Talk on the future of U.S./India relations caps India symposium

A daylong symposium highlighting Penn research in India wrapped up with a keynote conversation between the Lauder Institute’s Jim McGann and former U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma.

Two people sit on stage in grey chairs with a small table between them, with a vase of purple and red flowers.
Jim McGann, left, director of Penn’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program and a Fels senior fellow, moderates a conversation with Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma at the Perry World House during Penn Global’s India Research Symposium. (Photo: Vikas Shankarathota)

The third annual Penn India Research Symposium wrapped up with a keynote conversation between Penn’s Jim McGann and Richard Verma, the former United States ambassador to India.

The wide-ranging discussion held at Penn’s Perry World House hit on foreign affairs, relations between the U.S. and India, and the challenges both nations face, from climate change to income inequality.

The talk capped the daylong event that Penn Global hosts to highlight the University’s work in and on India. The symposium fosters dialogue among departments to showcase projects across campus that are funded by the Penn India Research and Engagement Fund (Penn IREF). Sixteen teams presented ongoing research in and on India. The subject matter ranged from economics and technology to public health initiatives and social sciences, with topics like “Reversing the Digital Divide: Digital Banking in Rural India” and “Packaging Hinduism for Global Consumption.”

“I think often there is a sense of what the U.S. can bring to India. I’m a big proponent that we must meet as partners, and we have as much to learn from our partners in the countries that we work with as they have to learn from us,” McGann said ahead of the keynote conversation at Perry World House. “It’s an exchange of peers and partners, not one country dictating to another.”

McGann is director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program and organizes an annual India Think Tank Forum in Delhi, in partnership with some of the leading think tanks in India. He is also a senior lecturer of international studies at Penn’s Lauder Institute and a Fels senior fellow.

Verma served as the U.S. ambassador to India from 2014 to 2017, overseeing one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world. He is currently vice chair and partner at The Asia Group.

From India’s independence in 1947 to today, the country’s relationship with the U.S. has fluctuated, Verma said. From a strong relationship during the Eisenhower years to the eroding of the bonds when the U.S. was courting Pakistan as an ally during the Cold War, the relationship could be characterized as a “history of mutual mistrust,” he said.

He said when he looks at Asia, he believes there is no more important relationship to the U.S. than India, as both nations face the same kind of problems, among them climate, economics, migration, urbanization, and health care. If the two nations can come together, they can accomplish great things, Verma said.

“Think about the India of 2030: a country that will lead the world in almost every category, the most people, the biggest middle class, the largest number of college graduates,” he said. “We should be excited about this relationship. We should be excited about where India is headed, but we don’t really have a strategy or set of policies to match that kind of excitement.”

Verma lamented what he called the politicization of American foreign policy in light of recent events in Turkey and Ukraine, and what he sees as a lack of support for ambassadors from the current administration. “It’s devastating for the career foreign service officers, and it’s dangerous for our country,” he said.

However, he said he believes the U.S. will be able to get diplomacy back on track in the long term. “I think countries realize there is a long arc to foreign affairs and foreign policy, and that the United States is the world’s largest economy and the most important player in the international system if we choose to be,” he said.