Richard Verma meets with former President Barack Obama shortly after his appointment as ambassador.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Richard Verma meets with former President Barack Obama shortly after his appointment as ambassador.

September 26, 2019

Former Ambassador to India Richard Verma Discusses Past and Present U.S.-India Ties

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In the inaugural lecture at the newly founded Cornell India Law Center, former U.S. ambassador to India Richard Verma spoke about India’s increasing relevance in international affairs, the evolution of U.S.-India ties and the importance of learning from the history between the two nations.

The lecture, which took place on Thursday, was the first in a series hosted by the Cornell India Law Center in the law school, which seeks to provide Cornell law students with the opportunity to study Indian law as well as obtain a more in-depth understanding and connection with India through a variety of programs, including speaker series, summer internships in New Delhi and a dual-degree program with Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, India.

According to Verma, by 2030 “India will lead the world in almost every category.” But while India’s strategic location and its position as a democracy “in a tough part of the world” make it an important ally, the country still faces many “risk factors” such as significant climate risks, governance issues across the country, and for many of its citizens, a lack of access to clean water and electricity.

“When you go to India, you can feel the excitement, you can feel the energy. People know that this is an exciting time.” Verma said. “We don’t spend enough time thinking about India.”

Verma also spoke on the historical connection between India and the U.S., and the critical importance of developing personal relationships between the major political figures of the two countries, which he said it’s important to avoid progressing into a solely transactional relationship.

Verma specifically referenced the Paris Climate Agreement as a “breakthrough” moment for the personal relationship between former President Obama and Prime Minister Modi.

“The two of them [were] in an impromptu session in September of 2014, got up and told the Secret Service that they want to go see the Martin Luther King Memorial,” Verma recalled. “They hit it off. They had this friendship, two very different people, but [they were] very committed to each other.”

Later, as it turned out, that personal relationship helped deliver the Paris Climate Agreement as we know it today. Initially, Obama wanted to set a universal requirement for greenhouse gas reduction for all signatory countries, which Modi objected, citing that it was unfair to the developing world that needs to prioritize their economic development. Ultimately, a “differentiation” system was negotiated and each country was given the freedom to achieve its own goals.

“If you were to talk to President Obama today and say how did you get the Paris Climate Agreement done, he would say we couldn’t have done it without India,” Verma said.

However, the two countries haven’t always been in such a friendly state. In 1974, India conducted its first nuclear missile tests, which led to the beginning of strained relations with the United States, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. In 1998, the Indian government declared that it had finished another round of nuclear testing and then-President Bill Clinton imposed economic sanctions that were required under the U.S. law.

Going forward with the U.S.-India relationship, Verma warned that to protect and nurture the young and fragile connection, President Donald Trump “must realize that the bigger picture matters” and that the two countries must “get over the historical baggage.”

While much of Verma’s lecture focused on his experience as a diplomat and the lessons he had learned while in that position, in relevance to the crowd of many Cornell Law Students aspiring to make an impact in the legal world, Verma discussed the responsibilities a lawyer has to broader communities and the unique position they have to help others.

“I think being a lawyer is a great privilege, it comes with certain obligations too. You have a skill set and an ability to do things that other people in society can’t do. It’s incumbent upon all of us that have committed to the study of law to use our skills in that way,” Verma told The Sun in an interview.