EXCLUSIVE: In conversation with Ambassador Richard Verma, former United States Ambassador to India
India Ink: The U.S.’s 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?
Amb. Verma: I think there is a difference between some of the campaign rhetoric and what’s happened over the last 9 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. 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 realize 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 US-India play? And I think over the last 20 years, really 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, that 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 defense issues and some of the more comprehensive issues we used to work on - clean energy, international organizations. 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 withdrawal which, in my opinion, would be quite severe.
India Ink: Do you think there has been a change in perception 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?
Amb. Verma: I think, when I say there’s been a bipartisan consensus in the US about India I feel like 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 United States in many ways. If you’re a BJP member you credit Prime Minister Modi for really deepening the relationship. And I think that would be true either way. 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, her relationships that she developed with Secretary Kerry and others have been terrific. I have personally enjoyed working with her.
India Ink: 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 approach to foreign policy? Could this have implications on the US-India relationship?
Amb. Verma: 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 quicker than you might otherwise? I had a terrific working relationship with the Prime Minister and so all I can really speak to is that relationship. And then I saw the President and two Secretaries of State - Secretary Kerry and Secretary Clinton, who were extremely committed to the US- India relationship, which was really fun for me.
India Ink: 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 cooperation on other issues such as energy and technology?
Amb. Verma: 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 was 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 lots 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. 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 United States back and push India forward.
India Ink: Both India and the US have begun to look inward and focus on domestic manufacturing and industry. 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?
Amb. Verma: I think, at the core of this argument, for both side, 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? And 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 and free and open market, then you could find trade collaboration that 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 and export that car to other parts of Asia and sell it in India, but do 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 workers here, for 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 United States pretty significantly as well.
India Ink: 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?
Amb. Verma: We are immigrants to this country. My parents came over in the 60s, very proud of their Indian roots but also proud to both become naturalized 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 H1-B. 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 their 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, that’s how to make it stronger… that’s my view.
India Ink: It can be said that individual-level ties between the United States 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?
Amb. Verma: Yes. Yes. The short answer is yes. There is something really powerful about having 4 million Americans of South Asian, or Indian descent, and 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, their family members are traveling. And it’s not like that with every other country. We have something unique between Indian people 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 and that’s a great thing and 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.
India Ink: 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?
Amb. Verma: 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 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 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 maybe are struggling, and I want to make sure that their voice is heard. I think sometimes there’s a risk that as we climb up the ladder in America, we pull the ladder up and we don't help others up the ladder and I think that 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 that 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.
India Ink: How is life post being an Ambassador? How does it feel to not serve in that position anymore?
Amb. Verma: Life’s been great. We had a great tour professionally, personally. I’ve learned so much and was so warmly welcomed and 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.