New US Ambassador Timothy J. Roemer in conversation at The Hindu, Chennai
Timothy J. Roemer, nominated by President Barack Obama as the 21st U.S. Ambassador to India, presented his credentials to President Pratibha Patil on August 11, 2009. Acting on the advice of Mr. Obama to get out of New Delhi to meet Indians all around the country, the former six-term Congressman and former president of the Center for National Policy in Washington D.C. visited Chennai in September for a packed schedule of meetings. Dr. Roemer addressed a range of bilateral, U.S. policy, and international issues while fielding questions during a one-hour interactive editorial meeting at The Hindu on September 24.
Shyam Ranganathan and Narayan Lakshman present an edited transcript of the conversation:
Timothy J. Roemer: The President of the United States, President Obama, when he asked me to serve in this role, we met for almost probably 65 minutes at the White House talking about the US-India relationship. And the President said this is not only one of the most important relationships in the world, it will be one of the best relationships in the world. That is a very important set of compliments.
The President like the Secretary of State meant this not only on bilateral issues such as the civilian nuclear deal that was passed by both our respective legislatures and approved by the executive branches, but now moving from one very important issue to five extremely important issues of bilateral, regional and global consequences. Those issues involve strategic cooperation.
We have a common threat with radical extremism emanating from different parts of the world particularly from al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. And both India and the United States identify this common threat. After the attacks of 9/11 and after the Mumbai attacks, I think we are working together at unprecedented levels to share intelligence, to assess our strategic interests, to better train our personnel, to send delegations of people back and forth between the United States and India in a joint way so we learn from India and that India learns from the United States.
There are also areas that are extremely important on climate and energy issues, energy security issues that the two countries can work on. I think both countries see it in their strategic interest to lessen their dependence on oil, on imported oil, and broaden their alternatives, co-operate more on technology and science, improve their energy efficiency and their conservation, look for new markets so their entrepreneurs can raise money to create new jobs respectively in the United States and in India, and in these joint partnerships this is a very exciting and important part of this partnership moving forward.
There are also areas of development, education, healthcare that are extremely important to the two countries. In my visit here to Chennai, for instance, I visited a hospital where, with a partnership with the United States government and with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the doctors and the nurses, the personnel there, are trained through the CDC and through money coming from the United States government to extend better best practices, to modernise paperwork to computer operation and improve their laboratories so that, working together, we can improve the delivery of care to some of the most vulnerable patients. I also visited the Working Women’s Forum - something important to our Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to our President - where we are looking to combine in our efforts through the private and the public sectors to help alleviate poverty and scale up successful projects so that they are helping women and families and men and children to get out of desperate and sometimes very difficult circumstances.
There are also issues of strategic cooperation on agriculture and something that is referred to in the 1960’s as the Green Revolution.
So we have many important areas.
The last one I would mention would be economics, trade and investment opportunities. Last but certainly, just mentioned in my comments, is one of the most important. I just came from an MoU between Ford and the local government here in Chennai - Tamil Nadu - where they just agreed to build a brand-new car, the Figo, which will result in 5,000 jobs in this community. The United States and India look for more partnerships moving forward that benefit both the United States and India in this global economy and maybe many of those jobs can come from the energy sector and alternative energy areas and egg co-operation and partnerships and development issues.
Those are some of the areas of the strategic dialogue. The President has also told me in no uncertain terms, he said in our first meeting, he said, “You know, Tim, I am sending you to one of the most important countries in the world. They have over a billion people in India. And one of your goals will be to try to meet every one of those people.” Now he said it with a smile on his face but this President of ours thinks in terms of broad and big and ambitious terms.
That is why he wants to take this relationship from the civilian nuclear deal to five strategic partnerships. He expects me to meet as many people as I can. Public diplomacy is an important, a vital goal for the President of the United States. It is not only meeting Mr. Chidambaram when he came back from the United States on a very successful visit last Friday. It is not only me meeting with the Prime Minister for an hour on Friday to talk about his upcoming trip to the United States both to Pittsburgh but also to the White House in November.
It is for me to meet everyday Indians to see what families are experiencing, to see how we can listen and learn, to see how we can improve the people to people ties because of course it is the people to people ties that have been leading this relationship over the last few decades. 95,000 Indian students are in American schools, we have several million Indians engaged and active in the American community. We have very intimate business to business ties.
