U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma’s remarks at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, April 28, 2016

“Technology, Innovation and American Diplomacy in the 21st Century”

Spencer C. Schantz Lecture Series

Lehigh University, Pennsylvania

Richard R. Verma, U.S. Ambassador to India 

April 28, 2016 

(As prepared for delivery)

Ladies and gentlemen, members of the faculty, distinguished students.  It’s a sincere pleasure to be back here at my alma mater, a place of many fond memories.  I’ve been back many times over the years – for alumni events, reunions, and as an Alumni Association Board Member and a Young Alumni Trustee.  I love coming back here.  I owe this institution a lot.  I knew next to nothing when I arrived here in August 1986 and somehow this place helped set me on the right track.  For someone from very modest means, going to school here was an awfully enriching and rewarding experience.  I attended Lehigh on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, and I was commissioned a second lieutenant here.  I served as Senior Class President, and formed incredible friendships here.  When I was sworn in at the State Department as the United States Ambassador to India, there in the crowd were countless Lehigh friends from 26 years ago.  It was as if not a day had passed since we were here, a true testament to the lasting bonds we formed at Lehigh.

I’m immensely honored to be delivering the Spencer C. Schantz Lecture and to receive the Lehigh Industrial & Systems Engineering (ISE) Distinguished Alumni award.  I was a bit surprised to hear that I was nominated, given that I’m not a career engineer, and if GPA was the determining factor, well then I certainly shouldn’t be here!

I want to acknowledge my fellow recipient – Dr. Ronald G. Askin – who is an engineer and a very distinguished one at that.  I want to thank President John Simon and Dr. Tamas Terlaky, Chair of Lehigh’s ISE Department, whose team made this wonderful event possible.  Dean of Engineering John Coulter and Andy Greenawalt, Chair of Lehigh’s Engineering Advisory Council, thank you as well for your efforts organizing this lecture.  I also want to thank Professor Bob Storer from the Department, whose mentorship over the years has meant a great deal; and Barb Turanchik who has done so much for current Lehigh students and for tens of thousands of alumni.

As you all know, Lehigh has a long tradition of producing industry leaders and fostering entrepreneurship and innovation.  A great son of Lehigh, former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, once said “We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”  That approach to critical thinking has set apart generations of Lehigh graduates.  The skills and relationships I developed here at Lehigh set the foundation for my subsequent career – in the Air Force, law, and public service.

The path from engineering to diplomacy might seem odd to some, but in Delhi I’m not such an odd duck – a great share of Indian diplomats, when you read their resumes, you’ll find have graduated from India’s great technical institutes, having studied engineering or the hard sciences.  That doesn’t mean engineering is necessarily a recipe for success as a diplomat, but I believe the analytical and problem solving skills one learns are immensely valuable.  Indeed, having both a technical and policy background is ever more relevant given technology is continuously reshaping our professional and personal lives.  And that’s what I want to talk about today: technology, innovation, and American diplomacy.  Specifically, I want to touch upon three themes.

  • How the digital era is transforming the global economy and politics.
  • How technology and digital communications are reshaping the practice of American diplomacy and development assistance.
  • And how tech and innovation are redefining  the U.S.-India partnership

A lofty goal in 30 minutes, but I’ll do my best to leave as much time as possible for your questions.


Technology Matters

From warfare and communications to health and business, tech is changing the world at a faster pace than ever before.  I’m often astounded when I reflect upon how much has changed since my days at Lehigh.

  • In 1990, the year I graduated, the World Wide Web was barely a year old, and the total number of internet users stood at a mere 3 million, mostly in the United States.  Today more than 3.3 billion people, about 45 percent of the world’s population, use the internet.  Every 60 seconds, people send out more than 200 million emails, YouTube users upload 300 hours of video, and Facebook users “Like” more than 4 million posts.
  • Mobile cell subscriptions worldwide reached 7 billion in 2015, up from less than 1 billion in 2000.  In 1990, I was still trying to convince my parents to buy me a pager.  India alone has over one billion cell phone subscribers, and the number of mobile internet users is expected to exceed 300 million by 2017.
  • The growth in communications, information, and integrated financial markets has transformed global trade, dramatically shrinking the space between consumers and producers.  One in three goods crosses national borders, and more than one-third of financial investments are international transactions.
  • Take the 20 foot shipping container: the simple steel box that revolutionized global trade.  Each year since 2008, shipping lines have added the entire world container capacity of 1990.  Today, nearly 20 million shipping containers crisscross the oceans with record speed and efficiency, making possible the $18 trillion global trade market.
  • And think about the cumulative effect of all these innovations and how they forever changed something as simple as hailing a taxi.  Advances in mobile phones, software, electronic payments, battery technology, and GPS eventually culminated in Uber.

