Remembering Steve Cohen — Scholar and mentor

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Editor's note:

Stephen P. Cohen was a valued member of the Brookings family for 21 years, from 1998 until his death following an illness on October 27, 2019. You can learn more about his work here.

Stephen P. Cohen, who passed away this week at the age of 83, was an institution unto himself. Raised in Chicago when local politics was a rough-and-tumble affair and educated in Wisconsin in the midst of a civil rights movement and social upheaval, he brought both cynicism and idealism to the study of war and peace in South Asia. His first forays to India as both a graduate student and young academic were difficult. Delays in attaining a visa meant that he was forced to wait in London, where he trudged through government archives and interviewed former British military commanders in India, such as Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck. With his young family (he is survived by his wife Roberta, four sons, and two daughters), Steve traveled through India, picked up some Hindi in the Himalayan foothills, and produced a socio-political history of the Indian army. This proved the start of a personal journey, but one that would touch the lives and careers of countless others.

The first couple of decades after 1947 had witnessed a considerable growth in contemporary India studies in the United States. But colored by the era’s geopolitics, specializing in India or South Asia become a losing career proposition among many American academics and policymakers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While a lot of his contemporaries moved on to other issues or areas, Steve (along with only a handful of others, such as Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph) stuck it out. In the 1970s, partly frustrated by the difficulty of conducting research in India, given the growing suspicions of American scholars, he produced a book on Pakistan’s army. West of the Radcliffe Line, Steve received considerable access, including to General Zia ul-Haq himself. (He would later joke that Zia did him the ultimate favor: By banning his book, the dictator ensured it would become a bestseller on the black market.)

He would later joke that Zia did him the ultimate favor: By banning his book, the dictator ensured it would become a bestseller on the black market.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Steve dedicated himself to scholarship centered at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he was a tenured professor. He recruited and mentored a large number of doctoral students, including from India and Pakistan. Many of them now occupy top academic positions at leading universities around the world. He also devoted a lot of time to nuclear disarmament studies and initiatives, during a period when India and Pakistan were engaged in furtive efforts to develop their nuclear weapon capabilities. In the 1980s, he spent two years on the policy planning staff of the U.S. State Department, then under the inimitable George P. Shultz. It was an experience that enhanced his standing as an influential voice within policymaking circles, but also instilled a certain irreverence towards Washington.

A decade later, after India and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons in 1998, Steve found himself in high demand and became a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. While many others in his position would have treated this as a post-academic sinecure, Steve launched a second career. Within five years, he produced two books — “India: Emerging Power” and “The Idea of Pakistan” — which became basic introductions to the two countries for U.S. policymakers. In time, however, his focus remained on resolving India-Pakistan tensions, about which he stayed permanently pessimistic (reflected in the title of his book, “Shooting for a Century“). To this end, he produced “Four Crises and a Peace Process” with one Indian and one Pakistani co-author, helped foster a Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in neutral Sri Lanka, and established a number of training and study programs for young Indian and Pakistani security scholars to interact with one another. His skepticism of Indian military modernization efforts found voice in his book “Arming without Aiming” (with Sunil Dasgupta). And throughout this period, he remained incredibly well-connected in the region, and particularly in Pakistan with the country’s military leadership and civilian politicians from all major parties. On her last visit to the United States just two months before her assassination, Benazir Bhutto went out of her way to seek an appointment with him.

Steve’s early scholarship has been built upon by others, such as Steven Wilkinson’s work on the Indian Army and Shuja Nawaz on Pakistan’s. But he will always be remembered for his eagerness to mentor young scholars, and not just his students and assistants. I was but one of several research assistants at Brookings — Dinshaw Mistry, Sunil Dasgupta, Tanvi Madan, Anit Mukherjee, and Constantino Xavier being others — to have been fortunate to have worked under him. Such an intense apprenticeship enabled us to know Steve not just as a scholar but as a human being. His passion for jazz, tennis, fast cars, Mac computers, and the Chicago Bears was matched only by a wry sense of humor (a running joke was his being mistaken for Stephen F. Cohen, the Marxist scholar of Russia, or the other Stephen P. Cohen, a Middle East expert). He will be deeply missed but also celebrated for his personal warmth and loyalty to countless beneficiaries in India, Pakistan, the United States, and around the world.