Remarks at the Swearing-in Ceremony for Nisha Desai Biswal as Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs

By:  John Kerry
Date: Nov. 21, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all for coming. This is by far one of the best parts of this job, is when you get to recognize extraordinary talent and you see families and friends, colleagues, people come together to celebrate extraordinary talent and service to our country. So I'm thrilled to be here and I apologize to all of you that we're running just a little bit behind. We had an overflow event with the Vice Premier of China a few minutes ago and everybody got carried away with the event, as we will here, so we'll be a little late somewhere else.

Anyway, it's a pleasure for me to welcome the Chief of Staff of the White House, Denis McDonough, whose day is as busy as anybody's in the city, so we're really happy that he was able to come and join us here. And he had the privilege, as he will tell you, of working with Nisha on Capitol Hill. He's known her a long time. David Obey was going to be here. He was going to come out of retirement for this event because he wanted to just for the day, but unfortunately, his wife is sick and so he is staying at home and we wish her and him well. And we're sorry that he couldn't be here to celebrate this. I know it meant a lot to him.

When I was thinking about my remarks today, somebody asked me if I had read Nisha's most recent op-ed. And I said I have enough trouble keeping up with her Twitter account. (Laughter.) And from some of the timestamps on her tweets, I want you to know, it's obvious she's already operating on South Central Asian time because they're all hours of the night and day.

I will not be the last person to mention the incredible energy of this woman and her focus and her enthusiasm for what she does. And think about the message that we're sending today, which I am excited about: The story of a woman who left a small town in India at age 6 to come to America and now becomes one of the most important leaders in the Department of State. It's a great story; it's the American story. And it's proof of the power of the American journey. It helps capture how in every generation, immigrants revitalize America and renew us and help to remind us of our common roots and then go on to write the next chapter of American history.

The first time that I met Nisha, she was volunteering on my presidential campaign in 2004. And part of her role was traveling door-to-door in American towns like York and Gettysburg and Lancaster. And I've heard her speak about sitting across the tables from NASCAR dads and soccer moms discussing subjects like the role of faith in American politics and what makes America exceptional and so forth. It's sort of like a Norman Rockwell painting for the 21st century, folks. It provides a powerful sense of what it is that makes America different and sets us apart. It also gives you a sense in any case if anyone remembers why we won Pennsylvania that year. Thank you, Nisha. (Laughter.)

Nisha's colleagues say that she is somebody who speaks softly and carries a big stick. The truth is she doesn't need to speak too loudly about so many of America's strengths because whether it's women's rights or human rights or a belief in the power of education and equal opportunity, Nisha has lived every single one of those lessons. And she leads every single day with those lessons in mind. She takes charge of our efforts now in one of the most complex, dynamic regions of the world. And as she wrote recently, over the next six months, more than one billion voters across South Asia will choose leaders of some of the most diverse and vibrant countries in the world. That's her challenge, our challenge. And there are many in the region -- frankly, some in this building -- who look at this sort of transformation potential with trepidation. The risks of the moment, obviously, are real, and none of us should be blind to them. But I know that Nisha confronts these challenges in the same way that she's met every other challenge in her career. She knows that the greatest risk actually comes from not seizing the opportunity.

This week in Bangladesh, Nisha showed how she never misses a chance to speak up or stand up for America's values. She spoke forcefully about the need for leaders to rise above partisan differences and find a peaceful way towards the ballot box. All of us know that the countries she's going to represent are complicated and have been going through enormous challenges. America's prosperity rests more than ever in the strength of our links to this region. Nisha's experience and the success that so many Indian Americans bring to the American table shows to everybody in the world the deep ties that we have between the United States and India. And I know that we're going to unlock the enormous potential of stronger economic, security, and cultural ties between our countries.

Two billion people -- that's what she's going to be engaged with. They create $2 trillion in economic output every single year. And we are invested in that region's prosperity for the long haul and in naming Nisha Biswal as the Assistant Secretary today, we show the strength of that commitment. So it's my great honor to, in a moment, administer the oath of office after we hear from the Chief of Staff of the White House. (Applause.) (Inaudible.)

(Whereupon, Nisha Biswal was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Congratulations. (Applause.)

Come here and watch your Mommy do a little signing here. (Laughter.) There you go. All right. There you are.