No one doubts the prosperity globalization has created.  Over the past 20 years, more than one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty– that’s more people than at any other point in human history.  Nowhere has the impact been more staggering than in India and China. According to the UN, the extreme poverty rate in East Asia dropped from 61 percent in 1990 to only 4 per cent in 2015, mostly because of growth in China.  South Asia’s progress is almost as impressive—a decline from 52 percent to 17 percent over the same period.

But not everyone however comes out ahead.  Exposure to global competition has created new opportunities and markets but has also resulted in setbacks for many American communities.  I remember growing up in a Pennsylvania where steel and coal dominated the economy.  That is no longer the case.  In the current election cycle, we are witnessing the frustrations of those who have been left behind, from both the right and the left.

And while we must not lose sight of these challenges, our only choice is to adapt and innovate.  The world is continuously changing and the United States must change with it.  The next two decades of the digital era will be even more transformative than the last.  According to John Chambers, the executive chairman of CISCO, we are experiencing the biggest technology transition in human history – the upcoming digital era will dwarf the current information age, generating as much as $19 trillion in economic value over the next decade.  That’s the size of the U.S. economy, plus some.

The movement of goods, data, and people will reach unimaginable levels and this will lead to paradigm shifts in how ordinary citizens interact with business, government, and the world.


Diplomacy in the Digital Era

This digital transformation is taking place amidst a complicated global landscape.  Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter outlined some of the major security challenges currently facing the United States, to include: Russian aggression in Europe; managing potential flashpoints like South China Sea, malign behavior and actions on part of North Korea and Iran, and the evolving terrorist threat from groups like ISIL.  Against this backdrop, environmental challenges such as climate change, epidemic disease, and resource scarcity are further complicating the global security landscape.  To the counter these challenges, the United States must mobilize the full spectrum of American power, from military and diplomacy to development and information.  But as these challenges evolve, so too must the toolkit.  My profession, diplomacy, is no exception.

Churchill once described diplomacy as the “art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”   While sophistry and persuasion have their place, the era of pinstripe clad diplomats in cigar rooms is long over.  Today’s complex world requires what one of my predecessors in Delhi, the great statesman Chester Bowles, called “total diplomacy.”  This means weaving together all the tools of statecraft to engage across the spectrum, from everyday citizens and civil society to local and national governments.  It also means new and innovate approaches to development, working with the private sector and NGOs.  In this environment, the ever quickening pace of digital communications is both a blessing and a curse.

The digital revolution has drastically changed how the United States responds to emerging opportunities and challenges.  Social media for example has given a powerful voice to individuals and communities that resonates across borders.  We witnessed this in very dramatic form during the Arab Spring only a few years ago.  Terrorist groups like ISIL have also used digital technologies to recruit and radicalize individuals to violence.

But we have also witnessed digital media making positive impacts, such as by strengthening civil society and public debate and making governments more responsive to the needs of their citizens.  This is why internet freedom is a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy.  As Secretary Kerry stated last year, “We believe people are entitled to the same rights of free expression online as they possess offline. We believe digital policy should seek to fulfill technology’s potential as a vehicle for global stability and sustained economic development and as an innovative way to enhance the transparency of governments.”

In a world of tweets and hashtags, diplomats must balance the spontaneous, fast-paced nature of digital communications with the need for coordinated and disciplined messaging.  The old adage – “Don’t say anything that will end up on the front page of the Washington Post” – is still as relevant as ever, though now that adage applies to tweeting, posting and blogging.  The State Department launched its Twitter account in 2006, and we now have over 2.5 million followers.  That’s nowhere close to Katy Perry or Justin Bieber, but we’re making a concerted effort to expand our outreach.  Social media has helped us communicate our policy priorities and connect with people otherwise beyond our reach.  The U.S. virtual embassy in Iran is a great example.  In the global marketplace of ideas, we’re in a constant race to engage an ever more diverse and young population and to counter negative narratives advocating violence and disharmony.

