The US-India Relationship: A Q&A with Kenneth Juster

The recent US Ambassador to India offers insights on trade relations between the world’s two largest democracies, the goals of the Quad, and how to counter Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific.

Ken Juster buying food at a Halal food truck

By Roshni Chakraborty

Weatherhead Center Advisory Committee Member Kenneth I. Juster recently completed his service as the twenty-fifth US Ambassador to the Republic of India (2017–2021). Over the past several decades, Juster has served in the US government as Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs (2017); Under Secretary of Commerce (2001–2005); Counselor (Acting) of the State Department (1992–1993); and Deputy and Senior Advisor to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger (1989–1992). In the private sector, Juster has been a partner at the global investment firm Warburg Pincus (2010–2017), a senior executive at Salesforce (2005–2010), and a senior partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter. 

Former Undergraduate Associate and Juster Fellow Roshni Chakraborty asked Juster about his experience as US Ambassador to learn more about India’s relationship with the United States.

Q: What parts of your personal background drew you toward diplomatic work? 

A: As I look back on my life, there were, of course, many experiences that, collectively, drew me toward a desire to work in the field of international affairs and, at some point in my career, to serve in the US government. I would highlight four or five such experiences while I was growing up.

I still have vivid memories of seeing my father’s photos from a month-long international trip that he and my mother took in Asia and Europe in 1966, when I was in fifth grade. They visited Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Iran, Turkey, and Greece. My father was an architect, and he took hundreds of photos, which were colorful, lively, and exciting. This collection, along with my parents’ stories, provided a great introduction to life in other countries. 

Later, when I was in high school, our community (Scarsdale, New York) would host two foreign exchange students every year under the American Field Service (AFS) program. I subsequently applied for an AFS international scholarship to live abroad for three months between my junior and senior years. I was selected to spend my summer in a rural village in Thailand. It was an unforgettable experience. And I remember meeting in Bangkok with the widow of a former US Ambassador to Thailand, Edwin Stanton, and the positive impression she made on me.

In college, during the introductory week for freshmen, John Kenneth Galbraith gave the first lecture, and he spoke warmly about his time as the US Ambassador to India (1961 to 1963). I went on to major in government, with a focus on the United States and East Asia. I studied under Professor Edwin Reischauer, who was the former US Ambassador to Japan from 1961 to 1966. I wrote my thesis on Japan foreign policy making during the oil crisis of 1972–1973. As part of my research, I was in the first group of students who received grants from Harvard’s Center for International Affairs for summer research abroad, in my case in Tokyo. 

I also served as a research assistant to Professor Samuel Huntington when I was an undergraduate and subsequently worked with him at the National Security Council in the Carter White House in 1978. This bird’s eye view of US foreign policy making, along with my previous international experiences and exposure to former US diplomats, solidified my desire to work in the US government’s foreign policy arena during my professional career. 

Q: What was the biggest learning experience from your time as Ambassador to India?

A: The US-India relationship is as broad, complex, and rich in substance as any bilateral relationship in the world. We cooperate on defense, counterterrorism, nonproliferation, cybersecurity, trade, investment, energy, the environment, health, education, science and technology, agriculture, space, the oceans, and so much more. On almost every issue, there is a good deal of discussion and negotiation. While substantive positions are, of course, important regarding these matters, I came to appreciate that an equally important element in successfully resolving an issue was the personal relationship that I had developed with my counterpart. Indeed, throughout my term as Ambassador, I continually saw how impactful a positive personal relationship was for getting things done.

For example, I traveled throughout the country meeting with key state officials. This proved to be invaluable during the lockdown for COVID-19, when we had to repatriate approximately 6,000 Americans from all corners of India. There were severe restrictions on travel, but through my relationships with state officials as well as the outstanding work by our embassy team, we were able to move American citizens from throughout the country, across state lines and through numerous checkpoints, to reach either New Delhi or Mumbai for flights back to the United States.

Q: What do you consider to be some of your major achievements during your time as Ambassador?