Fantastic. Thank you. (Applause.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, what a day. Mr. Secretary, Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps, friends, colleagues, and family, thank you so much for coming today to share in one of the most momentous occasions in my life.

I want to thank Secretary Kerry for his kind words and strong support. And let me say what an honor it is to work under a Secretary who is such an exceptional leader. His vision, his drive, and his commitment to excellence are both inspiring and, I have to admit, just a little bit intimidating.

Having just completed my second trip in three weeks on the job, I have to say I'm a little bit in awe of the miles that the Secretary has logged in advancing our foreign policy agenda. John Kerry, his compassion, his commitment, his values, and his vision are an honor and a privilege for me to be able to work under and to represent. I had that opportunity in 2004 to be able to talk about that vision, and I got to know a little bit what his passion is, and it's such a tremendous honor to be able to be part of his team.

I also had an opportunity in 2008 to campaign on behalf of President Obama, and to understand his vision of the world, his life story, his experience, and to be able to connect with the way that he has connected with our country and really with the world. And it's such an honor for me that Secretary Kerry and President Obama have placed in me their faith and their trust to take on this very important job.

Denis McDonough, I am so humbled by your presence here today, and by the trust and confidence that you have placed in me and demonstrated over the years, often envisioning for me things that were bigger than what I was envisioning for myself. You are a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. And while the burdens that you are shouldering have grown over the years, you have continued to exhibit wisdom and grace, a generosity of spirit, and a commitment to country that sets an incredibly and impossibly high bar for the rest of us to match.

I also want to take a moment to thank Rob Nabors, who couldn't be here today, but who is the Deputy White House Chief of Staff and who was my staff director when I worked on the Appropriations Committee. His support and his counsel and his friendship have meant so much to me. Denis and Rob are consummate professionals, and they are all about getting the job done, putting the country first, and always, always doing the right thing, even when the right thing is not the easy thing, which it almost never is.

I'm also honored that David Obey was going to be here, and I'm sorry that he was unable to come because he had to take Mrs. Obey to the doctor. But David Obey was one of the most principled and courageous leaders, in my opinion, in the history of the House of Representatives. And it was such a privilege and honor to work with him. And so much of what I have learned about public service, I've learned from David Obey.

I want to thank so many of the colleagues who are here from the Hill, appropriators and authorizers, House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, too many of you to name, but your presence here, this means everything to me.

I know that a lot is said about the lack of bipartisanship and camaraderie, but let me tell you that is not what I experienced. The experience that I had on the Hill is reflective of the people who are here today. It is a spirit of collaboration and camaraderie, and I know that that spirit still exists in all of these wonderful colleagues who are here, and who continue to do the work of the country.

And to all of my colleagues from the Appropriations Committee, let me thank you in advance for that generous increase in funding -- (laughter) -- for South and Central Asia that I know is going to be in the appropriations bill. (Applause.)

Just a word about Nita Lowey, who has meant so much to me, and her staunch advocacy for women and girls. And she, like her home state senator, Hillary Clinton, have always reminded us that women's rights are human rights, and that women need to be at the national security table and not just the kitchen table.

I am so proud to say that under the leader of this Secretary, for the first time, five out of the six regional assistant secretaries of state are women. (Applause.) And I see a number of them in the room today.

For the past few years, I have had the privilege of working for the President at USAID, with the very dynamic leadership of Raj Shah and with an extraordinary team of professionals as we sought to reenergize and revitalize USAID into the world's premier aid agency, and from my own region as we sought to operationalize the President's rebalance to Asia. That experience more than any other has prepared me for the opportunity to help steer our diplomatic engagements in South and Central Asia.

And I also want to acknowledge the extraordinary friends who are reflected in this room today. No person succeeds by themself. They succeed on the shoulders of their friends and colleagues who support them, who counsel them, who advise them through their journey.

And I particularly want to thank the new and longtime friends that are also in the Department of State and across the interagency who have welcomed me and helped me to learn the ropes of the HST. And Pat, it has been just such a tremendous honor for me to be able to come into this building after having worked with you 15 years ago for the first time.

My transition has also been made so much easier by the wonderful team in the Bureau, which I inherited from Bob Blake, my predecessor who set such a high standard. We have an outstanding team of professionals in SCA in our front office, in our embassies, and in our consulates. I have a team of DASes with a diversity of backgrounds, skills, and experiences, such as Richard Hoagland, our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary; Lynne Tracy; Atul Keshap, who I stole away from EAP; Fatema Sumar; and Eileen O'Connor. And our outstanding front office staff, led by Freeman Zhu, Katherine, Gina, and Deborah, who all did such a great job in pulling this event together.

