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A Conversation on U.S.-India Relations with Ambassador Richard Verma

The Honorable Rich Verma, the U.S. ambassador to India from 2015 to 2017 and the first Indian-American to hold that position, knows the U.S.-India relationship up close and personal. Ambassador Verma will provide his perspective on the opportunities and challenges involved in making the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies one of its strongest and most important partnerships.

Date & Time

Dec. 7, 2017
11:00am – 12:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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The Honorable Rich Verma, the U.S. ambassador to India from 2015 to 2017 and the first Indian-American to hold that position, knows the U.S.-India relationship up close and personal.  A stronger U.S.-India partnership is one of the few issues on which the Trump administration, the Obama administration, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress appear to have agreed. However, implementing this consensus will require facing a series of strategic and economic challenges. Ambassador Verma will provide his perspective on the opportunities and challenges involved in making the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies one of its strongest and most important partnerships.


“A Shared Journey: The US/India Partnership”  

Richard R. Verma

The Wilson Center, Washington DC

December 7, 2017

Thank you Wilson Center

            Let me thank the Wilson Center for this generous invitation to be here today – an invitation that has been pending for well over a year.  I was scheduled to be here last September 2016, but for a certain cross border cross border surgical strike, I was asked to return to Delhi immediately.  I was supposed to meet with Senator Corker and do the Wilson Center remarks on the same morning – so needless to say, that was a chaotic 24 hour period, and good insight into the complexities of the region, a new-found demonstration of Indian strength, and of course, the complexities of serving as the US Ambassador to India as I tried to be in two capitals on the same day!

            So, fast forward to today, and let me also say how grateful I am to Ray Vickery and Michael Kugelman for sticking with me over these many months and allowing me this special opportunity.   One big difference is that I don’t have carefully scripted remarks, with each word cleared by each agency of the USG….so I’m operating without a safety net here.  What could possibly go wrong? 

The Wilson Center has always been a leading center for scholars and public policy practitioners to come together.   Your work on South Asia, in particular, has been outstanding.  I read it while serving as Ambassador and I read it today.  In government, you move from one crisis to another, and you don’t always have the time or distance to look ahead or do the deep dive of critical issues of concern – you have been doing that here for years.  Thank you for all you have contributed.  It has meant a lot. 

On a personal note, let me say that I’ve known Ray for over 15 years.  He has become a close friend.  An incredibly wise and dedicated lawyer, advocate and strategist for deeper ties with India.  His work on the nuclear deal, his writings, including his excellent book on US/India ties, have added so much and helped us reach a deeper understanding on some really complex issues. 

And to Michael – I should note special appreciation to Michael’s spouse, known in our house as “Miss Kugelman” and who was my daughter Zoe’s pre-school teacher.  What a patient and talented teacher.  I remember that pre-school class well, and Miss Kugelman deserves a medal for her patience and fortitude with those three-year old “angels”.  But seriously, Michael, thank you for your leadership on all things South Asia – your regular travel to difficult regions, insights, tweets, blogs, articles and scholarly publications are at the top of the game.  Keep up the great work. 

A Steady Evolution in Ties

            For any of you that have visited Roosevelt House, the home of the US Ambassador in New Delhi, what you will find (besides noticing that it is a mini-replica of the Kennedy Center) are the photos of US Presidents since Truman, meeting with various Indian leaders over the decades.  There is Eisenhower addressing the US Embassy staff and parliament; Kennedy hosting PM Nehru for a state visit; President Clinton wading through large crowds; President George H. W Bush, who forged landmark deals on energy and defense, at the Presidential Palace; and President Obama at the historic Republic Day parade and Bhangra dancing with school children in Mumbai. 

            President Obama would often remind us that when we are in public office, we are vested with responsibilities to be careful stewards for our part of the journey.  We should stay focused and tend to our parts of the long stream of history.  Our mission is to ensure we hand off the challenges before us in slightly better shape, with stronger bonds and an appreciation that our time was important – but only one part of that longer journey.   And I as look at the relationship, since India’s independence, and as I reflect on those photos on the wall in Roosevelt House, that’s exactly what one will find: each President, Prime Minister, Ambassador, and tens of thousands of career professionals in Delhi and DC doing their part to make the journey together stronger, more peaceful, more impactful and more just. 

            Of course, it certainly helps when we share between us common values and a common vision of where we want to go together and what kinds of societies we wish to build.  Yes, the worlds’ two largest constitutional democracies are unique.  President Eisenhower, when speaking before the Indian parliament in 1959, put it this way:

“We Americans have, with you, a special community of interest. You and we from our first days have sought, by national policy, the expansion of democracy. You and we, peoples of many strains and races speaking many languages, worshipping in many ways, have each achieved national strength out of diversity. And you and we never boast that ours is the only way. We are conscious of our weaknesses and our failings. We both seek the improvement and betterment of all our citizens by assuring that the state will serve, not master, its own.” 

