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Meridian International Center Delves Into Cultural Exchange Between the U.S. and India

By Morgan Caplan

The Meridian International Center recently worked to build diplomatic bridges between the U.S. and India, a large democracy and an emerging world power, to further economic and political relationships between the two countries. During the center's Cultural Forum on India on June 8, government, business and cultural leaders focused on the state of bilateral relations and how to forge closer ties. 

Former U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner said he considers the upcoming visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House “a piece of architecture of American foreign policy” that could be very crucial for the two countries. A strong India, Wisner said, can help the U.S. strategically.

From right, Meridian President and CEO Ambassador Stuart Holliday, right, moderates the Cultural Forum on India at the Meridian International Center with Indian Ambassador Navtej Sarna and former U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner.(Photo: Stephen Bobb Photography / Meridian International Center)

In order to foster this relationship, the U.S. and India must understand the other’s agenda and what each country can do for the other. Ambassador of India Navtej Sarna said this entails forming a geopolitical and economic partnership, rather than simply an alliance.

“That is the best way to describe and qualify this relationship — the partnership of two countries that have a lot to offer for each other at the moment," Sarna said. "[If] you put that spotlight on the relationship, you tend to get the most out of it and then that determines how you treat each other, how you communicate to each other, how you plan to move ahead together.”

In the past, presidents have been active in the U.S.-India relationship, with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama visiting the country during their time in office. Now, it is President Trump's turn to take advantage of an important partnership that could advance the U.S. economy and foreign relations, Sarna said. 

For a country that has deep democratic roots and is home to 800 million people under the age of 35 who are energetic, talented and innovative, Sarna said that the U.S. cannot miss this opportunity to establish stronger relations with his homeland.

Sarna said the country's enormous youth populuation is a crucial factor when considering bilateral relations. The same goes for the U.S., whose youth he encourages to study abroad in India.

Mahasveta Barua, a professor at the University of Delaware, analyzed the importance of youth in diplomacy through her programs with students to India.

“They are able to break down barriers better than perhaps some adults,” said Barua, whose conference in New Delhi brings together American students with Indian university students, nongovernment organizations and other experts. It becomes an act of diplomacy and a stepping stone that exemplifies the opportunities for a partnership between the two countries, she said.

Panels throughout the event reiterated the theme of cultural diplomacy and how innovation, business and culture can bridge the gap between the U.S. and India

The panel on the convergence of innovation, expanding workforces and opportunity featured moderator Puru Trivedi, associate director of corporate relations for the Meridian International Center; Diane Farrell, deputy assistant secretary for Asia at the U.S. Department of Commerce; Kathryn Karol from Caterpillar; Sahra English from MasterCard; and Vivek Kumar from Qlicket Inc. (not pictured) (Photo: Stephen Bobb Photography/ Meridian International Center)

The U.S., with its strong infrastructure, can provide important amenities for business and infrastructure in India. With American companies tapping into India’s increasing youth workforce and continuing its philanthropic work, it will not only benefit the U.S. with new business ventures and investments, it will also help India get women into school, give more Indians access to the internet and engage citizens in the global sphere, said Diane Farrell, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Asia.

Companies such as MasterCard and Caterpillar, which each had representatives speak on a panel, are already highly active in the country with programs that target disenfranchised women in India, focusing on skill development. MasteraCard began a program called Girls for Tech that targets girls ages 9 to 13 with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Caterpillar is doing similar work, which extends to vocational training as well.

“We see girls and education as a really important factor in growing economic growth in the country, which therefore raises infrastructure and development, energy and power for the whole ecosystem,” Kathryn Karol, vice president for Global Government and Corporate Affairs at Caterpillar, said.

Another panel focused on India’s global influence through its culture. Actor and director Omi Vaidya touched on the impact that Indian culture has had through Bollywood movies and even yoga.

Indian comedians such as Aziz Ansari are also a bridge that Vaidya said is “creating the fusion between the U.S. and India.” Not only does Indian culture affect the U.S., it affects neighboring countries such as China, Malaysia and Nigeria, where Bollywood movies are a major hit.

Keynote speaker Shashi Tharoor, a member of India's Parliament, emphasized India’s crucial soft power tools that have put India on the map and made the country a stronger nation in the 21st century. (Photo: Stephen Bobb Photography/ Meridian International Center)

The keynote speaker of the event, Dr.Shashi Tharoor, a member of India's Parliament, ended the event with a speech on India’s soft power, which he defined as the ability to influence and attract other countries via culture, political values, foreign policy and the perceptions of the country on the global sphere. India, Tharoor said, has asserted its soft power in various everyday instance, such as through its Indian cuisine restaurants and the presence of the Jaguar and LandRover cars in the U.S., to name a few examples.Overall, the country’s use of soft and hard power, Tharoor said, led India to become stronger in the 21st century as it emerges as a crucial player on the world stage.

“We need hard power of course. Soft power without hard power is a sign of weakness. Hard power without soft power is bullying,” Tharoor said. “It’s an alternative to hard power and a complement.”

Morgan Caplan is an editorial intern of The Washington Diplomat.




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