In Conversation With Former US Ambassador Richard Verma On The Future Of Indo-US Relations

India Ink (II): The United States’ pivot towards Asia is said to be one of the key foreign policy initiatives of the Obama administration. You’ve talked about this previously. Do you think that this will continue under the new administration, or will we see a pivot away from Asia instead? What is the role of the India-US relationship in the larger context of South Asia’s geopolitical landscape?

Ambassador Verma (AV): I think there is a difference between some of the campaign rhetoric and what’s happened over the last nine or 10 months.

During the campaign, candidate Trump questioned the utility of some of the alliances in Asia, suggested that maybe another country should have nuclear weapons in Asia and wondered whether we should have a troop presence in Asia. And I think that sent some shockwaves, because, setting aside the pivot to Asia, the US has always been an Asian power. We’ve had 60% of our Navy in Asia.

Richard Verma, the former US Ambassador to India

We’ve been, I would like to believe, a reinforcer of the post-World War II rules-based order. We helped build the institutions, and we helped reinforce them through economic and military needs and through friends and partners. That is why, I think, there was some question about what was going to happen as you rounded the corner into January.

But governing is a different issue. I think you realise that those alliances matter, and those friends and partnerships matter. You see Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson making the rounds across Asia.

The really interesting question is – what role does India play and what role does the US-India tie play? And I think over the last 20 years (actually 25 years), there has been this bipartisan consensus that if the US and India were the closest of friends and partners, then, not only Asia but the world would be a safe place. Why? Because they are giant democracies, governed by the rule of law, resolving disputes peacefully.

I think whatever happens in our domestic policies – this is the architecture and the road that we are on, and one that we want to stay on. The new administration (not new anymore), has deepened its foothold with India on strategic and defence issues, and some of the more comprehensive issues we used to work on – clean energy and international organisations. Some of the economic issues have probably fallen to the second tier. But I’m hopeful that this can continue on an upward trajectory.

This answer is long but I think that this is the issue that we are all trying to define. What is the US’ role in the world? What is the US’ role in Asia? Are we declining? Are we maintaining our role? Are we sharing our role? What is the role of China? I do think that we know the consequences of US withdrawing, which, in my opinion, will be quite severe.

II: Do you think there has been a change in the perceptions about the NDA and UPA government – within political circles and within the public, from an American standpoint? And how has the role of Sushma Swaraj and her hands-on approach as a minister of external affairs played any role in shaping political opinions or perceptions?

AV: I think, when I say there’s been a bipartisan consensus in the US about India, I feel that non-partisanship exists in the relationship on both sides. I don’t want to sound corny, but it has transcended politics because we have this extensive network of people and these shared values. And so the party in power in both in the US and India can pick up on those shared values.

If you’re a Congress party member, you will credit Prime Minister Singh for really reaching out to the US in many ways. If you’re a BJP member, you will credit Prime Minister Modi for really deepening the relationship. And I think that it would be true either way.

Sushma Swaraj has played an instrumental role in developing India-US relations. (Photo by Parveen Negi/India Today Group/Getty Images)

Your specific question about the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj – she’s been remarkably effective as a representative of India abroad. Her use of social media has been fantastic, the relationships that she developed with Secretary Kerry and others have been terrific. I have personally enjoyed working with her.

 II: There has been a lot of discussion about President Trump and Prime Minister Modi having similar leadership styles. How true do you think this is, especially in their approaches to foreign policy? Could this have implications on the US-India relationship?

AV: It’s a hard question for me to answer because I don’t really know President Trump. But, I did have the privilege of working with Prime Minister Modi and President Obama, and I saw that relationship up close. I saw two leaders who were really committed to elevating their people – really focussed on economic development, really interested in the use of technology and how that could change people’s position in life. In other words, can you use technology to lift people up quicker than you might otherwise?

I had a terrific working relationship with the Prime Minister – and so, all I can really speak about is that relationship. And then, I saw the President and the two Secretaries of State – Secretary Kerry and Secretary Clinton, who were extremely committed to the US-India relationship, which was really fun for me.

II: The Paris Agreement was, perhaps, the first open disagreement between India and the current US administration. With climate change quickly becoming one of the biggest international issues, will the inability to reach a consensus on climate change affect the relationship between the US and India, and have implications for the cooperation on other issues such as energy and technology?

AV: Yes, I think it was a huge mistake to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. When I think of Obama’s and Modi’s signature achievements, the Paris Agreement is right at the top of the list. If you were to ask President Obama, I think he would tell you that we would not have gotten to the Paris Agreement, but for India’s leadership – because there were other countries who followed India. South Africa, Brazil and a lot of emerging powers were looking to see what India was going to do.

And look, the future is in clean and renewable energy. The future is in fighting climate change. The future is in trying to keep our planet safe and secure from the effects of climate change. Leaders around the world understood that – and obviously, they were acting in their own self-interest to protect their population and their own economies. But they couldn’t do it on their own, and so. they came together through this global pact.

Was Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement a grave mistake, after all? (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

I just wish the White House would have appreciated that every country pursued their own targets. This was not the binding treaty of the olden days. This was very much consistent with countries pursuing their own individual goals. If anything, it’s going to set the US back and push India forward.