Shared values and a shared vision – they are not clichés, but cornerstones of what holds us together.  As a result, the bonds in our partnership transcend persons, politics and parties; they speak to a larger vision that drives the aspirations of our two populations.  Our people want to live by the rule of law, with limited government, civilian control, fair and free elections, and peaceful dispute resolution.  While we have taken different pathways over these 70 years since India’s independence, and played different roles globally, we were held together with these shared values even through the toughest of times. 

The Obama Years

            It’s often hard to reflect on recent history, but if one were to examine the Obama portion of the US/India journey, what were its hallmarks and what was the trajectory?  Well, there was certainly no need to impress upon the President and his team the importance of India.  From his personal connections – as he describes his two South Asian college roommates and his ability to make dal and keema – to his knowledge of the increasingly important role India was going to play to safeguard peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, President Obama was an early champion of furthering US/India ties. 

            His commitment to India was grounded in a recognition that the 21st Century was going to be an Asian century.  The facts bear that out in every respect.  Asian economies, including India, continue to post the highest growth rates in the world.  In purchasing power parity terms, China became the world’s largest economy, and India the third.  In just two years, the Asian middle class will jump to 1.75 billion, a tripling in just over 10 years.  Asia will have the most mega-cities, as well as the greatest rates of urbanization and digital connectivity.  It will boast some of the world’s largest militaries and include a dramatic march toward the deployment of clean and renewable energies.  Indeed, those waiting for the Asia story to develop have missed out on transformational change – Asia has risen. 

            A similar dynamic and transformation has taken place across India.  The time to be focused on India is not in 2030, when it will have the largest population, or 2050, when it will have the third largest economy and military.  The time is now.  And that was President Obama’s view.  If you were a US investor, and you sat out the last 10 years, for example, waiting to see how things would transpire in India – you would have missed $15 billion in defense trade, a quintupling of two-way trade, a dramatic increase in US companies operating in India, and massive moves to bolster infrastructure, connectivity and education.  You would have missed the growth of the world’s largest middle class, the lifting of millions out of poverty, the development of new markets and technologies, and the birth of new hopes for tens of millions.  India was on the move, and we wanted to be a close partner in its journey. 

I don’t intend to go through every initiative or program, but let me try to encapsulate the gains and areas of emphasis in four major areas:

(1)         First, there was a deepening of strategic and defense ties to advance a rules-based global order. This deepening was not based solely on counter-balancing the rise of China.  On the contrary, both nations have incredibly intertwined and economically interdependent relationships with China.  Rather, our strategic focus was about something bigger – it was about reinforcing the post-World War II order built on rules, norms and institutions; it was also about ensuring India remained a provider of net security in the Indo-Pacific; it was about ensuring India had a role in international institutions commensurate with its place in this century, not the last; and it was about setting forth a vision for peace and prosperity across the Indo-Pacific.  We didn’t need to be treaty allies or do joint patrols for this reinforcement to occur.  The positive ripple effects from our values based and deepening strategic partnership were clear and sent a strong signal to those who sought to upend the international order or rollback democratic progress.  It was an important evolution to move our strategic relationship beyond the transactional to a place where we were openly and jointly expressing our shared and joint vision for a more peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific.  We also were quite clear that it was in our collective strategic interests for India to be strong and prosperous. Prime Minister Modi reminded members of Congress of that in his joint address in the summer of 2016.  This kind of “strategic benevolence,” as our friend Ashley Telis calls it, was exactly what was required – by supporting a friend like India, there were collective benefits to our shared security interests.     

(2)         Second, there was a decisive move to make our economic relationship as co-equal in importance to our strategic relationship.  The impetus for this came from the sheer scale of our growing economic ties, the importance of demonstrating to our two peoples that there were tangible economic benefits to our friendship, and more fundamentally, we needed each other’s economies to grow and prosper for the welfare of our populations and for the overall stability of global markets.  On this last point, think back to the economic crisis of 2008, and consider which two nations helped, slowly and steadily, lead the world back off the brink – that would be the United States and India.  The fact is, we need India to succeed not just militarily, but economically as well.  It’s why we launched the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue, and moved to support India in its landmark campaigns for smart cities, digital connectivity, Clean India, and many others.  The fact is the strategic and the economic became very much intertwined – it made no sense to surge strategically, but continue to be held back in our economic ties – one certainly impacted the other, and we were proud of the significant gains in these areas.   To be clear, we fought hard for US interests and the Indian side fought for its priorities, and every day wasn’t always easy, but that’s what increasingly close friends do – they advocate for their interests, but they can also see ahead to the larger gains of our cooperation.  Along the way, hundreds of thousands of new jobs were created through our two-way trade and investments and the blossoming of more robust business to business ties.

