Rick Rossow | Senior Advisor at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

In this conversation, we speak to Mr. Richard Rossow, a Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which is a leading think-tank based in Washington, D.C. Richard Rossow holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS. In this role he helps frame and shape policies to promote greater business and economic engagement between the two countries.

Topics covered:
  • Mr. Rossow's background and what sparked his interest in international affairs
  • Insight into what role think-tanks such as CSIS have on policy and how they exert influence on international issues
  • Advice Mr. Rossow would give young people interested in entering international affairs - and what he looks for in candidates applying for entry level positions at CSIS
  • How the US-India relationship has evolved over the past two decades
  • Key opportunities and challenges for US-India moving forward


00:06 Karan Takhar
Hello everyone. This is Karan Takhar, and welcome to the Zenergy podcast. Over the past decade, India has done an impressive job of integrating renewable energy into its energy mix. For this Fulbright Podcast series, I sought to investigate the enabling factors and potential of India global leadership in renewable energy with the focus on solar this Fulbright series is broken down into Four Seasons. This season we capture the views of high-level officials of government will try and understand how India continued progress can strengthen its leadership position on the world stage and provide a new Ave for global impact. In this episode, we will be speaking with Richard Grasso, who is a senior advisor and holds the Wood Bonnie Chair in US India Policy Studies at success. In this role, he helps frame in shape policies to promote greater business and economic engagement between the US and India. In our conversation, we discussed the role think tanks have in influencing policies and also explore opportunities for collaboration between the US and India moving forward. I hope you enjoy this wide-ranging conversation. Hi, Mr Rossow. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I've been really excited to speak with you, especially given your extensive experience working in the international fair space and for people listening. I think it would be best if we started at the beginning. Can you please? Tell us about your early career, including what you studied in college and, ultimately, what sparked your interest in the International fair space.

02:16 Rick Rossow
Well,  I grew up, of course, uh, in the latter period of the Cold War, so you can imagine for me going to school so much. Of what we? Talked about in the world was this massive divide between the United States and the Soviet Union, and I was always kind of intrigued, you know? We tried to pin them. There's an enemy, and there were movies coming out all the time about little fights and big fights and rocky four and Red Dawn and all this stuff. But you know. Ultimately, you know, those are humans on the other side of these contentious issues, and I was interested in kind of learning a lot more. So when I went to college I thought international relations be a lot of fun. You know, this is what's been driving a lot of policy in the United States. In the last decade. But by the time I was leaving for college, is about the time the Soviet Union was collapsing. But I still decided. To stick with it and particularly focus on Russia because, at that time to a lot of Americans thought, well, you know, they're suddenly becoming a little more friendly, the markets opening up, and you might see more trade and investment going back and forth. So from concern to friendship and, you know, potential opportunity. So I stuck with the Russian studies through college, language, history, literature, really not probably as much current affairs as I might have liked. But still, upon graduation, I thought, of course, not a lot of things to do with a Russian studies degree in West Michigan. So I knew that I'd have to go to one of the big cities along the coast, most likely, and packed up my bags with my wife, I got married when I was in college, and we moved to Washington, DC. Now I got here, and I'll say at the time in 98, Russia was collapsing, the economy was in shambles. They didn't really represent at that time much of his security threat, so you could imagine that most places that had a lot of Russian workers were firing them rather than bringing him on, and especially somebody like me, who was probably a little more well rooted. In Russian literature and language than it was about the current makeup of the Russian political economy. So after running around trying to find just some kind of basic starting job in Russia for about a month, I started applying for more general jobs, and I applied to work in the International Division of the United States Chamber of Commerce the large organization that represents businesses across the United States sitting right across the park from the White House. To be the admin assistant for the International division and I went in for the interview, and the interview went very well. They basically told me I could have the job if I wanted it, but then they said they had another job that was opened that nobody applied for which was a starting job. At US India Business Council, the US India Business Council was at that time about.20 years old, almost 30 years old and was representing a small group of U.S. companies that had trade and investment interests in India. So. It's kind of like a little working group inside the Chamber of Commerce, India; just as to nuclear weapons, there wasn't much trade and investment going on, so there wasn't a lot of interest, and the job paid a little bit more than the one that I applied for and so that small bump in salary is exactly what got me on the India bandwagon for the first time. You know, for the most part, apart from a little dunk over into corporate America. I've really been on for almost 25 years now, almost straight. So that's kind of the back story on how I kind of stumbled on the India train from somebody who is meant to be doing. This kind of work on.

