Remarks by Ambassador Richard R. Verma “Supporting Indian Leadership Across Domains”

The Indian Association of Foreign Affairs Correspondents
India International Center

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Most schoolchildren in America, and many in India, are familiar with the famous line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address in January, 1961; “my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”  However, history books often omit the equally important sentence that immediately followed: “my fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”  The theme of togetherness and unity was one that ran throughout the Kennedy administration, both in its foreign and domestic policy.  It was also a crucial element in the remarkable flowering of U.S.-India relations under President Kennedy, which we see powerfully echoed in developments today.

President Kennedy approached India with a great personal admiration for the leaders of its quest for independence and also with an appreciation that India’s struggle had resulted in remarkable affinities between our two countries.  A determination to safeguard hard-won sovereignty while staunchly protecting fundamental civil liberties are perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in India and the United States.  At the same time, President Kennedy respected the fact that by virtue of India’s geography and history it must chart its own path on the world stage.  India was not in a position to join an alliance with the United States, or any other country, and at times advanced policies that ran contrary to American views.  Despite these divergences, President Kennedy was guided by an appreciation that the things that drew our countries together ran far deeper than passing disagreements with the Nonaligned Movement.  It was telling that at the very height of the Cold War, when Washington was preoccupied with the Cuban Missile Crisis, a grave security threat on its very doorstep, President Kennedy spent considerable personal and political capital to rally to India’s cause during the 1962 war with China.

Stronger Together

Togetherness.  We heard echoes of President Kennedy’s inaugural address in the words of Prime Minister Modi when he said that the great promise of the U.S-India partnership is what we can do together for the world.  We also know that, just as in the time of President Kennedy and Prime Minister Nehru, there will be times when the United States and India will need to take different paths to our goals.  But we must always remember that despite the twists in the road our ultimate goals will always be the same: an international order based on the rule of law and universal values based on respect for individual civil liberties.  When the inevitable differences that come up from time to time in any bilateral relationship appear between our two countries I have confidence that our leaders in Washington know that these are mere speed bumps and that in India we are working with a close partner with whom we share a fundamental affinity in human values.  And as a result of our closer partnership with India in the past 18 months, on political, economic, environmental, security and social affairs, we have several mechanisms in place to help us better resolve our differences.

India as a Global Leader

It is for that reason that we believe it is so critical for India to take its rightful place on the world stage.  It is an absolute necessity that the world’s largest democracy, and one day soon the world’s most populous country, make its voice heard in the international issues in this increasingly complicated and interconnected 21st century.  The historic agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris is an example of the boundless possibilities of the relationship.  We are committed to ensuring that India not only has a seat at the table, but that it also has the political stature to act as a global leader, through our support for India’s role in a reformed UN Security Council and interest in joining APEC, to our cooperation at the World Bank and the G-20 where India’s leadership has provided increased opportunity for development and growth both domestically and globally.

Asia Looks to Indian Leadership

There is no place where India’s leadership is needed more sorely that in the Asia-Pacific region.  It has been often said that the 21st century will belong to Asia.  The region is experiencing change at a furious pace – the emergence of new democracies, territorial disputes, the effects of climate change and profound questions over the governance of the commons.   American diplomacy in the region demonstrates that we are here to stay in our efforts to preserve and enhance a stable and diversified security order in which countries pursue their national objectives peacefully and in accordance with international law and shared norms and principles.  But the United States cannot do this alone.  As early as 1959, then Senator Kennedy observed that in the pursuit of human progress “the gateway to fresh achievement lies in Asia.”  We look to India to continue to move beyond its historical reservations to seize this moment, to reassert its leadership role in the region in our shared efforts to promote the peaceful resolution of disputes, an open economic order, and a liberal political order that promotes peace and human dignity, based on human rights and the rule of law.  The recent summit of ASEAN heads of state hosted by President Obama in California, and Prime Minister Modi’s Act East initiatives to increase trade and connectivity among South and Southeast Asian countries and to reach out to partners as far away as South Korea and Mongolia, demonstrate the complementarity of our visions.  The United States and India recently took an important step in this direction, by concluding a roadmap for the implementation of the historic Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions.  Our countries will cooperate as never before on the high seas, during responses to natural disasters, on maritime security issues and in consultation with other partners and allies in the region.  I hope that in the not too distant future United States and Indian Navy vessels steaming together will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Pacific waters.

Security Cooperation Advancing Indian Leadership

India will find the United States a steadfast partner in ensuring India has the capabilities and platforms it needs to take on these challenges.  The list of agreements on defense and security initiatives concluded over just the past year is a long one and it looks to become even longer in the near future.  The Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, the Defense Framework Agreement, and the secure line between the White House and Race Course Road – these are the signs of two countries that are working as closely as possible on strategic issues.  The ties between our militaries are becoming increasingly close.   In a few days Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command will be here in Delhi to participate in the inaugural Raisina Dialogue.  A few months ago General John Campbell, commander of US forces in Afghanistan traveled to New Delhi to exchange views with Indian leaders for the first time.  And, I am pleased to announce that in April Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will return to India for an unprecedented third visit in less than a year.

