Americans are welcome, but when will you send your president to Nepal?

Why has not a single sitting US president visited Nepal in 75 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries? Why should the US remain an exception while most other countries have sent their state or government heads to Kathmandu at one or other time?

King Birendra with US President Ronald Reagan during his state visit to the US in 1983. Photo: US Embassy Nepal

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 7 min.

Whenever American officials–top or moderate ranking–land in Kathmandu, it becomes news in Nepal, China and, to some extent, even India: What they came for, who they met, what was discussed, what are the implications of the visit and so on. Probably because Nepal lies in a geostrategic location in South Asia the visit by the Chinese and the American officials to Kathmandu raises curiosities and concerns in  Kathmandu and eyebrows in the capitals of the world’s superpowers.

Nepali officials, including the ministers and prime ministers–sitting as well as former–give them unrestricted access and good hospitality, probably to make them feel welcomed and special. 

The most recent stopover of the US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu was no different. Within a day, Lu met with whoever he had to meet–Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, former prime ministers KP Sharma Oli and Sher Bahadur Deuba, foreign minister NP Saud and so on.  All appeared to give him the warmest welcome. One could read this in Lu’s countenance. Nepali politicians and bureaucrats have accorded similar importance to visits by nearly all American officials.

Assistant Secretary Donald Lu (right) with former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba during his Kathmandu trip in July, 2023. 

State Department officials’ visits to Kathmandu are more frequent in recent years than in the past. Lu’s was his second trip to Kathmandu within one and half years; several other American officials came here prior to him. 

As Nepal-US diplomatic relations reached 75 years of age last year, Americans are giving the impression that they care for Nepal more than in the past.  They have also reiterated their concern about the sovereignty and independence of Nepal (for how America supported Nepal’s sovereignty read my article ‘Tracking the trajectory of Nepal-US relations’).

On Nepal’s part, politicians project their trip to the US–official or unofficial–as a status symbol. As most politicians, bureaucrats and security officials here in Nepal have their children pursuing higher studies in the US, regular trips to the US also become their family matters.  Nearly every sitting Nepali Prime Minister makes a trip to New York  to participate in the United Nations General Assembly meetings and uses the occasion to meet the US president to take photos with him, even exchange brief talks on the sidelines. 

To sum up, more and more Nepalis–from the top politicians to bureaucrats to security officials to the commoners–go to the US probably more now than in the past–thanks also to the growing size of the Nepali diaspora in the US. No wonder, the US is also referred to as Nepal’s third neighbor, Aakashko Chhimeki (distance neighbor) in Nepali parlance.

One-way traffic 

But there is a conspicuous miss and mismatch here if you consider the number of official or state visits from the heads of governments and states of the two countries. 

Since the diplomatic relations were established between Nepal and the US in 1947, there have been a number of state and official visits to the US from Nepali side. King Mahendra made two visits–one state and other official–in 1960 and 1967 respectively. King Birendra paid a state visit to the US in 1983. It is intriguing that for the next 19 years,  no Nepali government head would go to the US on an official trip. The last Nepali prime minister to go on an official trip to the US was Sher Bahadur Deuba in 2002.  Other PMs’ US visits are limited to their participation in the UN general assemblies–thanks to the spectacle again, Nepalis perceive Nepali PM’s participation in UNGA as their official trip. The photos with the US president helps  establish this perception.

Two decades of absence of official visits by the Nepali head of government was almost going to be broken last year in July.  It was reported then that the US had invited Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba for an official visit. The context was the 75 years of Nepal-US ties, and the ratification of the much-debated MCC’s Nepal Compact by the federal parliament, for which Deuba had provided his steadfast support. But the proposed trip never materialized. Speculations were that the Oval Office dropped the idea after the government led by Deuba took the decision not to go ahead with the State Partnership Program (SSP), considering the perceived security implications it would have for the Himalayan nation. 

Who came to Nepal in the last 75 years from the US? You have only few big names to name: Vice-president Spiro Agnew in 1970, former president Jimmy carter and his wife in 1985 (on a vacation trip), Hillary Clinton in 1995 while she was touring South Asia as the first lady, Colin Powell, Secretary of State, in 2002 and Jimmy Carter in 2007 and 2008 as former president and founder of the Carter Center.  

Former US Vice-president Spiro Agnew (left) greeted by then Nepal Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista (right) at the Tribhuvan International Airport during the former’s official visit to Nepal in 1970. Photo courtesy: US Embassy Nepal.

Save this, most officials to come to Nepal have been either assistant secretaries or deputy assistant-secretaries. 

In the 75 years long history of the Nepal-US relations, while Nepali heads of state and government have taken the official trip to Washington a number of times, not a single sitting American president has come to Kathmandu.

This one-way traffic, or the absence of reciprocity, has created an unwelcome gap in the Nepal-US ties.