By the way, the power of social media has not been lost on India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.  He is the second most followed head of state on Twitter behind President Obama and has a penchant for colorful selfies with fellow world leaders.  I’ll also make selfish plug here – please follow us on Twitter!

Digital communications have also made the world a smaller place; and for an American diplomat that means the distance between Washington and his or her host nation capital has become a lot closer.  Gone are the days of waiting by the teletype machine for instructions from Washington.  While I sleep in Delhi, officials high and low in Washington work frantically to fill my blackberry inbox overnight.  This is certainly different than what my predecessors experienced.

Take for example the brilliant John Kenneth Galbraith, who was President Kennedy’s Ambassador to India at the time of the 1962 Sino-Indian War.  Galbraith was struggling to respond to the Chinese invasion at the same time the United States was dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He repeatedly requested guidance from the State Department.  He sent in cable after cable but no response came.  He writes in his memoirs: “I have been sending off telegrams on various urgent matters without the slightest knowledge of whether they are being received or acted upon.  It is like marching troops out of the trenches and over no-man’s land without knowing whether they get through or get shot down en route.”  If that’s how Galbraith felt in 1962, one can only imagine how Ambassadors Franklin and Jefferson felt in the late 1700s.

We have come a long way since then; today Ambassadors can provide feedback and new ideas in real time.  They don’t just report on the challenges they face, but try to shape the policy response.  Increased communication between posts and Washington also helps ensure everyone is on the same page and coordinated in our public messaging.  And the concept of shuttle diplomacy – epitomized by Secretary Kerry in the Iran nuclear negotiations – would not be possible without rapid transit and communications.  In the closing hours of the Iran nuclear negotiations, I recall all of us waiting for tweets from our negotiating team on whether or not a deal had been reached – that’s the reality of how information gets transmitted and received today.

The digital era has also forced the State Department to reexamine how it does economic statecraft.  As Secretary Kerry has stated, “Foreign policy is economic policy.”  That’s why we recently announced a pilot project to establish “digital attachés” at American embassies. These attachés will work with American tech companies to overcome market barriers in the global digital economy and boost exports.

Some have questioned whether traditional embassies and diplomats are still relevant in today’s era of digital video conferences and instant communication.  I don’t think that is the case at all, and I’m not just saying that for reasons of job security.  Personal diplomacy matters as much today as it did in Galbraith’s era.  Edward R. Murrow, the great CBS news anchor who later became director of the United States Information Agency, said it best:  “The real critical link in international communications is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”  No amount of technology can substitute for personal relationships, on the ground experience, and an original idea.

Technology and Innovation Redefining U.S.-India Relations

Let me now shift from the conduct of diplomacy in the digital era to how it has played out in practice with an instrumental global partner – India.

U.S.-India relations have come a long way since my days at Lehigh.  In 1990, Cold war era tensions and closed economic policies cast a long shadow on the relationship.  The Indian economy was in tatters.  The bilateral goods trade with the United States stood at a paltry $5 billon.  India, with its foreign reserves falling below $1 billion, was forced to accept an emergency IMF bailout.  India’s principal military partner, the Soviet Union, was itself on the brink of economic and political collapse.

Out of these crises, a new India emerged.  A liberalized economy laid the foundations for a more confident and globally integrated India.  Political relations dramatically improved following President Clinton’s landmark visit in 2000.  The U.S.-India civil nuclear initiative, launched by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh in 2005, marked a watershed moment – the stage was set for the United States and India to become strategic partners.   Under the leadership of President Obama and Prime Minister Modi, our partnership is reaching new heights.

India is now the world’s fastest growing major economy and bilateral U.S.-India trade stands at over $100 billion.  By 2030, India will be the world’s largest country by population, and the third largest global economy.

