About Stephen P. Cohen, Historian, Political Scientist & Security Analyst

Michael Roberts

When I was on a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Chicago in 1970-71, one of the postgraduate students in the South Asia Program was Stephen P. Cohen, born in 1938 as I am. My memories are of Cohen as a historian of the Indian army; but he has expanded his range and gone on to great heights. He has at least 12 books under his belt (some co-authored) and is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. He has served the State Department and is considered “an expert on Pakistan, India, and South Asian security.” J L Khayyam Coelho tells us that Cohen began his ascent to his current position as the US doyen of “South Asia” strategic studies in 1979 when he co-authored a book called India: Emergent power.  

     Since then his books include

  • The Indian Army: Its Contribution to the Development of a Nation (2nd revd edn in 2001)
  • The Pakistan Army (second revised edition, 1998)
  • India: Emerging Power (2001)
  • The Compound Crisis of 1990: Perception, Politics and Insecurity (2003)
  • The Idea of Pakistan (2004)

More recently, he has joined Sunil Das Gupta in producing Arming Without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization (2010). The flier for this book runs thus:

India’s growing affluence has led experts to predict a major rearmament effort. The second-most populous nation in the world is beginning to wield the economic power expected of such a behemoth. Its border with Pakistan is a tinderbox, the subcontinent remains vulnerable to religious extremism, and a military rivalry between India and China could erupt in the future. India has long had the motivation for modernizing its military—it now has the resources as well. What should we expect to see in the future, and what will be the likely ramifications? In Arming without Aiming, Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta answer those crucial questions.

India’s armed forces want new weapons worth more than $100 billion. But most of these weapons must come from foreign suppliers due to the failures of India’s indigenous research and development. Weapons suppliers from other nations are queuing up in New Delhi. A long relationship between India and Russian manufacturers goes back to the cold war. More recently, India and Israel have developed strong military trade ties. Now, a new military relationship with the United States has generated the greatest hope for military transformation in India.

Against this backdrop of new affluence and newfound access to foreign military technology, Cohen and Dasgupta investigate India’s military modernization to find haphazard military change that lacks political direction, suffers from balkanization of military organization and doctrine, remains limited by narrow prospective planning, and is driven by the pursuit of technology free from military-strategic objectives. The character of military change in India, especially the dysfunction in the political-military establishment with regard to procurement, is ultimately the result of a historical doctrine of strategic restraint in place since Nehru. In that context, its approach of arming without strategic purpose remains viable as India seeks great-power accommodation of its rise and does not want to look threatening. The danger lies in its modernization efforts precipitating a period of strategic assertion or contributing to misperception of India’s intentions by Pakistan and China, its two most immediate rivals.

Khayyam Coelho, however, provides a different spin on Stephen Cohen in an acerbic review of his approach and methodology; “Cohen, like all his compatriots, is neither friend nor foe of either India or Pakistan. His fundamental purpose is to protect what he believes to be the interests of the United States within the Subcontinent. And what he believes is that India is a threat to US interests.”

I am not qualified to evaluate this assessment, though the vigour of Coelho’s prose and the emphasis on Indian interests suggests the need for caution in accepting the critique at face vale. Readers can find the lengthy text within http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/MONITOR/ISSUE6-1/Cohen.html

What should interest Sri Lankan readers an d specialists is the measured and knowledgeable manner in which Cohen handled a series of searching questions from Shamindra Ferdinando (see earlier post). Among the gems that I highlight are these:

A) “For the Indians, Sri Lanka [has been] their Vietnam. … General Krishnaswamy Sundarji … India’s Chief of Army staff in New Delhi at the height of the Indian presence in Sri Lanka … was supremely overconfident of what the Indian Army could do here.”

B} The firm statement that the Sri Lankan government’s policies was the prime reason for its ultimate triumph and that this included the decision to “giv[e] up the dialogue with Tigers which wasn’t going anywhere” –backed by the

C) admission that Cohen himself “was also pessimistic about the outcome of a negotiated settlement.”

D) The refusal to use the vocabulary of “terrorism” loosely: “countries have to be careful in labeling persons or groups as terrorists…. So the language has to be used carefully. In the case of the Tamils, though I am not an expert, there is a long history of grievances and there is no doubt about unfair practices, but then the kind of methods the Tigers used, particularly to wipe out moderate Tamils, was terrorism.

E) “Now that the war is over, Sri Lanka should take tangible action to address long standing grievances experienced by ethnic minorities.”

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Filed under military strategy, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

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