05:30 Karan Takhar
Very interesting. And as someone who's a young professional and still trying to figure out how DC operates, for example, there are so many organizations like U.S India Business Council also.
I know a few years later, then. You started at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Can you shed a bit of light on what?

05:46 Rick Rossow
The role of think tanks like CSIS and organizations like the Business Councils play in the DC context. I've had a good number of time at four different kinds of organizations. So I spent ten years at a trade association. the US India Business Council represents a lot of companies and does a lot of events and things like that. Then for four years, Iran's international government affairs at New York Life Insurance Company, a Fortune 100 firm, and gave me a lot more exposure to markets outside of India for the last 10 years, and still, today is kind of a side job. I still run the India practice for a major business advisory firm called Mclarty Associates. But for the last eight years, my main work in DC has been through this think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS.CSIS was born back in 1962 at Georgetown University, and it was meant to bridge the divide that exists in most countries between how we approach troubling things around the world. Looking at the lens of diplomacy and military power, sometimes these two things work against each other, or certainly, most of the time, they don't coordinate. During the Cold War, there was kind of this thought that we need to bridge the gap between the two and present more of a combined front in utilizing our diplomacy in our Military more effectively for heading off some of the threats we soft and Soviet. Union. So the Institution was born in the 60s, and today it stands out as the top defence and security think tank in the world. But my program, that Wadhwani chair, is unique. It's more focused on what's happening in India. In the commercial realm in business and economy, Doctor Ramesh Wadhwani is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He kicked off the Web Money foundation, really trying to give back to society, using his fortune really to focus on things that would help to create good jobs. He wants to see people find gainful employment. They do a lot of work around the world on skilling, helping entrepreneurs, helping small businesses. But he also felt that in a country like India where the government still tide, that controls a lot of functions of business environment.  That having kind of an independent voice urging the government to open up new sectors for private sector and really trying to open up US-India economic relations could also have a major stimulative effect on job creation. Basically, his foundation came to CSI and began funding what had been a relatively small India program before that we kind of cover in all of South Asia, and there's a lot more targeted now. I took over the program a few years later for me, really trying to put my own stamp on it. We study Indian states very closely and have a number of projects. To engage Indian state governments but getting to your point guard on what is the role of think tanks play, most of my peers inside this institution were actually terribly senior government officials before they came over here for a spell, and sometimes they go back into government. You can imagine, you know, we rely on governments to come up with new ideas to improve America's relations with major partners, to confront threats that we see around the world, you know, things of that nature. It's hard to do that sometimes when you're sitting in government. You're so busy with your day job I'm getting your boss is ready for the trips to the region. Human resource issues. When you're running a department of, you know, dozens or hundreds of people. Sometimes it can be difficult, just like anybody stays. Job, just take a step back and think, am I really heading in the right direction, I know I'm doing what seems like the next great thing to do during the day, but if you step back, are you missing the big picture on other issues that you should be working on and that's what think tanks try to do so it is people that again have a lot of day-to-day connectivity with the government. But aren't quite so burdened by the day-to-day operations of government and could sit back and organize meetings of people that otherwise may not come together to talk about issues where there's similar concern to write reports and kind of really do thorough deep dives on topics that maybe the government doesn't have time to really spend a lot of mind space, and then we present that material to government. We also serve as a bit of a Translator, though, sometimes. For things that are happening in government and international relations for the General American public. The US Department of State they do offer their own press conferences And that kind, of but not everything is necessarily so easily digested by Americans across the country who may feel that things happening in Washington aren't really associated with their daily lives and have much impact on what they care about their aspirations. So think tanks, you know, we also you'll see a lot of times on the Sunday shows or the evening TV shows trying to break down big things that are happening for the US government and operating a fairly even-handed perspective. Sometimes the government working on things that outside experts don't think are reasonable. Sometimes they're doing things that are reasonable, and we suggest they should double down. So part of it is helping to shape and guide things that governments working on, particularly in foreign policy. Some of it is translating what's happening. The American public, which otherwise doesn't always get a clear message and could use an independent voice sometimes from experts that have been in government a lot of times and offer their own breakdown what's happening. So that's kind of the major roles that think tanks play in Washington.