Defense cooperation, virtually non-existent in 1990, now consists of regular and complex exercises with the world’s third largest military.  Sales of military hardware reached over $13 billion in 2015.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Across more than 70 different lines of effort, from smart cities to cyber security to nuclear security to vaccine research, from the depths of the oceans to the farthest reaches of the stars, to Mars and beyond, our cooperation is deeper and more expansive than ever before.  In this wide-ranging partnership, science, technology, and innovation have played an especially vital role bringing our countries closer together.

Science and tech diplomacy is not new – during the Cold War, science served a common language that helped bridge political and cultural divides.  President Kennedy signed the first ever S&T agreement with Japan in 1961.  In 1985, when Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited the Johnson Space Center in Texas, agreements on space and technological cooperation were the highlights in what was then an otherwise frosty relationship.

In 1985, few could have imagined that the U.S. and India would one day send probes to Mars.  But that is in fact what we have done, and I’m proud that we supported each others missions with navigational and other technical support.  Both countries have spacecraft in Martian orbit and our Mars Working Group is working to deepen our understanding of the red planet and beyond.

Earlier this month, I welcomed NASA Administer Charles Bolden to India, one of the leading champions of the U.S.-India partnership, to further deepen cooperation. NASA, in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organization, is working on an ambitious Earth Science mission called NISAR, planned for launch in 2021.  NISAR will take unprecedented measurements of our planet’s most complex processes, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and landslides; and it will be launched on an Indian rocket.  This is a great example of Indian and American scientists not only satisfying their intellectual curiosity, but pioneering solutions that may one day help save lives.

And there’s no bigger proponent of our technology cooperation than Prime Minister Modi.  During his visit last month to Washington, Prime Minister Modi met with scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO.  The U.S. and India have finalized an agreement to build a LIGO observatory in India, which will help our scientists better understand gravitational waves, black holes, and supernovas – the very origins of our universe.  Prime Minister Modi will visit Washington again this June – his fourth visit to the United States in less than two years – and science and tech cooperation will again be on top of the agenda.

Through his landmark Digital India and Make in India initiatives, Prime Minister Modi is attempting to harness technology to address India’s immense developmental challenges.  This is why he visited Silicon Valley last year, to discuss with luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, how India can be the next global digital leader and use technology to leapfrog development.  He encouraged all of us to look at ways to harness our great networks of entrepreneurs and innovators to improve the condition of everyday citizens.

I think it’s important to highlight what the Prime Minister said, because the challenge he identified is a challenge and call to action for all of us.  For those of us who that study or have studied science or engineering, the issues is how can we use new innovations, discoveries and modern technologies to improve the conditions for people living across the globe – how can we make their lives safer, healthier, greener and more efficient.  How do we bring science and new learning into the policy domain so it can have the biggest social impact?  This is one of the critical challenges of our time.

But we are trying to meet this challenge head on.  For example, we are changing the way we do development in India.  Let me mention a few examples.  Three weeks ago I presented 33 awards to Indian innovators as part of the U.S. –India Millennium Alliance.  In partnership with USAID, the Millennium Alliance is a public private partnership that leverages Indian creativity and expertise to scale locally developed innovations to benefit populations across India and the world.  This is now a multi-million dollar partnership that is supporting over 60 innovators to help end extreme poverty through seed funding and capacity building services.

One of our recipients is Science for Society, an Indian NGO that developed a cost-effective Solar Conduction Dryer, or SCD, that processes and preserves perishable fruits and vegetables. In Maharashtra state, where USAID helped test pilot 50 SCDs, farmers reported an average annual income increase of $1,000 due to additional sales of dehydrated farm produce.

Last fall I visited a USAID supported state-of-the-art WaterHealth Center in Bangalore where raw water pumped from ground sources is purified at low cost for household use. Today, all of the neighborhood’s 8,000 households have access to clean drinking water.  It was heartening to see how these innovative technologies are transforming communities by improving family health, work attendance, reducing school absenteeism, and improving the overall quality of life.

Technology and innovation have a critical role to play in the battle against climate change.  Just last week, India’s power and environment ministers joined Secretary Kerry in New York to bring into force the historic climate accord finalized last December in Paris.  In line with Prime Minister Modi’s goal to reach 175 gigawatts of renewable energy generation by 2022, I am a proud co-chair of the PACESetter Fund which just one component of the $2.4 billion dollar PACE program or Partnership to Advance Clean Energy.  The PACEsetter Fund is a joint effort between the U.S. Embassy and the Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy to fund innovative, small scale renewable energy solutions to bring reliable power to the over 250 million Indians who live off-grid.