This relationship is very positive and on a trajectory going up in extremely optimistic ways. So just in conclusion when I said goodbye to the President, the President said, “I just want to tell you that not only are you going to a great country but,” he said, “the Prime Minister is someone that I deeply respect and we get along so well,” he said. He touched his heart and said, “Give him my best regards. When you next see him wish him my personal warm respects. And every time I get on the phone with him or every time I meet him in person we are expected to be in a 10 or 15 minute conversation and almost end up doubling that time because we get along so well, and we see the same perspective on some of the issues.”
When presidents and prime ministers get along so well, when you have these great people to people ties, when you have a strategic vision, an ambitious vision of five new dialogues and pillars to move this relationship forward on I think that bodes extremely well for the United States and India forging even closer and better ties moving forward.
So I am very happy to be here in Chennai. They have got a great schedule for me in a host of different areas. We met with several business leaders this morning. We are going to do a corporate responsibility meeting later this afternoon. We visited hospitals, working women’s forums, agricultural issues and I look forward to my next visit to Chennai. When I first met Mr. Chidambaram who hails from this area I asked him where should I go if I get outside Delhi and Mr. Chidambaram said, “You must go to South India. That is where we have such vibrancy in our culture, such great food, such accommodating and warm people,” and that certainly is the case. It is been a great visit. So thank you so much. And look forward to entertaining probably just the one question you have because the Press is very shy here in India. It usually does not have very much to say.
How much continuity and how much change?
Question: How much of change and how much of continuity would the Obama administration represent in India-US relations?
Dr. Roemer: Well I certainly think that continuity is one of the strengths in this relationship. There is a lot of credit to the Republican Party, to the Democratic Party, to President Clinton, to President Bush, to governments here in India, to the BJP party, to the Congress party, to Mr. Vajpayee, to Prime Minister Singh, to the people to people ties. This is a relationship that is constant, that is continuous, that is forged on historic ties that are people to people, business to business, and government to government at many levels. So the continuity, I think, is a strength of the relationship. I think that change is also a harbinger of an Obama administration and Secretary Clinton’s leadership style that wants to do big, bold agendas and believes that we can do several things at the same time, that we can expand on the success of the civilian nuclear deal that expanded the confidence and trust between our two governments.
That provided essential steps forward in our relationship – jobs in America, opportunities for increased electricity and power and life-changing results for people in rural communities that desperately need access to electricity. This is a great foundation to build on, but now we have more pillars, more great things to accomplish together not only in the bilateral relationship, but with India’s emergence as a leading regional and global player, there are many opportunities to forge these relationships for India to lead on globally – proliferation and disarmament issues, energy security issues, green revolution issues, education reform issues, security issues leading the way to cooperate against the regional and global threat like the al-Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
So there is both continuity and change in this relationship, both are strengths, both are statements of the stability in the relationship, but the change also challenges both countries to do bigger and broader things together on a global stage.
Is the Obama administration protectionist?
Q: On trade relations, there is a perception that the Democratic administration is more protectionist, less free trade, as for example in the imposition of anti-dumping duties on China recently. It is difficult to comprehend why the US would do this at this stage. No relation with India but these are straws in the wind, about the way the new administration will behave on world trade.
Dr. Roemer: Well one of the things that the President said to me in the White House just two-and-a-half months ago before I left was that he is very cognisant of the fact that free and fair trade helps grow our economy at home. And where I can help, in India, our businesses succeed, where we can help form partnerships, that will be a fundamental goal as United States Ambassador here - to strengthen the trade, the investment and the economic opportunities between our two countries. That, as you know, has been on a trajectory upwards, growing in the early part of 2002-2003 to low double digits to now $60-70 billion of trade. The President recognises that helping our businesses get access to new markets is absolutely essential for future economic growth and continuing to pull out of this, as it is called in America, the Great Recession. The President talked very eloquently in the campaign about creating new jobs, green collar jobs, and creating new markets for those green collar jobs.
Hybrid cars, new batteries, solar power, geo-thermal power, alternative technologies, clean coal technologies and finding ways to exchange these technologies, trade these technologies, sell these technologies with other global players. That is very important to him and so, again, trade and investment opportunities, I think, are central to this Democratic administration, and this Obama administration.
