Stephen P. Cohen is a longstanding friend of Pakistan in Washington DC. Neither facts nor analysis have shaken his faith in the country that he so loves. His new book, Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum is testimony to his belief in Pakistan’s importance. The hyphen says it all.
Intellectually, Cohen’s worldview is weakly realist, rooted in a 1960s vision of South Asia. In that age, the US was preoccupied with managing relations with the Soviet Union and had little time or energy for countries on the periphery. India and Pakistan, two troublesome children born in 1947, were best considered peers. Pakistan got the lollipops; India received admonition and instruction in good behaviour. But strategically in US eyes, both were a single problem.
The ending of the Cold War began loosening this joint. But it took almost 15 years before the effects were visible. The key condition for this change was the demise of the Soviet Union. That, and the emergence of Pakistan as a problem state made realism a less useful framework to look at India-Pakistan ties.
But that was just a moment. China’s “peaceful” emergence was giving sleepless nights to many leaders in the West. India, clocking 8% growth, was considered a good bet against China. But that was then. Today, the US is far more respectful of Chinese wishes and India is, well, back to its muddled ways. Structurally, the world is similar to what it was from 1950 to 1980—dominated by two Great Powers. Regionally, too, this is a recipe for a return to a bygone way of looking at South Asia. It would be interesting to speculate the conditions under which realism and liberal internationalism are good ways to understand how countries deal with each other. What happens when countries grow at a fast rate for a considerable period? Does that change the way they look at their rivals and friends? These questions have not been raised or addressed in this book. Shooting for a Century’s timing is shrewd and it makes its appearance at time when US is changing the way it looks at the world.
Purely from this perspective, this kind of adulterated, Democratic Party version of realism has again made Cohen’s partisan arguments respectable. This allows him to state two, linked, claims. Put a gloss over Islamabad’s internal failures. In Cohen’s vision, the dynamics of the Pakistani state—its espousal of terrorism as state policy, trying to engineer Afghanistan’s politics to its own interest and nuclear recklessness—are not problems or if they are, they don’t matter to Indo-Pak relations. Pakistan’s choices are always reactive and merely a response to what India does. Clearly, South Asia’s problems are of Indian origin.
The obverse of this is the case for rehyphenating India and Pakistan. If only the US were to be more even-handed with the two countries, Islamabad would be better behaved. Cohen’s package (detailed on pages 184-194) includes interesting, but vacuous, ideas. For example, he wants the US to promote India-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan. A strategic expert who makes such an argument ignores the history of Pakistani insecurity and irrational choices in Afghanistan. Dehyphenation is another policy option. But the pièce de résistance is his making a case for the US finding a formula for Islamabad similar to the one that gave India a civilian nuclear deal (p194). Just a page before, he states that: “Pakistan is too nuclear to fail.” Clearly making Pakistan more nuclear is a good recipe for its survival.
Advocacy is a legitimate business and there is nothing wrong in persons with academic training pursuing it. Just that it is important that there be honesty in the venture. Championing a cause and explaining a situation ought to be kept distinct. The book seeks to explain the rivalry and lack of trust between the two countries, but ends up making partisan recommendations. If implemented, these will antagonize India. Equally, they will not pacify the Pakistani establishment but will only whet its appetite for misadventure abroad. Readers looking for explanations need to search them elsewhere; they are not to be found in this book.
Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint.