The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. still doesn’t have an ambassador in this important capital

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks during a news conference near SoFi Stadium on Feb. 2 in Inglewood, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Ronak D. Desai is an associate at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University. He practices law in D.C. and leads the congressional investigations practice at Paul Hastings.

India is one of America’s most vital strategic partners. Several long-term U.S. objectives — from defense and trade to energy and health care — are advanced through our relationship with the world’s largest democracy. The United States is India’s largest trading partner and one of its top arms suppliers. Delhi is also crucial to Washington’s efforts to contain a rising China. Supported by a bipartisan consensus, strong foreign relations with India remain one of the rare areas of convergence between America’s two political parties.

And yet — nearly two years since President Biden’s election to the White House — the Senate still hasn’t confirmed the administration’s nominee for ambassador to India.

U.S.-India relations are suffering as a result. And yet the inability to fill this vital post is just one small part of a broader failure. Dozens of Biden’s executive branch nominees — for domestic posts as well as diplomatic ones — languish in the Senate, awaiting confirmation. According to the Biden Political Appointee Tracker maintained by the Partnership for Public Service and The Post, 124 of the president’s nominees have yet to be confirmed.

The reason is simple: The political dysfunction affecting so many areas of American political life is undermining the Senate confirmation process.

The result is a federal government forced to work with hundreds of critical posts unfilled, hindering its ability to operate effectively not just at home, but also abroad. American embassies in vital places such as Saudi Arabia, Brazil and the African Union remain without a chief of mission, undermining U.S. diplomacy.

The conspicuous absence of an American ambassador in India is perhaps the most egregious example.

In July 2021, Biden nominated Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to the post. The logic of the choice was apparent. A Rhodes scholar with almost a decade of experience presiding over one of the world’s largest and most diverse cities, Garcetti spent a year studying Hindi and Urdu in college. By all accounts, he enjoys a deep, long-standing relationship with Biden and would have direct access to the president as his ambassador, an invaluable asset for the post.

By nominating his close confidant to serve in India, Biden was signaling the value he placed on the decades-old strategic partnership with India and his efforts to personalize the relationship.

Fifteen months later, Garcetti’s nomination has stalled, mired in a controversy over whether he had knowledge of sexual harassment allegations against a senior adviser in his office. Two senators placed separate holds on his nomination — though Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) withdrew his in May.

The diplomatic post has been empty since the departure of Trump’s India envoy in January 2021. The 20-month vacancy constitutes the longest stretch Washington has been without an ambassador in Delhi in the history of U.S.-India diplomatic ties, a dubious milestone.

By failing to confirm Garcetti, politicians in the Senate have deprived the United States of an essential instrument for shaping our relationship with this indispensable partner. The cascade of international crises upending the international order underscores the importance of preserving and strengthening foreign relations with India.

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, for example, has highlighted Delhi’s close ties with both Moscow and Washington, and the delicate balancing act Delhi maintains between them. American officials have spent the past several months exhorting their Indian counterparts to exercise influence over Russia to help end the war. But the efficacy and credibility of such entreaties have suffered from the lack of a U.S. ambassador in Delhi.

Similarly, the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan last year, while striking a $450 million deal with Pakistan to modernize its F-16 fleet this year, has created friction in the partnership. A permanent U.S. ambassador in Delhi would help explain such decisions and help manage tensions.

Even so, the Biden administration has done an effective job in ensuring that bilateral relations largely stay the course. Engagement has deepened in a number of different realms, and high-level engagement between leaders of both countries remains frequent and substantive.

But summit diplomacy cannot serve as a substitute for the focused, mission-driven engagement so crucial to sustaining such an important partnership. Like all relationships, U.S.-India ties need attention, care and focus to thrive.

The chronic absence of an ambassador risks resurrecting a largely discredited theory that U.S.-India relations fare better under Republican administrations than Democratic ones. Although that is unsupported by the historic record, critics of the administration will be quick to point to the vacancy as evidence of Democratic neglect of the relationship. This would be unfortunate, considering that Biden has been an early champion of U.S.-India ties since his time in the Senate.

The status quo is unsustainable. The Biden administration should strike a deal with the Senate to confirm Garcetti and invest the necessary political capital to ensure bilateral ties remain bipartisan. The U.S.-India relationship is far too important for the helm of our mission in Delhi to remain vacant any longer.