A: The US-India strategic partnership has been on an upward trajectory over the last two decades, and I feel that there were several notable achievements during my tenure as Ambassador. While the concept of the Indo-Pacific has been many years in the making, during my term, the United States and India, along with some other countries, turned that concept into a reality. For the United States, the Indo-Pacific meant working with India to provide coordinated leadership in addressing the rise of China, the need for more economic connectivity, and other challenges in the region.
The United States and India began working with other like-minded countries in building out the architecture of the Indo-Pacific. This included joining with Japan and Australia to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). We began with working-level meetings, which led to ministerial meetings in 2019 and 2020. The Quad has provided much greater cooperation in maritime domain awareness, pandemic management, regional connectivity, and cybersecurity.

Ken Juster seated in front row at 2+2 dialogue in India while US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo delivers closing remarks

To reinforce these diplomatic efforts, we deepened defense and security cooperation with India. This cooperation reached a new level in 2018 with the inaugural 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue of American and Indian defense and foreign policy leaders, followed by two more rounds in successive years. Both sides signed pivotal agreements at each Ministerial, increasing the interoperability of our defense forces and industries. The two countries also expanded the complexity of a robust series of military exercises, including the first-ever tri-services exercise in 2019 and Australia’s participation in the Malabar naval exercise, alongside Japan. And, for the first time, the United States and India hosted liaison officers at each other’s military facilities.

On the economic front, we worked with the private sector and the Indian government to expand trade and investment ties to record levels, even without concluding a bilateral trade package. Today, the United States is India’s largest trading partner and India is among the top ten partners of the United States.

Another key element of the bilateral relationship involved energy. The two countries launched a Strategic Energy Partnership, which has led to the United States now being one of the leading sources of energy for India.

The Biden Administration has continued to make India a foreign policy priority and expand all these initiatives.

Overhead view of 7 naval ships in the ocean at sunrise

Q: Were there ever times you disagreed with the instructions coming to you down the diplomatic pipeline?  How did you navigate those personal dilemmas?

A: I had worked at the National Security Council and the National Economic Council for six months prior to my becoming the US Ambassador to India. I had also been involved with the US-India relationship for many years and knew the key players in the public and private sectors on both sides. I was therefore given a good deal of latitude in managing the bilateral relationship, in conjunction with the team in Washington, DC. Accordingly, I rarely received specific instructions from Washington, DC, and, in the few instances when the State Department issued such instructions, I never found myself in a situation in which I fundamentally disagreed with them.

Q: You were present during the 2019 Pulwama attack, which led to an outburst of nationalist sentiment in the subcontinent. How did you see diplomats diffuse (or what role did diplomacy play in diffusing) the power of such mass fervor? 

A: The Pulwama attack by a terrorist suicide bomber in the state of Jammu and Kashmir was a tragic incident that killed forty Indian Central Reserve Police Force personnel, as well as the perpetrator, a Kashmiri youth. As you have indicated, emotions ran high after this attack. The Indian government helped diffuse tensions by clearly communicating with their public and quickly calling in me and other top foreign diplomats, in turn, to explain the situation and their reaction to it.

Over the next several days after the attack, I kept in close touch with India’s Ministry of External Affairs, as we communicated about further developments. The Indian government also continued to keep its public informed about its reaction to the situation. My assumption, as well, is that the Indian and Pakistani governments may have been communicating through back channels to diffuse tensions and prevent any miscalculations. 

Cross-border terrorism has been a serious problem for India, and the Indian government has had to calibrate its response in a manner that seeks to deter further incidents without inciting additional violence. The combination of diplomacy and action at the time seemed to work in terms of managing this challenge.

Q: The strategy the United States has for countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative—which connects Europe to Africa and Asia through investments and infrastructure—is an alliance with India, Japan, and Australia called the Quad. How do you envision this alliance working?

A: It is important to note that the Quad is not an alliance. It is a grouping of four major democracies trying to promote a free, open, and peaceful Indo-Pacific region by addressing economic and technological issues in a transparent and inclusive manner. The Quad seeks to provide an affirmative vision for the Indo-Pacific that implicitly contrasts with China’s vision of asserting its influence and domination over the region.

