Stephen Philip Cohen (1936-2019) (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
STEPHEN PHILIP COHEN’S gift for weaving a world around himself was not singular. What was singular was the world he wove, the circumstances he laboured under to do so, and the impact on the wider world of that microcosm. Cohen, who passed away on October 27th at the age of 83, fathered the field of South Asian security studies. Security studies in a South Asian context did exist before him but wouldn’t have acquired an institutional character in his absence.
From the perspective of 2019, five decades or so after Steve Cohen began the work that would invest him with near-heroic status, it’s easy to let our now 20-year-old certainties obscure the difficulties that circumscribed a lone man’s efforts to persist in what he considered important. Circumscribed, because Cohen the influencer had to retreat from the factory of opinion-making that determined the strategic power play. Heroic, because Cohen the scholar worked away in the relative quietude of Urbana-Champaign, at the University of Illinois, producing ideas and intellectuals that would go on to influence, and inherit, South Asia’s role in a new world order.
Among the things we take for granted is the India-US strategic partnership. We also take for granted the nuclear shadow the subcontinent has lived under. Cohen, by neither chance nor design but perhaps by the force of karma, found himself at the centre of it all. When he published India: Emerging Power in the late-1970s, relations between New Delhi and Washington DC had been cooling for more than a decade. Let alone academic interest in South Asia, the region itself was not fashionable or deemed important any longer, especially given the space China was carving out for itself in the mindspace and corridors of power in DC. For its part, India ensured relations came as close to freezing as possible without getting snowed under. Every ill was blamed on America and every American was greeted with suspicion. Cohen did not escape Delhi’s paranoia. But his significance was magnified by the fact that he remained the bridge that refused to be washed away. It was a time when the 2005 Indo-US civil nuclear deal couldn’t be imagined, as it still couldn’t be 20-odd years later in the aftermath of Pokhran II, although by then a post-liberalisation India had reduced the bilateral distance.
A part of the task that Cohen had assigned himself was convincing Indians that they could be friends with America and that Americans, in general, harboured no ill will towards them. At the same time, his insights continued to lay out the contours and specifics of how and why India mattered and would matter more. For one who had, as a graduate student in the mid-1960s, written about the prospects of India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons (almost a full decade before Pokhran I), Cohen was uniquely positioned to assume the mantle of South Asian security studies and also argue against sanctions post-Pokhran II. In the process, he also became an equal expert on Pakistan. His early books on the Pakistani and Indian militaries were pioneering works in a field not yet the subject of major research in the West. If The Indian Army: Its Contribution to the Development of a Nation studied the Indian armed forces against the backdrop of their own history, the book that he co-authored with Sunil Dasgupta in 2010—Arming Without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization—examined the lack of a strategic framework to India’s understanding of its own military priorities. It remains essential reading even when Delhi has put geostrategy high on its agenda and doesn’t need to be convinced about military reforms.
To those who knew him, especially his students, Cohen—who was a senior foreign policy fellow at Brookings Institution since 1998—was a generous man. That breadth of spirit extended to his worldview. The India-Pakistan rift caused him anguish and he feared a long-term conflict in the subcontinent. Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum (2013), one of his last works, was an expression of that fear. A perfect tribute to this high priest of security studies would be a bridging of distances in South Asia.