And finally, I want to introduce my family, who has stood by me, encouraged me, put up with long nights, late nights, long absences. First, my husband Subrat, my soul mate, my conscience, my toughest critic, and my strongest supporter. And my daughters, our daughters Safya and Kaya, who remind me every single day why we do what we do, what the stakes are, and why we must strive to do better.

My parents Kanu and Lata Desai and my father and mother-in-law Nilambar and Anu Biswal, and my brother Pinank Desai who's here. My parents and my in-laws lived the classic immigrant experience as they left India in search of opportunity. And in so doing, they fulfilled their dreams and found that their dreams are the American dream, and their experience is the American experience.

From throughout my childhood and throughout my life, I have sought the opportunity to serve my country, the United States of America, in the way that my grandparents, who were freedom fighters in India, served their country and to be part of something that is greater than myself. And that is why I am so honored by the responsibility that has just been invested in me. As the Secretary noted, and as Denis noted, it is indeed a high honor to represent the United States and to lead our engagement with such a vital region that is shaping global politics and economics for the 21st century.

South and Central Asia is a region of extraordinary geographic, linguistic, and cultural diversity. It is a region of great natural beauty and vibrant societies, and as the Secretary noted, it is a region in the midst of great transition. Now most people in the room will immediately think about the very looming transition in Afghanistan, with its elections in 2014 and with the drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces, and indeed that is a critical transition. But it is not the only one.

In fact, there are political transitions in five of the countries of South and Central Asia between this fall and next spring, and many are apprehensive about the elections that lie ahead. But there's also great opportunity in the region as we seek to support an integrated and interconnected landscape of trade and economic opportunity. The rebalance to Asia is fundamentally about the recognition that this continent, including South and Central Asia will play a growing role in global politics, security, and economics in the 21st century, and that the prosperity and security of the United States is vitally linked to the prosperity and security of Asia.

By some estimates, Asia will make up 50 percent of global GDP in the coming decades -- 50 percent of global GDP. It can realize this extraordinary potential only if the countries of the region address the challenges of inadequate governance, pervasive corruption, countering terrorism and violent extremism, advancing human dignity and human rights, promoting sustainable and inclusive growth, and protecting the environment and mitigating global climate change.

With the nascent political transition in Myanmar, there is a historic opportunity to connect the countries of South Asia with the countries of Southeast Asia in an integrated economic landscape. And we see India, already an economic and global power, making key investments in infrastructure to capacitate that connectivity with the economies of ASEAN. Bangladesh, where I was earlier this week, stands to benefit greatly from the establishment of an Indo-Pacific economic corridor if it can conquer the divisive legacy of its past and come together around a democratic political transition in the coming months.

Nepal, which has just concluded historic elections this past week, can look forward to growing its economy and seeing prosperity that has eluded its people during the decades of insurgency and political instability. And in that most prominent of transitions in Afghanistan, we see opportunity for renewed connectivity between the resource and energy-rich countries of Central Asia and the teeming markets of South Asia. From our comprehensive partnership with Kazakhstan and our growing collaboration and important collaboration with Uzbekistan, which is providing important transportation and energy links to Afghanistan, the United States is making clear that our interest and our engagement and our commitment to the region is an enduring one.

Through CASA-1000 we are working to bring 300 megawatts of summer hydropower from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and 1,000 megawatts of power to meet the energy needs of Pakistan. We're partnering with India, Turkmenistan, and others to find new ways to meet the region's growing energy needs and encouraging these efforts by these nations to move towards a more open and integrated trade architecture. And throughout the region, we are partnering with governments and civil society to support the political development of young democracies, such as Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, Maldives, helping to protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities and marginalized communities, supporting reconciliation in post-conflict societies such as Sri Lanka.

As Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asia, I will devote every ounce of my energy towards making sure that we, the United States, the Department of State, and the Bureau for South and Central Asia do everything possible to bridge from the Asia we see today to the Asia that we know is possible tomorrow.

Thank you so much for sharing this momentous day with me. And thank you for all the love, the support, the wisdom, and the counsel that you have provided over the years, and now it's time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. (Applause.)

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