The Trump Administration led the effort to revive the Quad in 2017 after a ten-year hiatus. The Biden Administration has further strengthened the grouping by elevating meetings from the minister level to the leader level.

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While the United States has formal alliance relationships with Japan and Australia, India is not an ally of any country. It is a strategic partner of each of the other Quad members. India is also the one Quad country that shares a border with China—India’s northern border of over 2,000 miles. 

Given these facts, India has been the Quad member that has moved forward on Quad activities with a certain degree of caution, including not involving the Quad in military activities, so as not to unnecessarily antagonize the Chinese. India’s willingness to widen and deepen the Quad’s agenda has generally established the pace of Quad initiatives. After China’s aggressive activities along the border area with China, including the killing of twenty Indian soldiers (the first casualties in forty-five years), India became more forward leaning in the Quad.

There are several priority areas for Quad cooperation, including vaccine production and distribution, critical and emerging technologies, high-quality infrastructure, climate change, cybersecurity, space, and maritime domain awareness. 

Q: In Foreign Affairs, you and others wrote that the United States and India have a low level of trade for such big countries. How would a more robust trade pipeline between the two countries help regional stability (i.e., counter Chinese economic dominance in the region)?

A: Enhanced bilateral trade is important for growing both the US and Indian economies, increasing jobs, and providing long-term ballast to the bilateral partnership. To promote their commercial and strategic objectives, the two countries must also play a central role in developing the economic framework for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

China has pursued an expansive regional economic agenda. It was one of the first countries to ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement and encouraged others to follow suit. Last September, it unexpectedly submitted a formal application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Soon thereafter, it applied to join the regional Digital Economy Partnership Agreement, which is aimed at facilitating digital trade. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, moreover, includes investments in regional infrastructure that will strengthen Beijing’s influence in Indo-Pacific countries and across the globe.

In response to all of this, the United States has launched an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. This is a region-wide initiative designed to chart flexible rules of economic engagement by aligning interests and setting standards without being a formal trade agreement. However, this initiative will not offer the prospect of greater access to the US market through lower tariffs, even though that is what remains of greatest interest to many of the Asian countries seeking to accelerate their economic development. India is participating in certain elements of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. But if this effort is insufficiently ambitious, China may well create an economic and trade order that would leave India and the United States on the outside looking in.

Map of the Belt and Road Initiative and China's international trade corridors

Q: You were in India when the 2020 US election and the January 6 riot occurred. What was it like watching the riot unfold from so far away and from within such a different democratic context? What continuities and discontinuities do you see between the Indian and American democracies?

A: Because of the time difference between Washington, DC, and New Delhi (New Delhi was nine and one-half hours ahead on January 6), I was asleep when the storming of the US Capitol took place. I woke up the next morning, after this awful event had concluded, to watch reports about it on TV. So, I was not watching it in real time, but I was horrified by the news clips that I saw when I woke up on January 7. 

I had delivered my farewell address as US Ambassador in New Delhi on January 5 and had both print and television interviews scheduled for January 7. I began each interview by stating that the storming of the Capitol was a horrific scene that had no place in a democracy. My statements were widely carried in the Indian media.

The United States and India are the world’s oldest and largest democracies, respectively. They both begin their constitutions with the words “We the people,” and those documents enshrine many of the same fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and equal protection under the law. However, there are differences in the two forms of democracy, with the United States being a representative democracy led by an elected president and India being a parliamentary form of government led by a prime minister who is appointed by the president (head of state) and is the leader of the political party that has secured a majority in the lower house of the Parliament. I could go on about other similarities and differences as well as some of the challenges occurring in both democracies at this time. But one compelling image that I have of Indian democracy in action is when their national election takes place. 

There are over 900 million eligible voters, each of whom has a national voter ID card. With so many eligible voters, the national election occurs in seven phases over approximately six weeks. There is no general absentee voting, though electronically transmitted postal voting is permitted for certain categories of people, such as members of the armed forces, state police, and government employees posted abroad. Otherwise, a physical presence at the voting booth is required on the designated day of the election. The voter turnout is generally close to 70 percent, even though many of these voters are poor people from rural villages who stand in line for hours on the election day in their area of the country for voting that is held from around 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. After a citizen votes, his or her left index finger is marked with indelible ink to prevent repeat voting. 