II: Both India and the US have begun to look inward and are focusing on domestic manufacturing and industries. Do you see a potential trade conflict arising over the competing interests of the “Make in India” campaign and the “Buy American, Hire American” policy, or can both these policies be achieved in a complementary manner?

AV: I think, at the core of this argument, for both sides, is that you want to create jobs in your own country. We need to do that in the US, and India needs to do it at a much higher level in terms of scale.

The question is – how do you do it? We really believed that compelling it through law or mandates or through market restrictions was not the right way – and that you have to let the market operate. Obviously, you have to protect your population from economic shock and too much disruption, but the market had a way of figuring out where there were economies of scale, where the talent pool existed and where you could produce things efficiently. Our argument was that if you had a fair, free and open market, then you could find trade collaboration, which was actually a win-win for both countries.

I’ll give you an example – a US motor company can’t necessarily build the kind of car in the US that it wants to sell or export in India or across Asia. But if you were to open a facility in India (for example), sell it there and export that car to other parts of Asia, while doing other aspects of the supply chain (the design, the marketing) in the US – that is a net win, and you capture additional market share and you sell more cars at the end of the day. That’s good for the workers here, the workers there and for the shareholders. That is the kind of story we need to tell.

It shouldn’t be ‘make it here’ or ‘make it there’ – you have to be able to do both. And we have seen that story. We have seen Indian companies investing in the US pretty significantly, as well.

II: Recently, Trump announced proposed policies for immigration, making skill-based immigration possible – but making it very difficult (or impossible) for family-based immigration to take place. This means that highly-skilled and educated immigrants are likely to face fewer issues as compared to green-card holders and dependents who wish to obtain green cards. What are your thoughts on this change and its implications for India? Do you see this affecting the diaspora’s perception of this administration?

 AV: We are immigrants to this country. My parents came over in the ’60s. They were very proud of their Indian roots, but also proud to both become naturalised American citizens.

I think they are perfect examples of why this country is what it is. It’s a diverse group of people from all over the world, who have come together basically wanting a better future and opportunity for their kids. Essentially, that was the deal – and if we lose that vision of what America is, then I think that’ll set us back, and I think we will lose out to other countries across the world.

On the issue of skill-based visas – take for example, the H1-B visa. The US Embassy in India probably issued 1.1 million visas last year, and about 60,000 were H1-B visas – so we have to keep that in perspective as well. This is a very small group of people that are coming over.

Do they need to reform? Probably. Do we need to look at the impact lower-wage workers are having on American jobs? I think that has to be taken into consideration. The political impact, the social impact – all of that has to be factored in. But we can’t throw out the entire underpinning of why we do this. If you really want to make America great, you live up to our traditions and values, which is to continue to make this a land of immigrants – and that’s you can how make it stronger, in my view.

II: It can be said that individual-level ties between the US and India are much stronger than state-level ties, primarily because of the strength and involvement of the diaspora. Do you believe that these ties can help find solutions to the more intractable issues between the two countries? Have you seen signs of this already?

AV: Yes. Yes. The short answer is yes. There is something really powerful about having 4 million Americans of South Asian, or Indian descent. That’s just a natural bridge.

When governments get stuck – and we often do – these folks are not stuck. They are trading, collaborating, doing joint research, studying together, and their family members are traveling. And it’s not like this is the case with every other country. We have something unique between the Indian and the American people – and we shouldn’t underestimate that.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of our great thinkers and philosophers have been influenced by each other, over hundreds of years. That’s a great thing. So, governments are going to get stuck, and political leaders (in this climate in the US) will get stuck, but people don’t get stuck. People have incentives to continue their friendships, their business relationships, and their bonds – and so at the end of the day, they are the real drivers of the relationship.

There are striking similarities between Modi and Trump. Whether this bodes well for both the nations remains to be seen. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

II: You’ve had a long and distinguished career in the foreign service. Are you interested in returning to a more active role in politics and diplomacy?

AV: Hmm, that’s a good question. I just finished unpacking, so the thought of jumping back into it… [laughs]

But clearly, my heart is in the public sector, driven by public service – and I will definitely plan to stay engaged. I think that in this era more than ever, it’s important to have your voice heard. If you see conduct or language that you find contrary to, not just democratic or republican values, but also American values – then, I think it’s time to speak up.

Again, as an immigrant, I feel a special obligation to the people who have come to this country and are perhaps struggling. I want to make sure that their voices are heard. I think that sometimes, there’s a risk that as we climb up the ladder in America, we pull the ladder up, and don’t help others up the ladder. I think that’s one message I try to leave with younger people – we’ve got to pull each other up.

The only reason my parents were successful, and our family was able to persevere, was because of their hard work – and because of a lot of friends (teachers, coaches, neighbors and mentors) helped us along the way. So, I think that’s another way to stay in the public for me.

You don’t always have to be ambassadors, Secretaries of State or members of Congress – but you can have an impact in a lot of other ways. I’ll definitely try to do that.

II: How is life post being an ambassador? How does it feel to not serve in that position anymore?

AV: Life’s been great. Personally, we had a great tour professionally. I’ve learned so much, and was so warmly welcomed. I will always have such fond memories of it.

And now it’s time for someone else to serve. Elections have consequences and they deserve a chance, too – so, we’ll see what happens.

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