Further more, it was not just eloquence in the campaign. When he became President, several of his initiatives passed through Congress, that he has helped lead and steer through Congress. The stimulus bill contained money, tens of billions of dollars, for alternative energy investments to follow through on his pledge to create green collar jobs, to look for more opportunities in the United States and globally. To work on energy security issues, climate change issues, partnership issues. But also in some subsequent legislation, not just in the stimulus bill but in the pending bill on energy that is in the US Senate now, he has got billions of dollars of additional money for new investment opportunities in the energy sector. So he has committed his words, his eloquence to this issue, but he has also committed his political capital and achieved much in these areas legislatively.
So fair and free trade, economic and business opportunities, expanding the ties between the US and India are certainly important to him and he has personally conveyed them to me.
What’s the US commercial follow-up on nuclear deal?
Q: In what way do you see the civilian nuclear cooperation taking shape in the next year or so? Do you see a US company or entity taking space and setting up a nuclear power station in association with NPCIL and where?
Dr. Roemer: Well, we are certainly very pleased with the progress that has been attained in this historic deal and in this relationship on the civilian nuclear partnership. There are however some key legacy issues to finish, to implement, to complete. It is extremely important to the Obama administration that we try to do these as soon as possible both for India’s interests and also for the United States of America’s interests. This means, you know, commitment and fulfilment of an agreement, this means jobs for Americans and this also means electricity and changing people’s lives in India.
There are issues such as the public declaration, the public announcement of the two reactor sites for the United States and the two States that they will be located in. We are waiting for the Indian government to publicly announce that. I think they have privately announced but they have not been publicly announced yet.
We are also working closely with the Indian government on all these issues but also on the declaration of safeguarded facilities with the IAEA. We think there is great progress being made there. We hope to get that over the finish line. There is needed liability legislation passed through Parliament in India. We understand that the legislation may be introduced in November. We are hopeful that it will be completed in time for the Prime Minister’s visit in November. I hope the Indian government can attain that goal.
And then there is a complicated issue on licensing that we still have to complete. I guess I would not say complicated, I would say detailed because it is fairly easy to implement.
So these are some of the remaining legacy issues on the civilian nuclear deal. We are optimistic that they can be done in a comprehensive and expeditious fashion. It is important, it is critical that they be completed for both sides.
Two sites to be declared by Indian government
Q: Just a clarification. You said that there are two sites that you are looking for.
Dr. Roemer: Yes, two declared sites that we understand from the Indian government might have been arrived at, agreed to by the Indian government but have not been publicly announced yet.
Q: And each would have a capacity of what?
Dr. Roemer: I will have to get back to you on the answer to that.
Q. I guess it will be at least a 1,000MW. I am not committing Ambassador Roemer to this figure. But it cannot be small.
Dr. Roemer: It is large. It is extremely helpful and comprehensive.
Q: Published reports say that one of the sites is in Andhra Pradesh and the other one in Gujarat.
Dr. Roemer: I will wait for the Indian government to make that announcement. It means a lot more coming from them since this is on their terms and their country.
Is the US fussier than Russia and France?
Q: There is a feeling that Americans are more finicky about civilian nuclear cooperation than the Russians and the French. The Russians and the French have started off at a relatively brisk pace whereas we do not even sure have, one year down the road, the first concrete report on American collaboration on a civil nuclear plant.
Dr. Roemer: Well I can assure you that the US companies are very anxious, very excited and biting at the bit to have this completed. I can also assure you that at the highest levels of the United States government this is an extremely important and vital priority. It just so happens out of the 4-5 remaining legacy issues, almost every one of them is in the court (as a basketball player- is in the court) of the Indian government. The ball is with them. And these things need to be completed. In my meetings with extremely high level Ministers in the Indian government I bring these legacy issues up because my government wants to make sure that they are completed. We do have some requirements that maybe the French and the Russian governments do not have in their system of laws. And liability legislation moving forward is important for our laws and the licensing issue is important to our businesses and requires a signoff, I believe, by the Secretary of Energy. So we have laws that we have to abide by. But the businesses are extremely excited, we are very excited about this getting to the finish line and, I think, it builds on good things to come.