The overall election is truly an extraordinary process and is generally executed without major controversy or complaints. It provides some perspective on the debates now occurring in our country about voting laws.

Polling officer sitting at a table administers indelible ink on the finger of a female voter at Tamil Nadu

Q: How could the United States better navigate the complexity of India’s close relationship with Russia while capitalizing on its tenuous relationship with China?

A: I think that the US relationship with India has been well managed over the last two decades by both countries and across changes of government in each country. This tradition has been continued by the Biden Administration, which has done an excellent job in navigating the complexity of India’s historically close relationship with the Soviet Union and later Russia, and its strained relationship with China. 

As previously mentioned, the United States has worked with India and others to revive and elevate the Quad to build a positive vision for the Indo-Pacific, in contrast to China’s effort to impose its will on its neighbors and increase their dependence on Beijing. Nevertheless, India also adheres to a policy of strategic autonomy and favors a multipolar world. Historically, India has received much of its military hardware from Russia (and earlier the Soviet Union), relies on Russia for spare parts and technology such as nuclear submarines, has had a long and trusted relationship with the Russians, and wants, as much as possible, to keep Russia from moving closer to China. The US government recognizes the complexity of this relationship. While Washington hopes that Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine will lead India to increasingly distance itself from Russia, the Biden Administration seems prepared to let this process play out at India’s pace rather than put pressure on India, which could well be counterproductive. 

I believe that this is the correct approach toward both China and Russia.

Contributor Bio

Weatherhead Center Advisory Committee Member Kenneth I. Juster recently completed his service as the twenty-fifth US Ambassador to the Republic of India (2017–2021). He is currently senior counselor at the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP; senior adviser at the institutional investor CDPQ; strategic adviser at the software company Salesforce; and Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Juster holds a law degree from the Harvard Law School (1979), a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (1979), and a bachelor of arts degree in government  from Harvard College (1976).

Roshni Chakraborty is a first-year student at Harvard Law School. She graduated from Harvard College in 2022 where she studied social studies and global health and health policy. As a Juster Fellow, she conducted ethnographic research on child trafficking in India. Read more about her experience in Centerpiece.

Every year, the Weatherhead Center awards Kenneth I. Juster Fellowships for Undergraduate Research and Travel to 4–6 undergraduate students. Funding has been made available by Harvard alumnus Kenneth I. Juster, who has devoted much of his education, professional activities, and nonprofit endeavors to international affairs and is deeply engaged in promoting international understanding and advancing international relations. Read more about the Juster Fellowships on our website. 


  1. Ambassador Kenneth Juster visits Khan Market, in New Delhi, February 16, 2018. Credit: US Embassy, New Delhi, Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
  2. US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo flanked by US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at a press conference following the inaugural 2+2 Dialogue, in New Delhi, India, September 6, 2018 (Kenneth Juster seated front row of the audience, center). Credit: US Department of State, Flickr, Department photo/Public Domain
  3. Naval Ships: Arabian Sea (Nov. 17, 2020) Ships from the Royal Australian Navy, Indian navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and the United States Navy participate in Malabar 2020. Malabar 2020 is the latest in a continuing series of exercises that has grown in scope and complexity over the years to address the variety of shared threats to maritime security in the Indo-Asia Pacific where the US Navy has patrolled for more than 70 years promoting regional peace and security. Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is currently deployed to the US 7th Fleet area of operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Credit: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt 201117-N-NH257-1206, Official US Navy Page, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  4. US President Joe Biden (L), with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd L), meets virtually with leaders of the "Quad" grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 12, 2021. On screens are Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Credit: Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images
  5. The Belt & Road Initiative and China’s International Trade, 2020. Credit: Belt and Road Research Platform
  6. The Polling officer administering indelible ink on the finger of a female voter at a polling booth in PSBB School, Chennai Central Constituency, Tamil Nadu during the 5th phase of General Election on May 13, 2009. Public.Resource, Photo W-0775L. Credit: Public.Resource.Org, Flickr (CC BY 2.0