By Khaleel Seecharan, Culture Editor, MPP ‘13
Timothy Roemer, former U.S. Ambassador to India and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited the Harvard Kennedy School for the week of 10/7. Between speaking events, he sat down with the Citizen to answer a few questions:
HC: What was the most challenging part of your job as Ambassador?
TR: I remember my first meeting with President Obama to do the job and serve the people of the United States … He said, “You know, Tim, there are over a billion people [in India] and I want you to shake hands with every one of them.” He wasn’t being entirely facetious. He wanted me to connect not only to the prime minister and to the national security advisors and the ministers of Parliament, but also to the rickshaw drivers, the farmers, and the scavengers and the average people. We share common values between our two great democracies, we have strategic interests, and we want to bring these two countries even closer together. That’s a big challenge when you are reaching out to a billion people.
I knew I was having some success when I was on a train and a 12 year old young boy came up to me. I was reading a paper… He said, “Are you the American ambassador?” I said, “Yes sir, I am.” He said, “I want to be one of the billion to shake your hand.” … So you know you are making a difference, you are making a little bit of a dent when that message is getting through. But it’s more complicated in diplomacy than reaching out and touching people and shaking their hand. We have connected our two countries in historic ways now. The President calls it an indispensible partnership … We have moved India from the 25th largest trading partner to the 12th largest trading partner for the United States… We had President Obama spend more time in India than in any other country in his Presidency.
HC: What are the issues facing the US-India relations today?
TR: One is certainly security and counterterrorism issues. We are working to help Indians to potentially increase and improve their ability to stop and deflect a terrorist attack like Mumbai in 2008. We are helping to give and invest in strategic resources, in defense equipment, to better help them for regional challenges. We are helping to improve the relationship between the countries on economic issues and improving the narrative between the two countries. … Both countries are concerned about the number of people living in poverty in India. The President was very clear about this when he went over to India — how we [can] improve education between the two countries with the Obama-Singh initiative.
HC: So, you have answered what the US can do to help India. Now what can India do to help the US?
TR: It needs to be a two-way street, no doubt about it. [India] needs to do more. Prime Minister Singh was opening up a relationship as Finance Minister in the 1990s to provide a closer relationship on the commercial front between the two countries. We are hopeful that … the people in India will continue to support foreign directed investment opportunities into India that would improve and expand retail and commercial sales and trade between the two countries. This is just not in the United States’ interests; this is really in India’s interests to sustain their 9% growth, to have new investment to build out their infrastructure, get some of this investment in finances and equipment from the United States.
HC: Where do you see India in 20 years?
TR: I am really excited about India — not just their potential but their growth and their beacon of hope to Asia and to the world. On October 2nd, there was a great celebration to celebrate Gandhi’s life. Every major religion was invited to … show and display their faith. It’s a beautiful service where the diversity and the tolerance and the multiple religions all come to the forefront to show what a wonderful country this is and how all these religions can exist not only side by side… but in a democracy where people vote and respect different outcomes. This is a great beacon of hope not only for India but also for all of Asia and the world to see these religions take place in a great democracy. There are great opportunities for India to work even closer with the United States potentially on more strategic geopolitical issues and on a free trade agreement in the future. I really, truly believe that this is a relationship that will help define peace and prosperity and growth in the 21st century in the world.
HC: What do you see yourself doing next?
TR: I am very busy helping my children get elected to student council positions and coaching their basketball and their soccer and transporting them around to their various extracurricular activities. I’m busy with my kids. I am doing some teaching and speaking and some consulting now. Certainly, I will be available to help the President in 2012 as I was in 2008. I will continue to be engaged in the India relationship for a long, long time to come on policy issues.