10:55 Karan Takhar
Thank you for expanding on that. I know a lot of young people interested in international fields. Listen to this podcast when you were hiring for entry-level positions or engaging with Young professionals interested in entering a space. Are there any particular skills or qualities? You look for. 

11:17 Rick Rossow
 Yeah, I'll talk a little bit about things that I look for and things I think that would serve folks well that are thinking about getting into the. First of all, let's talk about if you want to get into international relations. There's two major pathways that folks can think about taking. Number one, you can begin studying and working on big issues where there's probably a crowded field you know right now if you're working in. China 15 years ago. It was in the Middle East, and learning Arabic and things like that, there's always a few spaces that are pretty good. If that really kind of attracts you, and you want to move into that space. Just know it's going to be a very competitive environment, and you've got to find ways to get your voice above others that are going to be in that space. So I would just say it takes an extra dose of confidence, I think to move into the crowded spaces, or you got that self-confidence where you think that for an area that's going to be pretty crowded when you get in the workforce that you can, stand out and finding ways to be able. To stand out, you know, and we'll touch on that in just a second, you know, it's going to be pretty important the other Ave is finding something that is not quite as busy, not quite as packs, but for me, it
was India getting on with India back in 1998 today. Of course, it's one of our ten largest trading partners. We are India's largest defence exercise partner with one of the largest military suppliers from India Advantage Point, where the largest trade partner. So the relationship today versus what we saw 25 years ago is tremendous. It's grown tremendously. But I don't think anybody are not very few people, and certainly not me back in 98 knew that it was going to take off quite this much. So for me, it wasn't thoughtful getting into it. It just ended up being very fortuitous but for folks that are thinking about getting into international relations, grab countries or regions or topics where you're pretty sure that something big is about to happen, something that the world is going to care about there are very large countries out there like Bangladesh, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Malaysia, a very large country, Turkey, or you don't have the level of depth that you would, for instance, Russia, China, India, and other places. Could also be topics there was a lot of concern in Washington right now about China's ability to dominate global supply chains in areas like critical minerals and strategic technology data flows, developments and infrastructure and some of those areas you've got increasing attention, but still plenty of space, So when you're thinking about getting international relations picking a very busy topic, but trying to find spaces to make your voice. You know loud is going to be one way or the other Grabbed something nobody else is working on. Now for me, when I'm hiring at CSIS for junior staff, that are usually their first or second job out of college, there are a few things that I look for number one, are they already doing things that I would consider useful in my role and they do it in kind of their daily lives. I would say when I get in a stack of 200 resumes, which is probably about the number that I get for most basic applications for starting jobs. Half of them have very little India or maybe no India experience then you're down to about 100. Half of those, and maybe even a little bit more are focused on issues that I don't do. They focus on things like South Asian Stability, India, Pakistan, things like that that's not what I do I do India economic reform, States and a little bit on the US-Indian defence. The ones that really kind of stand out, though, the six or seven that I will usually call in for an interview, they tend to already exhibit even in their private lives, even when they're not on the clock, things that I would want employees to do. They are writing blogs, they're doing research. I mean, you could just tell the passion on doing this stuff, really kind of bleeds through. So I always kind of say that if you cancel your Netflix cancel, your Amazon Prime account cancel. Whatever it is sorry to those companies in case somebody listening but for somebody that really wants to be successful in this