Professor Stephen Philip Cohen, pioneer of South Asian security studies, who passed away on Oct 28 in the United States, will be remembered with affection and respect across a region that he explored and researched for more than 50 years.
In a recent interview, the long-time professor of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recalled that he had begun studying India as a young graduate student in 1964 in the larger context of the geopolitics of Asia.
He had then argued that India could consider acquiring nuclear weapons. This view was a very unorthodox one at that time.
Steve, as he preferred to be called, did refine his views about regional strategic developments over the years. In many ways, his professional trajectory corresponded with the vagaries and contradictions that formed the substance and subtext of the complex, and often troubled, relationship between India and the US.
The bilateral dynamic moved from deep estrangement over security interests to cautious engagement in the 1974-2008 period.
For those of us who were growing up in India in the 1970s, the dissonance in the India-US relationship was an article of faith.
Many of us internalised the image of the “ugly American”, as distilled from the Vietnam War and the US stance in the 1971 Bangladesh war, even though we were embarrassed about the food aid that India got from the US.
It was against this backdrop that my association began with Steve in Dec 1990 at a track 1.5 meeting, when the Cold War was in its last stages. Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar had just assumed office in a wobbly manner in November and the US was preparing for the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq.
Coordinating myriad activities
At that time, I was a young researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). The institute had been nominated as the nodal point for this meeting, and one was the equivalent of the ship’s cat and a multi-tasked novice sherpa for this interaction in distant Khadakwasla.
This was a period when there were no cell phones or computers. And one moved on foot/bus/two-wheeler from Sapru House (the then IDSA office) to South Block to coordinate myriad activities.
As I shuttled from one meeting to another to receive and relay agenda points, the most useful input given to me by a senior diplomat was that there would be banana peels and mishaps on both sides. But if there was a logjam, I was to contact a professor Steve Cohen — who was part of the US team.
This was the beginning of a long and fruitful association. Fortuitously for me, it transpired that Steve had spent a brief year at the Andhra University in Visakhapatnam on a research project in the mid-1970s.
When he learnt of my local roots there, he jokingly added that he was considered to be a US agent engaged in espionage.
Steve did some seminal work on the Pakistan army, and enjoyed access at the highest levels including General Zia-ul Haq – a proximity that caused unease and conjecture in Delhi that he was pro-Pakistani and hence anti-Indian. But his later work focused on India and the US’ South Asia policy.
As author-editor of 12 major books and numerous journal articles, Steve groomed scores of young students and policymakers from the region, even as he created space for South Asian security studies in US academia. The more-acclaimed scholars mentored by him include Sumit Ganguly, Kanti Bajpai and Christine Fair among others.
Popular weekly roundtables
Steve also served in government as part of the Policy Planning Staff of the US State Department. He later moved to the Brookings Institution, where he was the South Asian guru whose weekly roundtables were very popular for both researchers and policymakers.
In later years, one recalls a more reflective Steve who had helped create and irrigate a robust ecosystem for South Asian security studies in the US, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
My last meeting with him was at the Cosmos Club in Washington DC a few years ago, where he was physically frail but mentally very alert. Steve reminisced about Delhi, the IDSA and how he both dreaded and looked forward to his meetings with the legendary doyen of Indian strategic studies, and father of the current external affairs minister S Jaishankar, the late K Subrahmanyam, adding: “For a young American scholar, going to Sapru House was like walking into the lion’s den but it was valuable.”
Reading the tea leaves
In December 1990, the agenda for the Khadakwasla bilateral was about a changing Asia and the profile of China. The latter body of Steve Cohen’s work dwelt on this strand in relation to India-Pakistan discord.
In a 2011 essay, he noted perceptively: “India’s reluctance to compromise with a failing Pakistan notwithstanding, China would have every reason to oppose normalisation and it could probably offer Pakistan more reason not (emphasis original) to settle than India could offer Pakistan to settle.”
Clearly, Steve Cohen was reading the regional tea leaves in a very astute and insightful manner from his graduate days in the mid-1960s to the current times, even as regional geo-politics has transmuted from the binary of the Cold war to the messy flux it has now morphed into. RIP Professor Cohen.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. HINDUSTAN TIMES