One of the really neat start-ups we helped fund through PACEsetter is called BioLite.  Launched in 2009 by two innovators shocked by the prevalence of dangerous wood-fired stoves, BioLite develops and manufactures advanced energy products that make cooking with wood as clean and safe as modern fuels while also providing electricity to charge cell phones and LED lights off-grid.  With over 30 patents, BioLite is expanding its operations in the Indian state of Odisha to provide clean and safe power to rural customers.

I could go on and on with more examples of our work to leverage new discoveries and innovations for the greater public good.  From climate change and clean energy, to global health to smart cities development to defense, we are using technology, science and engineering know-how to form the foundation of so many of our development programs.  What were once separate lines of effort are now being consolidated.  It’s why, for example, the State Department reached out to former President Gast to serve as a Science Envoy — a special position created to help expand scientific cooperation and innovation in the field of international relations.


The Future

So what does the future hold for us, our country, and our foreign partners?  The march of the digital age shows no abating.  The coming two decades will see successive transformations in energy, bioengineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, genetics, cyber warfare – you name it.  And like the agricultural and industrial revolutions of previous centuries, the digital revolution will be coupled with disruptions.  How can we minimize these?

First, technology must be accessible and startup culture encouraged.  On June 22, the 7th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit will take place in Silicon Valley.  This strategic location highlights the important role that entrepreneurship plays in the U.S. economy, and also provides a unique platform to connect global entrepreneurs with prominent investors and mentors.  I think it is fantastic that cities and towns across Pennsylvania are competing to be the next Silicon Valley – Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and, yes, Bethlehem are among the important hubs for innovation.  Ecosystems that foster creativity and have the right conditions to market new products and services are essential.

Second, every technological innovation begins with an idea.  As such, our educational institutions must not only equip young people with the right skills, but create environments that foster innovation and entrepreneurship.  In this endeavor, Lehigh is an exceptional leader.  The Lehigh Silicon Valley immersion program and Lee Iacocca Global Village for Future Leaders network are fantastic examples.  As President Simon eloquently stated in the Lehigh Bulletin recently “We encourage risks to be taken, new paths forged, and new ways of thinking pursued.”  That’s exactly the right mindset.

We must also do more to erase the digital divide here at home and abroad.  William Gibson, the celebrated science fiction writer, famously said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”  I think that aptly describes some of what we’re seeing in the tech environment. Rural communities lag far behind urban centers when it comes to high-speed connections.  This is unacceptable in the place the internet was pioneered.  To be unconnected is to fall behind.

That’s why private industry and government must work together better to deliver common sense solutions and make technology more accessible.  At the South by Southwest festival last month, President Obama called on technology companies to contribute to the civic good, lamenting that it is “easier to order a pizza than exercising your right to vote.”   The President is exactly right.  Our economic and innovative prowess is underpinned by our democratic values and we must leverage technology to strengthen these values whenever possible.

And institutions like Lehigh can continue to reach out and attract those students – whether in New York or New Delhi – who perhaps would not have otherwise been given a chance to apply their talents and fulfill their dreams.  The next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sundar Pichai or Satya Nadella are ready to be discovered, and Lehigh will be a critical part of that discovery and mentorship, as it has since its founding.

And lastly, as we move forward into the 21st century, the United States must harness all the tools of national power – diplomatic, economic, military, development, and innovation – to safeguard our interests in the global commons and forger closer relations with likeminded partners; India above all.  When Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited India a few weeks ago, he called the growing rapprochement between our two democracies a strategic handshake that will benefit Asia-Pacific and the world.  Of that, I am absolutely convinced.  The rise of India will be one of the defining stories of the 21st century and whether it is in technology and space, or defense and clean energy, the work our two nations are doing today is laying the foundations for future security and prosperity.  In time, our strategic handshake will become a strategic embrace, underpinned by our people, our strong democratic traditions, and a shared belief in the power of technology and innovation to do good.