field got to outwork everybody else and how working means that on the weekends you are reading better stuff than others are reading, you are writing stuff and look if you can get a blog you. In the New York Times every week that's great, but even if you're just getting something in a blog, that. You yourself create that is way, way better than nothing. So when somebody comes in for an informational interview with me, if they bring three blog posts, they wrote on the importance of some Indian state elections of what it means for economic reform. In that state, bomb and love that's what I work on, and I know they might have wrote that 'cause they were coming to see me, and I'm the Indian states guy, but that's great, 'cause. You know, sometimes I got stuff that I'm paying to do that if somebody shows me to do it for free on the free time that's very exciting. So that's from a think tank? That's kind of the pureplay. Do they have novel ideas? Are they? Put them on paper and what do they read and research reading and research is a big one for me too. I look at that piece. It's great that they noted if it mostly references other news articles, and then I knock it down a few points if they show that there's somebody that reads thorough root material great technical studies by the World Bank staff or the Asian Development Bank, you know, if they're looking at the Reserve Bank of India, which does great technical work if. They're looking for real sources of information, not simply reading a bunch of newspaper articles and then giving me a book report about the red, that's great. I love that when people look at they read laws, they reap regulations. They read reports by technical experts, and they look for really cool insights and information from those that you just can't get out of the newspaper article for the most, and that's very thrilling to me. So that's kind of the second bucket is where do they go to probation and how deep is it the third thing that I would say is networking. It's hard to somebody who's just graduating College to have a big network, so it's not always such a big differentiator. For somebody who's just kind of applying for their first job but pretty quickly, if you're going to thrive in Washington DC, you've got to be a good networker. You can be the smartest policy person in town, but if you don't leave your office nobody didn't know who you are and nobody going to read your stuff, and you're gonna miss all your good idea being influential is a mix of ideas and network you got to know people, and they got to know that when they see your e-mail with your recent report, if State Department looks at something I send, I think. Oh God, I see Rick every week at reception. I'd better reduce thing 'cause I'm going to see him, he's gonna ask me about it that's good, 'cause at least they're reading it plenty of times I wrote stuff that I knew should have been a high impact, and it just didn't go to the right folks, making sure that you're constantly building out your network is really important and that's hard for your first job sometimes, especially if you didn't go to one of the foreign service schools here in DC Georgetown, George Washington, American Catholic and such but it's important, and I always appreciate when folks from across America, I get probably place. I get college students to reach out to me and say hey I want to do is give foreign policy. Can I reach out for a console? I always say yes because the fact that they reached out to me it shows they got one of the skills that you need to survive in DC and thrive. The ability to pick up the phone and call somebody you don't know or e-mail him and just ask to grab some other time that's a huge part of my day. Every day finding interesting people that should be active in my work that I've done and you can sit back and wait for him to come to you and you might get really old really tired before anybody does so being an aggressive network is huge, so writing a research on your free time get good material to do it and network the heck out of everything. You can get those three things in your pocket. You can do pretty well in this space.

18:31 Karan Takhar
That was amazing. I learned so much. Thank you for sharing all of that I'd love to hear about how you feel that the relationship has evolved, maybe from like the early 2000s until today. I know that's a pretty extensive period, but Do you feel like ties have gotten a lot closer, especially commercially? Are you seeing that more businesses in the US are starting to invest more money into India as opposed to other regions?

