to join. If you think of the international community as an open highway and you are driving a car, IPS is a rule based internationally recognised system to move ahead. We are not asking anybody to get in our car and at the same time not asking someone to take us in their car.
When talking about IPS, the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) comes automatically in. Why have these two become contentious?
I think that Nepal is a part of the Indo-Pacific Region like other countries in the region. IPS is not the counterpart of the BRI. We just want to promote democratic values – freedom and openness – throughout the globe. We seek to promote an internationally recognised forum for the same.
Many Nepalis are staying in the US. This demographic shift has influenced the US-Nepal ties at cultural and social levels. But President Donald Trump’s critical approach to the foreign migrant workers has scared many of them. How do you assure Nepalis that they need not to worry about the new policy and can work or study confidently?
The USA has always thrived through inclusive democracy throughout its history. I am proud of my country that it offers economic and other opportunities regardless of where you have come from and to which race you belong. Nepali-American community is expanding and being mature, and they have increased engagement in local politics. We have seen Nepali immigrants involved in developing policies and supporting the local and state governments. However, immigrants violating the law is another issue. Nepali community has contributed to the country through their hard work and hard study. Apart from the Nepali-American citizens, the US has about 13,000 Nepali students currently pursuing their higher education. We have more Nepali students per capita than any other country in the world. That’s significant. They will bring new knowledge and skills to Nepal. It will help both the countries in the long run.
The US President has adopted the ‘American First’ strategy that has seemingly threatened the liberal world order which was created after the World War II at the initiatives of the US itself. Is the USA set to dismantle this world order and withdraw into the cocoon of isolation?
Nations and governments have their own interest. And I am here to serve the interest of my country. It is best served when Nepal is free, democratic, sovereign, developed, inclusive and secure. All US international support is the part of our national interest as well, the rebuilding of Europe was also the same. It’s not the charity or goodwill gesture. We want international security and stability.
The USA is blamed for looking at Nepal through the eyes of the regional actors when it comes to the foreign policy approach. What is your take on this?
I knew that no interview would be completed without this question. To my view, it makes no sense to look at Nepal through the lens of other countries. We have good relations with both India and China. With the nature and type of our engagements in Nepal, I don’t see any rationality in that blame. It’s a completely mistaken idea.
The balance of international affairs has shifted to Asia where there are two rising economies – India and China, and Nepal is between these two nations. How do you see the opportunities and challenges to Nepal in this context? How do you see the future of South Asia?
It’s a very broad question. Nepal can be benefitted from its own independent decision on national security interest. It has foreign policy priority of making stronger ties with the neighbours. Nepal is not a finite entity to be manipulated by any power. It can make decision on its own sovereign capacity. It’s not a zero-sum choice that Nepal has but in fact Nepal has opportunities to make strong and positive relationships not only with the two immediate neighbours but also with the entire international community.
Your Facebook Gufgaf has drawn mixed reactions. Why do you think it was necessary?
I don’t think there was any such thing in the content of the gufgaf. It was about responding to the queries of youth. It was public and transparent. Diplomacy today is a very different thing, and public relations have become a very important part. You have to rely on other types of communications as well.