The United States and South Asia: Core Interests and Policies and Their Impact on Regional Countries

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

August 11, 2003

Several developments over the last decade ensure that South Asia will remain a region of concern to the United States for years to come. This paper summarizes America’s re-engagement with the region, and explores critical policy choices, especially concerning Pakistan, that America must soon make.


On the eve of September 11, most American observers saw India as “rising,” Pakistan floundering, and the Taliban as the dominant force in Afghanistan. The nuclear programs of both India and Pakistan continued apace, and there was little strategic interest in the rest of the region.

India had ridden out the angry storm whipped up by its 1998 nuclear tests and accommodation by the United States was at hand. India’s strategic community basked in diplomatic glory. Delhi had resisted the Americans, absorbed the sanctions, and sought, and soon received, tacit U.S. acceptance of its new nuclear status. India’s economy continued to grow at a healthy rate, its domestic politics were no more chaotic than one would expect of a country undergoing simultaneous economic, class, caste, and ideological revolutions.

The Bush administration built upon Clinton’s “discovery of India” and set out to create a comprehensive and positive relationship with New Delhi. It valued India’s expanding political and economic power and its democratic political order. Strategically, New Delhi was viewed as a potential counterweight to a rising China. Like its predecessor, the Bush administration recognized the potential political importance of Indian-Americans, and sought to harmonize its foreign policy goals in South Asia with the desires of this affluent community.