19:03 Rick Rossow
There are two important threads that I'd say even kind of predate that and I won't spend a lot of time on these, but I would say our ability to help India on meeting its development targets the United States and I say that meaning government, meaning private sector or meeting private philanthropies have been helping India overcome major hurdles on food security Water sanitation, we're certainly not there in the United States isn't the thing that's going to make it happen but we've been a supportive partner really since India achieved independence in 47. So that thread has been there, and it's grown, but you know, basically, his has always kind of been there similarly Indian Americans. I mean, this is a really big deal. There are, as you know, millions of Indian Americans in Indian nationals living in the United States. They come here to study they come here for technology jobs. They come here to do professional services, what a link that is hardly any family that I know in India doesn't have multiple family members that are living in the United States and thriving here and doing extremely well. So that also is grown but that thread bar predates, I think, this latest first of activity the two areas that I'll focus more on my conversation. I think are the commercial realm and the security realm. The commercial realm, you know, was about 20 years ago that you finally began to see commercial relations really starting to stick and grow, and that was driven primarily by TV services back in the year 2000. There's just a strange set of circumstances that came together. You had a major telecom reform the year before. In 1999 that brought down. The price in India for international long distance, including data then you had Y2K when suddenly every company in America needed to go through millions of lines of code to find out if there's going to be inconsistencies and this massive technology based in India that was just looking for gainful employment. So suddenly now it's kind of the first time that a lot of major U.S. companies began doing significant work with India trying to resolve any challenges they're going to face when the clock moved from December 31st, 99 to January 1st, 2000 and that IT service thing has just been building ever since then, but you know, the commercial relationship is really expanded since then you've got a lot of major U.S. companies that are manufacturing there you do see a lot of Indian companies are making investments here in the United States. So today, the United States is India's largest goods trading partner and as large as services trade partner in India from the US vantage point has been creeping up the chain as well of our largest commercial partners. So today, it's our 9th largest good trading partner and these are all good things. You know you kind of see the complexity of things that companies are doing in India expanding. You've got a lot of US Internet Companies out there you've got a lot of retail companies that are doing work out there, so it's been pretty successful not without its challenges. India still has a lot of regulations, sometimes new regulations that limit the playing field, visa vie foreign companies versus domestic but overall, you know, it really is kind of the sunrise. So we think India is about to pass China as the world's most populous nation, and in the next 20 years, it'll probably become the third-largest economy in the world that's only going to grow. So it's still not a perfect and easy place to do business, but more and more American companies making the choice to be there and similarly, you see a lot more Indian companies making investments back here in the United States. So the commercial promise is incredible, and the numbers are terrific lot of good things happening there.

22:20 Karan Takhar
On the defence?

22:21 Rick Rossow
And security there, I think both countries about 20 years ago began sending signals to each other after the 1962 China invasion of India when the United States quickly offered military supplies and support after that, you really don't have that many high points on US Indian Defence relations the United States with building relations with both China and Pakistan during the cold or Indian Font Wars with both, and so that became, I think, a pretty big divide between our two countries. India began looking to the Soviet Union for supplying a lot of its defence equipment which still is the case today, where much of India's military is driven by Russian-made defence equipment. So about 20 years ago, you finally began to see a little bit of nascent momentum, the United States supported India back in 1999, during its conflict with Pakistan over Cargill, and that was the first time whoever gave such unambiguous support to I supported the United States declaring our intentions build a missile defence shield early in the George W Bush administration, there were some really significant signals that we sent to each other, but the most earth-shattering was in 2005, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington, met with President George W Bush, and the two nations announced their intention to begin sharing civilian nuclear tech, of course, you know, the United States non-proliferation regime is basically set up so that five countries were declared nuclear weapons states. Every other country in the world was supposed to Foursquare of the development nuclear weapons, and in exchange, the nuclear powers would share nuclear technology for energy production. Well, India fell outside this when they tested in 1998 as did Pakistan so for the United States to allow a declared nuclear weapons state that wasn't one of the originals to get access to nuclear energy technology is the first time that that door had ever been cracked open for anyone and so that really began to get people thinking, wow, the ceiling for this relationship is way, way different than we ever thought. Then you began to see a lot of other things happening the expansion of defence exercises, the United States 20 years ago winning its first defence deal, and today we've got a little over $20 billion in total defence sales to India. So it really the momentum is really been increasing and I would say originally you know, 20 years ago it was on it was unwritten and unstated lot of times  but as both countries were hedging their bets a little bit to be China, you wouldn't see China listed on joint statements or press remarks from either country. You know, I think the United States and, to some extent, India was still kind of hoping that, you know, after 30 years of kind of unsuccessful attempts to try to get China to confirm a little bit more with the system that had been built around it. Some began to lose hope or at least hedge other. Let's, and when you think over the next 1500 years for Asian security, there aren't that many countries. They're going to have to really give a counterpunch to China if they try something belligerent and aggressive in the region. India is one of the only ones may be the only one you know 5000 years out and so, you know, some Americans began playing a few other bets on the table in India was pretty smart one to try. It took a little while, but India began reciprocating. So today, you know, you do see a pretty vibrant defence relationship now. It's narrow, right? It's, big in the sense that it's focused on the threat, you know, up there with climate change. China that we all look at and say, you know, this is what's going to define the security elements of our children and grandchildren but it's also very narrow the United States and then you don't have a lot of overlap in terms of our security assessments in other parts of the world. So India has been very comfortable, you know, basically giving a pass to Russia with the invasion Ukraine. They had citizens that were killed during the ISIS takeover of large slots in the Middle East, but they wouldn't join the counter-ISIS coalition. So all these threats that the United States season is active on India has chosen not to be an active participant but at least when it comes to China, there's a lot of overlap and our shared assessments and a lot more coordination that's happening. So a lot of good things happening in that space. So that's about kind of how I look at the commercial side and the security side.

