Michael KreponIn Memoriam: Stephen Philip Cohen

Quote of the week:

“This is the time for some hurtful truths.”
— Stephen Philip Cohen, Preface, The Future of Pakistan

Appreciations of a life well lived deserve to be in the present tense. A body fails. A spirit released from human lament leaves this earthly plane. But a person’s good works live on.

Family is legacy, and Steve Cohen’s partner in life, Bobby, and their children have much to be proud of. Steve also has two professional legacies that remain with us. One is his body of written work; the other is his imprint on those – a very large number – he helped along the way.

Steve introduces us to The Indian Army (1971) and The Pakistan Army (1984). He is the first among us to publish a collection of essays on nuclear dangers on the subcontinent. This book, Nuclear Proliferation in South Asia: The Prospects for Arms Control (1991), is built around a central question that has grown every year that nuclear capabilities have outpaced diplomatic engagement on the subcontinent: “What combination of political agreements and technological arrangements would make it possible for India and Pakistan not to go to war?”

Steve is also the first among us to delve deeply into crises and crisis management in South Asia. The Stimson Center’s body of work in this area builds on his classic Four Crises and a Peace Process (2007), an expansion of his earlier investigation of the 1990 “Compound Crisis.” These monographs are pathbreaking collaborative investigations among U.S., Indian and Pakistani analysts. Steve’s many co-authors, notables that include P.R. Chari, Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema and Kanti Bajpai, carry on his tradition of teaching and mentoring. Ranga Chari, who passed in 2015, and Steve now have another opportunity to collaborate.

Steve’s reflections of a lifetime of study come to us through his association with the Brookings Institution. In India: Emerging Power (2002), he characterizes India as “the weakest of the great states,” and helps us understand how India is a complex weave of idealist and realist strands. Far earlier than most, Steve forecasts that India “is no longer seen as a predictable and reticent state, but a country that other powers have to understand and accommodate.”

Steve and Sunil Dasgupta offer us a trenchant assessment of India’s quest to become a major regional power in Arming Without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization (2010). They focus on the dilemmas of attempting to modernize armed forces amidst procurement pathologies, strained civil-military connectivity, and the absence of an overarching national security strategy. The India they write about has “a deeply ingrained tradition of strategic restraint.” As this changes, and as India seeks to be more assertive, the need for a sound national security strategy becomes more pressing.

Steve is a wise chronicler of Pakistan’s travails. In The Future of Pakistan (2011), he and his contributors do not spare criticism. In Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum (2013), Steve offers us “conditional pessimism.” He traces a relationship in decline, but one that can still be stabilized. Steve’s pessimism deepens over time. He has much company.

Steve is one of my mentors. I first spent quality time with him — perhaps in 1992 — when he was moonlighting at the Ford Foundation’s office in India. To this day, I remain in awe of his driving skills. I was used to controlled chaos on the roads from time spent in Cairo, but Delhi’s roads were in need of upgrades and dodging cows was new to me.

Steve’s commitment to mentoring remains part and parcel of who he is. He, Chris Smith and I nurtured Track II dialogues for rising talent in India and Pakistan. We convened in places like Neemrana (before it was a four-star hotel) and Murree in the 1990s, when it was still possible to pry visas from the authorities to enable cross-border learning experiences.

Steve is the master of quips. My favorite is his characterization of the Kashmir dispute as two bald men fighting over a comb. This sounds heretical, but Steve is perfectly fine with heresies. His quip reflects the fundamental truth that, as a territorial issue, the Kashmir dispute ended long ago – well before the advent of offsetting nuclear capabilities that made territorial change crazy to seek.

Steve also teaches us that Kashmir remains fundamental in the national concepts of both India and Pakistan. This aspect of the Kashmir dispute won’t die. It’s now gotten depressingly worse.

We still have Steve around to help us all find higher ground. Thankfully, we can keep his company through his good works and the networks he created.

Note to readers: This appreciation first appeared in the South Asian Monitor.

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