We are engaged in cooperation here in India that is not only unprecedented for this relationship but is qualitatively different than those we share with any other country in the region, or the world.  Here in India we are focused on helping Indian forces develop the capabilities and platforms that will allow them to fulfill India’s stated goal of becoming a leading power in the region and beyond.  For the United States this partnership is unique.  There is no other country in the world that we are supporting as an emerging global defense leader.  We have overhauled our approach to defense licensing to India with a presumption of approval for the vast majority of even the most sensitive platforms.  Our offers to provide Indian forces with Apache attack helicopters – the most advanced helicopter in the U.S. inventory, Chinook heavy lift helicopters and M777 howitzers are akin to our defense relationships with our closest NATO allies.   Never in our history have we actively supported the indigenous development of an aircraft carrier program in another country.  Yet, we are doing so today – the joint Aircraft Carrier Technology Working Group met here in India this past week.  As a result of this work, I am confident we will see cooperative development of state-of-the-art warships with advanced launch and landing systems, proven defensive capabilities and fighter aircraft that are able to provide for India’s national security for generations to come.  In the future, I am sure we will soon see U.S. and Indian aircraft carriers operating side by side ‎in the region and beyond to maintain the freedom of the seas for all nations.

We are also eager to partner with India on solutions to its pressing need for modern fighter aircraft.  We are also mindful that India does not simply want to purchase fighters but intends to establish a production line here in India that will provide for the maintenance and supply of its air force.  I am hopeful that U.S. companies and technology will play a central role in an arrangement that would see U.S.-designed fighters built here in India in response to India’s requirements.

The point that I hope to make clear is that the U.S.-India security relationship is of a fundamentally different nature than our cooperation with any other country in the region.  We have moved far beyond simply supplying India with defense platforms.  Rather, we are helping to support the development of indigenous defense industrial capabilities that India will need to become the 21st century power it aspires to be.  A naval aviation program, air superiority, heavy lift, jet engine production – these are the capabilities of a global security leader and areas where the United States is actively supporting India’s forces.  When I marvel at the distance our defense relationship has traveled in just eighteen months I am reminded of our cooperation in the early 1960s under the leadership of President Kennedy and Prime Minister Nehru.

The Path Forward

As I look ahead to our future cooperation together, I am optimistic about our opportunities, and I am clear-eyed about the threats and challenges.  Clearly, as we are reminded too often, the threat of international terror remains a defining challenge for both our countries.  It is precisely why we have led an international coalition battling ISIL across the Middle East and now parts of Africa; it is why we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to ensure Afghanistan remains a sovereign, democratic state that can defend itself from within and beyond its borders; it is why our CT partnership with India will remain a central tenant of our cooperation, sharing sophisticated intelligence, collectively training our special operators in more advanced joint exercises, and ensuring we are both working together to counter the messages of violent extremists.

And, across the region, including in Pakistan, as President Obama has said: “Pakistan can and must take more effective action against terrorist groups that operate from its territory.  Pakistan has an opportunity to show that it is serious about delegitimizing, disrupting and dismantling terrorist networks.  In the region and around the world, there must be zero tolerance for safe havens and terrorists must be brought to justice.”

Improving economic security is also something we can tackle together.  As the world confronts another global slowdown and economic uncertainty, the fact is the US and India have helped power world economic growth through difficult times.  Our fundamentals remain strong despite the headwinds we both have faced.  The US has its lowest unemployment in years, and millions of new jobs have been created.  And, here in India, economic growth remains strong, with low inflation, and a youth dividend ready to seize new and exciting opportunities.  For both countries, however, we have to continue to ensure all segments of our societies are benefitting from the growth, and are able to realize the incredible opportunities that lie in this century.  Enhancing regional connectivity and trade is one particular focus area that holds great promise, as India’s Act East, and our Rebalance to Asia come into full alignment.

And, finally, following through on the promise of the Paris Climate agreement, tackling the threat posed by rising temperatures, and bringing a new found commitment to clean energy research and development – the US and India can lead the world in a clean energy revolution.  No other country has set such ambitious renewable targets, and we are proud to be India’s close partner together as we finally deliver on civilian nuclear energy, as we collectively harness the latest green technologies, and help build Indian smart cities.  There may be no single bigger pathway of cooperation for our countries in the coming years.


Before I conclude, I would like to reflect on another one of President Kennedy’s observations.  “History is a relentless master.  It has no present, only the past rushing into the future.  To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”  It is a fact of history that the closeness between the United States and India did not survive the tragic assassination of President Kennedy, and that during intervening decades both sides held fast to preconceptions that obstructed our natural affinities.  I have studied this relationship enough to know that the temptation to sacrifice its epoch-defining potential for short term expediencies is ever present, on both sides.  Nonetheless, I believe that our leaders having seen the consequences of such missteps are newly mindful of the need to nurture this partnership, through good times, and more difficult ones.  I draw my personal inspiration from the vision of President Kennedy, who understood that no temporary disagreement or passing misunderstanding should distract us from our shared responsibility to embark on that rush to the future together.