Contrast this with the history of presidential and prime ministerial visits to Nepal from Nepal’s neighbors and other friendly countries. Nepal hosted Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1957 and 1960, Deng Xiaoping in 1978 (as a vice premier), Zhou Ziyang in 1981 (as vice premier) President Li Xiannian in 1984, Premier Li Peng in 1989, President Jiang Zemin in 1996, Premier Zhu Rongji in 2001, Premier Wen Jiabao in January 2012 and President Xi Jinping in October 2019. High level exchanges with India are probably more regular and more frequent than with any other countries in the world. 

Nepal hosted Queen Elizabeth in 1961, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1987 and German President Roman Herzog in 1996. Missing in this big list is the president of the US. Probably because no sitting American president has ever set foot in Nepal, some think Nepal is part of India  and mispronounce Nepal as nipple

Remaking history 

It’s no brainer that the US president is among the busiest heads of states in the world and it requires a lot of homework from both sides to plan for and materialize the president’s visit to Nepal.   There are issues of security, and agendas and priorities to show. Ambassadors have to work really hard to make high-level visits possible. Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, who was the Nepali ambassador to the US in 1983, recalls how (with wisdom and diplomacy) he worked to materialize the state visit of King Birendra to the US(Nepalko Kutnitik Abhyas, Institute of Foreign Affairs, P 168-170).

When ambassadorship becomes something of a reward a political party pays to an individual for his/her party affiliation (most ambassadors are appointed on the basis of political affiliation rather than merits in Nepal), and also involves exchange of kickbacks, we can imagine what they would do after being appointed. There is no way of knowing if any sitting US ambassador in Kathmandu ever thought about bringing their president to Nepal, or even considered it a worthwhile initiative. If they have not, our ambassador based in Washington and the US ambassador based in Kathmandu have ignored a matter of huge significance in the Nepal-US ties.

Admittedly, here is a catch in Nepal. Nepal’s government instability is a distinct phenomena–the Prime Minister who meets the president today may not be the PM six months down the line. And with weak institutional memory the new one might not follow up the agenda pushed by his predecessor.  Again, there is a label that each PM comes to be tagged with–so and so man is pro-China or anti-US and so on. 

Needless to say, relations between the two countries are not only about the presidential visits and exchanges and it should not be only about this either. But,again, not every such visit has to be loaded with hard agendas. Such visits can also be made to show a good will, a sincere friendly gesture, and to display the closeness of relations. Such visits show how importantly one country treats the other and their friendship and mutual respect for each other is not limited to diplomatic rhetoric. 

When the US sends only assistant secretaries and deputy secretaries to Nepal like it has been doing for the last two decades, the claim that the US attaches immense importance to Nepal sounds like mere rhetoric. 

It would not be impossible to materialize the US president’s visit to Nepal if the officials in Kathmandu and Washington really want to make it happen. There is no reason for any sitting US president to skip a trip to Nepal–the country that lies between more resourceful, stronger and geopolitically influential neighbors in Asia. Nepal is probably the friendliest country for the US in South Asia which, despite some unwanted aberrations, has strived to cultivate the best of the relations with the US, India and China, carefully guarding itself against falling into the self-damaging geopolitical trap that the US and China have set for each other. 

Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ will probably meet US President Biden in the UN General Assembly in September this year and will probably take a photo with him. He may (or may not) extend invitations–former secretaries I talked to said Nepal has not failed on extending official invitations to the US presidents.  When the US sends only assistant secretaries and deputy secretaries to Nepal, like it has been doing for the last two decades, the claim that the US attaches immense importance to Nepal sounds like mere rhetoric. It rebuilds the perception that the US still looks into Nepal through someone else’s lens, rather than through its own independent policy on Nepal. 

Then US ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry and then Nepal Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba inaugurating a program to mark 75 years of Nepal-US relations in April, 2022. ‘America’s sovereignty will be stronger if Nepal’s sovereignty is strong and resolute,’ Berry said. Photo: US embassy, Kathmandu.

While addressing a program to mark the 75th year of Nepal-US diplomatic relations in Kathmandu in April 2022,  Randy Berry, the then US envoy to Nepal, made some glowing remarks about the Nepal-US ties: “We recognize that America is stronger when Nepal is stronger, that Americans are healthier when Nepalis are healthier, that America’s sovereignty will be stronger if Nepal’s sovereignty is strong and resolute.” Indicating that there would be more engagement with Nepal he said “the best is yet to come.” 

That ‘best’ can come in the form of breaking the record of no sitting president visiting Nepal. Every sitting US president makes an official trip to New Delhi every four years. Joe Biden is reportedly going to come to New Delhi in September this year to participate in the G20 Leaders Summit

One goodwill trip to Kathmandu would make new history in Nepal-US relations.