On India’s right to reprocess spent fuel
Q: One issue that could be in part legacy, in part new-fangled relates to reprocessing. I mention legacy because there used to be an issue with Tarapur nuclear power plant where consent is still awaited. The spent fuel rods are sitting on shelves. It is a small plant. But with the new agreement it looks like there should be no complications about India having the right to reprocess.
Dr. Roemer: Well I think there was an instance back in the State Department where maybe a State Department spokesperson mis-spoke on this but you know these are separate issues and, we are, our government assures me that moving forward on the 123 agreement is separate from this enrichment technology issue and I hope that that is clear and I don’t expect any kind of confusion on this issue.
On prospects for India-US cooperation on climate change
Q: Looking at climate change, do you have any concrete funding proposals you are planning to present, in terms of adaptation and mitigation, at Copenhagen? What exactly are you hoping the Indian government will bring to the table in return?
Dr. Roemer: There is a significant amount of work that two great powers – the US and India – could do together, trying to analyse and work on the threat of water security, food security, flooding issues that are a result of climate issues. These all, I think, can be talked about in ways which create common ground between our two countries. Sometimes I think we get caught up in saying that it has to be referred to in terms of emission standards or binding goals.
Maybe these are important; they certainly are. But there are also ways to talk about energy security that I think establish a kind of common ground, for example, providing energy to moor the poor and helping them out of poverty, trying to make sure so much of the topsoil is not eroded so that it endangers food security issues going forward.
How could we develop the next set of green revolution ideas between our two great countries that provided such good common ground in the 1960s?
What do we do about water security issues when our water in the US is becoming more scarce, or water in India becoming more scarce?
How do we combine our science and our intellectual resources and our environmental resources to address some of the great problems moving forward?
When I served in the US Congress and served on the Intelligence Committee, there was an unclassified report that was put out every year – absolutely in the public domain – called Global Trends 2020, now called Global Trends 2025. The authors tried to look at what is the world going to look like 15 years from now or 20 years from now? In this report the analyst and the National Intelligence Council talked about transnational threats – that they might not come from armies or nation-states.
It might in fact come from water scarcity. It might come from flooding in Bangladesh that creates migration and huge economic challenges for India as people come across the border. It might emanate from H1N1 or viruses and health issues.
You have to remember that after about two months after 9/11 took place, a man by the name of Osama Bin Laden said it was not 19 Arab armies or 19 Arab tanks that attacked the US; it was 19 postgraduate students.
He was saying it is a different world; that the transnational threats are very real, and it is not just the nation state that can be a threat. It could be a cell of terrorists being trained somewhere north of here, coming in and attacking in Mumbai. It can be a cell of people training in Afghanistan and going into New York City. It can be a cyber security or computer threat. It can be a healthcare threat.
Again, these transnational threats – water, security, flu – are areas where both the US and India have great expertise, great commonality and great potential to work on some of the global issues together to help solve those issues.
Change of US stance on climate change
Q: Referring back to the question on change and continuity but with reference to the climate change issue in the partnership, what is the element of change in the US? You can of course draw on your Congressional experience because you have been through the whole debate – Al Gore on the one side, President Bush on the other. The US did not go into the Kyoto Protocol. The change seems to be more radical on the US side than it seems to be in India. Is that correct? What impact will that change have on bilateral cooperation?
Dr. Roemer: The President, as you know, has made this a front and centre strategic priority. The Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has made this one of her highest priorities. The President, as you noted, has committed not only money and resources to this, but also his energy bill and his stimulus bill, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.
He has committed people to it. One of the most important things you can do in our government to affect, influence and drive and issue into a new area is to appoint people in the White House, to think about, implement and act on that policy everyday and to also put forward legislation executing those goals.
When the President took office he appointed people like Carol Browner and Lisa Jackson -- Carol Browner, in the White House to help strategise on climate change and energy security issues, who served in the Clinton administration. Lisa Jackson is in charge of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] – somebody at the state level who has put climate and energy issues at the front and centre of her career.
He has a Vice President that is firmly committed to these issues and an Energy Secretary too, who has brought great expertise from the National Labs to the energy and climate change issues.
In Congress he has allies – in the Senate and in the House – people like Barbara Boxer and Howard Berrman, key strategists throughout the legislative branch that are working hard, supporting his legislation and his initiatives.
So from the level of money and resources to the level of personnel and time in the White House, to people who are helping him and partnering with him in the legislative area, there is a great deal of commitment to this climate issue.
