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U.S. policy toward South Asia: Past, present, and future

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) at the United Nations General Assembly in New York (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque).

Event Information

May 19, 2016
3:30 PM - 5:00 PM EDT

Falk Auditorium
Brookings Institution
1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

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COHEN_South Asia PapersU.S. policy towards South Asia has changed considerably over the last seven decades. The nature of U.S. engagement with different countries in the region has varied over time, as has the level of U.S. interest. While India and Pakistan have received the most attention from Washington, the United States has also been engaging with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, albeit to different degrees. 

On May 19, The India Project at Brookings hosted a panel discussion exploring the past and present U.S approaches towards South Asia, based on Senior Fellow Stephen Cohen’s new book, “The South Asia Papers: A Critical Anthology of Writings” (Brookings Institution Press, 2016). Panelists also assessed the Obama administration’s policies toward the region, and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the next U.S. administration. Fellow Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project, moderated the discussion.

After the discussion, the panelists took questions.




Event Materials


Passages to India: Reflecting on 50 years of research in South Asia

A Master of Business Administration (MBA) student reads a book in a library at the Management Development Institute (MDI) in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of New Delhi May 2, 2012. Fiscal constraints have increased the Indian government's reliance on private education institutes leading to a proliferation of private colleges like MDI. The number of management institutes has more than trebled to around 4000 in the last five years, of which at least two-thirds are estimated to be private colleges. Picture taken May 2, 2012. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Editors’ Note: How do states manage their armed forces, domestic politics, and foreign affairs? Stephen Cohen, senior fellow with the India Project at Brookings, has studied this and a range of other issues in Southeast Asia since the 1960s. In a new book, titled “The South Asia Papers: A Critical Anthology of Writings,” Cohen reflects on more than a half-century of scholarship on India, describing the dramatic changes he has personally witnessed in the field of research. The following is an excerpt from the book’s preface.

[In the 1960s, questions about how states manage their armed forces] were not only unasked in the South Asian context by scholars; they were also frowned on by the Indian government. This made preparation both interesting and difficult. It was interesting because a burgeoning literature on civil–military relations in non-Western states could be applied to India. Most of it dealt with two themes: the “man on horseback,” or how the military came to power in a large number of new states, and how the military could assist in the developmental process. No one had asked these questions of India, although the first was relevant to Pakistan, then still governed by the Pakistani army in the form of Field Marshal Ayub Khan.


During my first and second trips [in the 1960s] my research was as a historian, albeit one interested in the army’s social, cultural, and policy dimensions. I discovered, by accident, that this was part of the movement toward the “new military history.” Over the years I have thus interacted with those historians who were interested in Indian military history, including several of my own students. 

While the standard of historians in India was high in places like the University of Calcutta, military history was a minor field, just as it was in the West. Military historians are often dismissed as the “drums and trumpets” crowd, interested in battles, regiments, and hardware, but not much else. My own self-tutoring in military history uncovered something quite different: a number of scholars, especially sociologists, had written on the social and cultural impact of armed forces, a literature largely ignored by the historians. While none of this group was interested in India, the connection between one of the world’s most complicated and subtle societies, the state’s use of force, and the emergence of a democratic India was self-evident. 


A new generation of scholars and experts, many of them Indians (some trained in the United States) and Indian Americans who have done research in India, have it right: this is a complex civilizational-state with expanding power, and its rise is dependent on its domestic stability, its policies toward neighbors (notably Pakistan), the rise of China, and the policies of the United States. 

The literature that predicts a conflict between the rising powers (India and China), and between them and America the “hegemon,” is misguided: the existence of nuclear weapons by all three states, plus Pakistan, ensures that barring insanity, any rivalries between rising and established states will be channeled into “ordinary” diplomatic posturing, ruthless economic competition, and the clash of soft power. In this competition, India has some liabilities and many advantages, and the structure of the emerging world suggests a closer relationship between the United States and India, without ruling out much closer ties between China and India. 

There remain some questions: Can the present Indian leadership show magnanimity in dealing with Pakistan, and does it have the foresight to look ahead to new challenges, notably environmental and energy issues that require new skills and new international arrangements? Importantly, some of the best work on answering these questions is being done in India itself, and the work of Kanti Bajpai, Amitabh Mattoo, Harsh Pant, C. Raja Mohan, Rajesh Basrur, and others reveals the maturity of Indian thinking on strategic issues. It has not come too soon, as the challenges that India will face are growing, and those of Pakistan are even more daunting.


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