26:27 Karan Takhar
In terms of the opportunity, the commercial opportunity moving forward, what are some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order for the US and India to really get to the next level on the commercial front?

26:43 Rick Rossow
The biggest area are frankly a lot of the issues that are more defined by state governments rather than the national government. When you talk to American companies that have made substantial investments in India on big manufacturing or infrastructure in the last ten years, they will talk far more about the issues they've had to face at the state level then they will about getting approvals in New Delhi. If you want to make an investment, apart from a few sectors that are considered security risks, you can go in with 100% foreign investment just fill out paperwork and file it with the Reserve Bank. You don't need a group to approve it the way they used to for every investment. If you got some environmental clearances, there's a there's a national-level approval process if you're in sectors like defence production. There's other licensing pools but by merge, it's not so bad but then you start talking about the real risk of doing business in India first of all, you need to acquire land if you're going to be or something buying land is really, really difficult. It's a dirty business, very corrupt clearing that land and working with contractors can be bad hiring labour. You know, you still have a lot of oppressive regulations where you got more than 50 workers, for instance. You need to get permission before you lay people off. You know you got a lot of these oppressive regulations to with what your workforce more and more state governments are actually forcing local hiring. So you go to a very cosmopolitan city like Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai. You might have folks from all kinds of different states in India that it moved there for opportunity but those state governments are concerned that nationals from their state or losing employment so you may not be able to hire the people that are best for the job because of state mandates talk about access to electricity. You can't go any place in India and plug in a manufacturing facility and be sure about having 100% reliable electric power all day long, every day. It's choppy even in the best parts of India, and the same thing for water and sanitation. So Delhi has done a pretty good job of getting itself out of the way and really making sure that most of the impediments to doing business, setting up big operations in India, that Delhi is not the main detract then it comes down to state governments, and the big challenge you see is today a state government has about a 50% reelection rate. Which means that you make a bet over five years on, on state government, you start building relations. You do the right thing. They may be gone in just a couple of years, and the new folks may come on and tear up contracts the previous government did. They're going to claim that they were corrupt and illegal and this and that it can be a messy affair. So that's where the challenge is I see right now on the commercial relationship if more Indian states, I think, would start pulling up the orders on getting their business environment right then, I think. You'd see a real Big Spike, and trade and investment start to take off and as Indian Firms themselves. This isn't only about American companies, I mean all these same things are applicable to Indian companies if they became more competitive two then I think you might see a lot more trade-friendly policies in India as well.

29:33 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much, Mr Rossow. Thank you Really appreciate you taking the time. I hope you enjoyed that episode, and do check out the show notes For more information on my guest. See you next time.

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