We hope that that is contagious. We hope that key players like India will also look at some of the challenges in their country.
Look, we have made mistakes on this issue in our history. We imported too much oil, got too reliant on oil coming in from vulnerable places in the world. India may be going down that same path. We are looking at increased stresses on our environment. India may be facing some of those same challenges.
I think rather than following some of our example on this, our two countries working together for innovative, new solutions – reforestation programmes, planting new trees to form the sink to absorb some of the carbon emissions, alternative energy sources, science and technology partnerships, funds, devoting monies to solving this problem, personnel and resources in our government that we have committed, global partnerships with India and other countries – I think these are the key elements.
Emission reductions: not enough?
Q: You seem to be bringing so little to the negotiating table in terms of what you offer to do for emission reductions. What you offer to do translates into something like 4% of 1990 levels. This is certainly not adequate – that is the perception.
Dr. Roemer: I will get back to you on the specific levels but I believe that they are significant and what President Obama has said is that by 2020 and 2050 should reduce carbon emission to I believe 80% 2005 levels. Those are significant and with a difficult economy and an unemployment rate of close to 10% in our country the President has talked about 80-90 billion dollars in different bills devoted to alternate energy sources, when money is hard to come by on the domestic side.
His has devoted to this issue his personal time – he talked about it very determinedly and eloquently at the United Nations. Look, he cannot state every one of his goals at a UN speech but climate change was at the very top of that agenda.
The Secretary of State and the Climate Envoy are devoting a lot of time to this. I think we are bringing significant goals to the table; we are bringing very substantial resources to the table and I think the commitment by this President is second to none.
Expectations of China and India ahead of Copenhagen
Q: Are you going to insist that China and India cut their absolute levels of emissions as part of their commitment to the Copenhagen meeting.
Dr. Roemer: I am not the Special Envoy – I’m going to leave that to Todd Stern, the Special Envoy. What I have stated here is that the administration hopes that India will be a fruitful and productive global player at Copenhagen and make significant contributions and at the same time part of our strategic dialogue is to work with India at the bilateral level on new initiatives and on new opportunities on the science and technology lists.
Q: Jagdish Bhagwati, who was at an editorial meeting with us several weeks ago, was saying that there needs to be a distinction between flows, which are current emissions and stocks, which came from past omissions, mostly from the industrialised countries. He was suggesting that there could very easily be an agreement on the flows and India should also agree to some cap on the current flows but possibly ask for compensation for the past stock of emissions out there, on the principle of the superfund and the polluter-pays principle.
Dr. Roemer: You are trying to get me into a lot of trouble here [laughs] by speculating on some ideas and hypotheticals and I am just not going to go there. I know that when Secretary Clinton and Minister [Jairam] Ramesh were speaking, Minister Ramesh was talking about lots of different options including a Track II option. He talked about creating new sinks through planting new trees and forestation programmes. There are many things that are potentially on the table, but I am not going to comment on what the Ambassador’s endorsement might be on particular individual aspects of this. I am going to try to stay out of trouble and resist that call from Washington that is going to come if I get into too many specifics on your proposal there.
Terrorism, security, and Islamabad’s attitude
Q: This question is on terrorism and national security. You said India and the US are working at unprecedented levels to share information, intelligence, and cooperation. But when it comes to Islamabad – bringing to book the perpetrators of 26/11 – Islamabad is going on doing a flip-flop. And there is growing frustration and anger in India, particularly among everyday Indians that you mentioned, that Washington is not doing enough, because the widespread belief here is that the US is the only country which can make Islamabad act.
Dr. Roemer: You are trying to get me in trouble again, are you not? I believe that in almost every press conference that I have had in my short tenure here, I have underscored the importance of the US and India working together to confront this common global threat, and encouraging the government of Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the bloodthirsty attacks in Mumbai to justice is absolutely key – it is extremely important.
It is not only important that we bring those people to justice because they killed 170 people, mostly Indians, but they also killed six Americans. The US government is completely devoted to going after people that are threatening our allies, like India, and killing Americans. That needs to be urgent, timely and comprehensive, on the part of the Pakistan government, to implement the sentences on these six people that they now have on trial.