(3)         Third, we broadened the agenda and worked together bilaterally and internationally in ways that we had never done before.  We forged new agreements, for instance, on cyber security, on space cooperation, on global health, on the training of peacekeepers, on agricultural support in Africa and Afghanistan, and perhaps top among the list – we worked together closely, intensely and productively on climate change and clean energy.  For too long, India was viewed by the West as the spoiler in international climate negotiations.  That view obviously changed, and if you were to ask President Obama today – and he reiterated as much last week – the real reason we got to a comprehensive pact in Paris was because of India’s leadership, in doing something difficult politically, and in helping to bring along other developing nations.  And it wasn’t just Paris.  While we were hammering out the details on Paris, we forged agreements on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), we jointly announced the solar alliance, and launched numerous new efforts to help India meet its historic renewable energy targets.  

(4)         Finally, we put a renewed focus on and never lost sight of the key drivers of the relationship – and that was at the individual level – the student, the businessperson, the traveler, the auntie and uncle visiting relatives, the entrepreneur forging a new invention, or those on the margins needing a helping hand.  After all, governments are inherently limited – at the end of the day, we can block and tackle to create the openings for the people who aspire to drive our two countries forward.  I’m glad to report that over the past 8 years there were dramatic gains in the number of Indians visiting the US and Americans visiting India; the number of exchange students climbed to the highest ever; we pledged to open new consulates; we launched countless new programs to support innovators in clean energy, science and health care.  There’s been no bigger indicator of that success – and of the hand-off from one presidency to another – than the Global Entrepreneurship Summit held in Hyderabad last week to much acclaim.  Recall, the work on this Summit began in 2015, when teams from the White House and Commerce and State Departments came to India to discuss the concept with their Indian counterparts.  It was then jointly agreed to in the Prime Minister’s visit to the US in 2016, and then followed through over the past year by the Trump administration.  This is how the system is supposed to work – continuing support for the up and coming young innovators, across Administrations and parties.  This is how the stream runs its course along the tide of history. 

Where Do We Go From Here

            So, I’m very proud of the Obama years, and grateful we could build on the good work that was done in the decades prior.  As I was recounting these areas of accomplishments and emphasis, the intent was not to take a victory lap or to convey that everything was perfect on every day.  We are big, complex, noisy democracies with the push and pull that comes from domestic and geo-politics.  This can sometimes cause us to come head to head.  But even when we did – we talked, we argued and we had respect and understanding for each other’s positions.  This is what friends and close partners do.  We also left a lot on the table – simply too much to get done in any one president’s term in office.  So, if I was maestro for a day, and I could suggest some areas where we should focus the relationship, let me list these three: 

First, I would like to see us fully build out the concept of what it means to be a Major Defense Partner.  Recall this was a special designation for India announced in 2016 during PM Modi’s address to Congress, where India was given an elevated and truly unique status in terms of defense trade with India.  The fundamental premise was that India would be treated as the closest friend and ally for purposes of technology transfer.  We need to follow through on any export control reform matters that prevent this vision from becoming a reality, but I’d like to see even bigger advancements under this rubric. 

I think it’s time to enshrine as a matter of US policy that it’s in our collective security interests to ensure India has the capabilities it needs to prevail in contested domains – whether that be on land, air or sea.  We do this with our friends from Israel, who are guaranteed a “qualitative military edge.”  I think it’s time we did the same for India.  This would, of course, require some reciprocal obligations from India – sharing of information, signing of foundational agreements, undertaking greater burden sharing.  But nothing I’m suggesting would be in violation of India’s concerns about sovereignty – in fact, what I’m suggesting would empower India as a lead actor across the Indo-Pacific and help take our security partnership to the next level. 

In addition, in the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, I do think it’s time to launch a new, large signature program that binds our two industries and bureaucracies together for years to come.  In the closing months of the Obama Administration, we put two big ideas on the table – a future ground combat vehicle and a new advanced vertical lift helicopter.  Both would be outstanding projects to pursue, as would a partnership to build India’s next aircraft carrier.  Whatever the project is, I think it’s time to go big and I’m confident we can get there. 