I would also take it a step further than you have and say that people that Hafiz Sayeed, who are on the Interpol Red Notice List, who are on the UN 1267 Resolution, who have long been on lists in the US, that people like this need to be brought to justices.
Finally, the third point, which is absolutely vital for our moving forward and successfully taking on this common threat, is to help to after and dismantle the infrastructure of LeT [Lashkar-e-Toiba], who have become a regional threat, not just a threat to India, but a player in terrorism and destruction in this entire region that threatens stability.
Those are all three extremely important issues. At the same time that we talk about national security issue, it is vitally important for the US and India to talk about the economic issues, the education issues, the alleviation of poverty issues, where 650 million people in India live on less than $2 a day, the public diplomacy issues that the President has tasked me with – getting out and meeting people, broadening and deepening this relationship. It is not just only about national security but about economic security, development security, energy security – that’s where this relationship really has the ability to grow.
Indo-US partnership in education
Q: With scholarships for Indian students drying up, they are looking for alternative locations. Are American universities thinking of setting up campuses here?
Dr. Roemer: I had a very productive, interesting and expansive discussion with your new Minister of Human Resources and Education, Kapil Sibal.
We talked about the opportunities now moving forward on higher education and legislation that I think is soon to be introduced and hopefully soon to pass in the next nine months. Hopefully this is legislation that might allow these partnerships to grow and prosper in the future, between American universities and Indian universities, that would certainly guarantee a sound curriculum, that would guarantee good faculty, that would guarantee good partnerships but also encourage and foster these ties to come forward in the immediate future.
We also talked, in addition to the higher education issue, about community colleges and the role that community colleges play both reaching out to all kinds of different populations of students but also can reach into technical training and align up jobs and education in particular regions of India, just as they do in the US.
Some of our community colleges in the Midwest try to train students specifically for the auto industry, the pharmaceuticals industry or the biotech industries. Community colleges can hold great promise there.
We then started talking about early education and primary and secondary education goals. We, I hope, have something to contribute from the US and India certainly has a lot to contribute to us and our understanding of different challenges.
I had an education Round Table and forum in Mumbai last week where we heard from people in the Indian community who said that many of their greatest goals are to make sure that their children get access to good education, that they are worried that teacher absenteeism is so high in India. An important goal is to address principal leadership programmes for principals, who are often the motivators of new ideas and change in schools, so that we might look at some ways to share best practices for training principles and the leadership of schools.
The Teach for America idea, originated by Wendy Kopp in America, where we now go out in America and try to recruit some of our best and brightest to teach under some of the most difficult circumstances in inner city schools and rural schools, where it is hard to place teachers in American schools. How might we replicate that in India?
There is a Teach for India programme – how might that be scaled up to get more and more teachers into the communities? I heard from people in the Indian community in this Round Table that they are concerned that we need more and more people going into the teaching profession in India. Many people, like in America, want to be engineers, doctors and lawyers.
I come from a family of educators. My grandfather was a professor in college at the University of Notre Dame, teaching philosophy. My grandmother was a grade school teacher and that was seen in our family as a noble and rich tradition of helping future generations get keys to success, for their dreams to come true.
We believe that America is the land of opportunity. It is the land of opportunity and the fulfilment of dreams because we have the best education in the world and it allows our children to fulfil their dreams. That is the key fundamental foundation to the fulfilment of dreams is good education.
So we had a very good conversation about everything from primary and secondary reform, charter schools, community colleges, accreditation programmes and higher education partnerships between the US and India.
I look forward to many other conversations with Kapil Sibal. He is a very engaging and very talented and very skilled minister.
Taking care of quality and access in the US
Q: One final question: The US has a tradition of broad-based democratic education, of providing opportunities, in comparison with Europe and the UK in particular. There are Issues of quality versus access – there is always a tension between these two and in India we have problems with this. We have a relatively small proportion of the population that has finished school going to college, to higher levels of education. This is around 10% and they want to raise it to 20%. So what is the solution to this, philosophically? Commitment to quality is one goal, commitment to broad-basing or opening your gates wide – can these two ever be reconciled in a huge country like India?
Dr. Roemer: I am not going to talk about what India needs to do but I will talk about America and what my experience has been as a legislator both on the quality and access. Certainly, access in America is broad, wide and expansive.
Whether you are living on a native American Indian reservation, whether you are in an inner city school, whether you are a disabled student, you have access to public education in America.
One of the challenges for the American system that we worked on in a bipartisan way – I worked directly with President Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy on this – was to try to find ways to continue to have the access from all our students, every race, income level, disability, disadvantage that they might have – but also try to insist on higher quality, high standards and improved performance from our students.
We worked on this bill called “No Child Left Behind.” We were able to pass that legislation with bipartisan support. Two of the fundamentally important goals that often are not articulated vociferously enough in that Act are: One, we said in a global economy it is absolutely essential that when you are passed from the sixth grade to the seventh grade or out of high school, that there need to be specific goals and curricula and standards that you have attained. It does not do anybody any good, whether you be poor or disadvantaged, or rich and advantaged, to be passing somebody through school but they cannot read at the right level, they do not have the right sense of history, they haven’t attained the goals of the technical training and drafting or an animation that it required, the computer skills.
So we set strict standards in this legislation saying you need to be able to attain certain goals going from one grade to the next, a diploma will mean something and you have to earn this in this 21st century global economy, which is so competitive. That became highly controversial.
Secondly we said that we need to continue to be able to recruit, train and promote the best teachers in the world. If you are teaching students physics, you should be certified in physics and not phys-ed. If you are teaching English you should be certified in English and have a broad background in Shakespeare and Byron and the great writers of the world rather than be trained in a different area. So we insisted on certain goals being reached on teacher training and teacher qualifications.
I think both of those goals try to get to the issue of with a vast opportunity of access in America, extended to so many groups of people, how do you insist on quality? How do you even improve quality going forward with the teacher training programmes, with the teacher certification programmes and with the student performance programmes?
I think we found a good balance in “No Child Left Behind.” I think it has been unfairly tainted in some ways. We have a tension like you do in your system, between the federal government articulating sometimes some goals and attaching some money to that and then states being able to resist or not follow along with some of those federal goals and recommendations.
You have some of those same things here, where the states drive a lot of your education, and you will face some of those same challenges going forward, with implementation, of quality, access and how you provide the resources to accomplish those very important goals that we just talked about. I think we did it.
We began with a story of President Obama, I would just end on a story about Senator Kennedy, given his recent passing. I became pretty good friends with Senator Kennedy and was always touched by his grace and his class and his reaching out to the common person, his ability to feel their anxiety or their pride, feel their concerns on education, civil rights, and healthcare issues, which he devoted his life to.
We were working on a bill. I had introduced a bill when I was in the House of Representatives to name the Justice Department Building, which is a beautiful building not too farm from the White House, after his brother Robert F. Kennedy, who was a hero of mine when I was a kid.
So I kept working this bill and working this bill and trying to get through Congress. Finally I found that instead of batting my head against the wall trying to get it through Congress where we had some resistance, we did some good research that led to the finding that we could get this done by executive order, that the President could designate this building a Robert F. Kennedy building and accomplish it without me having to go through the House and the Senate.
So I called Karl Rove and the President and talked to them about this and they said that this was a great idea, let us do it. We did it, we celebrated at the Justice Department building where there is now a sign out there, “The Robert F. Kennedy Justice Department Building.” That day we had a celebration, a signing at the Justice Department and Senator Kennedy and his family were there – his sons, his daughter, his family and he was effusive in his thanks. I was very touched by that.
When I went back to my office at the end of the day, walked into my Congressional office and there on my seat was what looked like a huge picture within a brown wrapping, with a string around it. I unattached the string and took the wrapping off and there was a beautiful framed picture of Robert F. Kennedy and it said at the bottom of it: “To Tim, My brother would have enjoyed serving with you and helping America, Ted Kennedy.”
That day, he turned that around, put it as a priority to show his gratitude to somebody who had helped him. I did not know if this was significant or insignificant to him. He made you feel like a king. He was the lion of the Senate who would reach out to everybody to make them feel good, to make them feel proud of what they had done and to show his gratitude and thanks. It just shows the Kennedy class and Kennedy charisma in so many ways and we all miss Senator Kennedy.
If I have any regrets in my first two months as Ambassador here, which I doubt – I think it is the best post I could have in all of government – I would say that I missed Senator Kennedy’s funeral and that was hard to do, hard to miss saying goodbye to my friend who I admire so much.