The second area in which I would welcome some comprehensive movement is in building the economic linkages and trade architecture between our two nations.  Yes, we have made good progress over the past 10 years, including a five-fold increase in two-way trade.  But some of the big surges in our trade numbers have given way to an incrementalism in recent years.  For example, we have increased our trade about $4 billion each year over the past three years.  While we should be happy about the increase, if we stick to this pace, it will take us nearly a century to make the ambitious, but appropriate goal of $500 billion in two-way trade.  I don’t want to wait that long. 

In the meantime, India has been out negotiating and renegotiating trade agreements with Japan, Korea, Canada, ASEAN, the EU, and several other nations.  These range from comprehensive trade agreements to bilateral investment treaties.  Whatever form it takes, we need to put something back on the table to further merge, link and harmonize our two economies.  The goal should be increased investments, market access, trade, the building of robust innovation ecosystems and most importantly job creation – the component that both our countries need the most. 

Let’s not forget, India has choices too – and we should not presume that we will always be the most favored or largest trading partner.  This is something that we have to work at, and it will require the full array of our government agencies and subject matter experts. We need to fully back our diplomats, development experts and civilians from across the agencies that do such important work abroad.  The cuts to the State Department and its budget, along with the civilian hiring freeze, are self-inflicted wounds that will harm our ability over the long-term to compete across Asia, including in India.

The final area I would mention – and I would note there is so much we can talk about – it’s hard to limit this to three focus areas in the future – but we can’t ignore our collective commitment to support the dreams, aspirations and rights of those who may be on the margins or who may feel themselves voiceless in today’s politics.  And, here, let me direct my comments to my friends and colleagues on the US side.  I’m a firm believer in what President Obama has reminded us that the global trend lines are for more just, more humane, more open, inclusive, peaceful and tolerant societies.  But he also notes that this progress will not move in a straight line, it will zig and zag, and sometimes go backwards and sideways. 

Well, we are clearly in a bit of a sideways moment now, as the US does not feel or look like a more tolerant or inclusive place today, and I do think this can have an impact on the broader US/India relationship if we are not careful.  I’ve spoken often and proudly about the journey of my family, and my parents in particular.  From partition, to resettlement, education, and finally immigration to the United States in search of a better life for their kids.  They struggled, they encountered discrimination and doubts, and yes, life was hard.  But over time, they were also welcomed and they both became naturalized citizens, contributing so much to their community as educators, as active citizens, who were so proud of their Indian roots, but also proud, patriotic and productive Americans as well.  And that is the American dream and the compact upon which our country was built.  It’s what has made us that beacon on the hill for tens of millions of people from around the world for over two centuries – it is why we have thrived. 

The vitriol that’s been unleashed today, the racial slurs, the blame and targeting of immigrants, and doubts cast upon certain minority groups sets back our march toward a more inclusive, humane and just society.  There are some 4 million Indian Americans and South Asians that have come to this country and are working so hard.  Not all are hedge fund managers, or tech company CEOs, or doctors or lawyers – many are on the margins, many do feel scared in this current climate, and if we care about the long-term health of the relationship, we do need to stand up for them, to represent their voices too.  This is not a time to be silent, quiet, or complacent – if you care about the US/India partnership and taking it to the next level, then let us not forget about these individuals and their quest for social justice and inclusion.  They will continue to always have my support, as I am one of them. 


There are some headwinds to be sure, and our own decisions, for example, to exit the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership, and to dramatically shrink the size of our civilian agencies operating abroad, has impacted our standing in influence in Asia and beyond.  Despite these headwinds, let me make clear that the underlying foundations of the relationship remain strong – the bipartisan consensus remains intact and US/India ties have not only have weathered this time of global uncertainty, but also continue serve as a source of great stability.  New initiatives like the quad, the 2+2 dialogue, and an updated South Asia strategy bode well for the year ahead. 

Let me say that my experience in India left me so heartened and positive about our two countries’ future together, and the collective vision they represent and are working to realize.  Look at our troops operating in the numerous exercises they do and the way they seek to promote peace together; look at our medical researchers trying to stamp out TB and malaria; look at our scientists trying to push us further to the outer reaches of our solar system; look at our filmmakers and artists and musicians deepening our cultural ties with the stories they tell; and look at our innovators and entrepreneurs making life just a little better, easier, safer, greener and healthier for tens of millions.  This is the promise of our partnership, and so much more.  I was proud to be a part of this collective journey over the past few years, grateful to have served with such outstanding public servants in both of our governments and I’m excited by where this journey will take us tomorrow and into the future. 

Thank you again to the Wilson Center and to my friends Ray and Michael.  I look forward to your questions.


Richard Verma

Vice Chairman, The Asia Group, and former U.S. Ambassador to India

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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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