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India at the global high table

REUTERS/Mike Segar - Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, addresses a plenary meeting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 at United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York, September 25, 2015.

Event Information

April 20, 2016
3:30 PM - 5:00 PM EDT

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

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SCHAFFER_IndiaIn recent decades, India has taken on a growing global presence, one that has been seen as increasing even more since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office nearly two years ago. In a new book, “India at the Global High Table: The Quest for Regional Primacy and Strategic Autonomy” (Brookings Institution Press, 2016), former U.S. ambassadors Teresita Schaffer and Howard Schaffer explore how India is managing its evolving international role, assessing the country’s strategic vision and foreign policy, and the negotiating behavior that links the two.

On April 20, The India Project at Brookings hosted a panel discussion to discuss the book and, particularly, four elements highlighted in it: India’s exceptionalism; its nonalignment and drive for “strategic autonomy;” its determination to maintain regional primacy; and, more recently, its surging economy.

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The South Asia Papers : A Critical Anthology of Writings by Stephen Philip Cohen

COHEN_South Asia Papers
Brookings Institution Press 2016 192pp.

Join us May 19 for the official launch event for The South Asia Papers.

This curated collection examines Stephen Philip Cohen’s impressive body of work.

Stephen Philip Cohen, the Brookings scholar who virtually created the field of South Asian security studies, has curated a unique collection of the most important articles, chapters, and speeches from his fifty-year career. Cohen, often described as the “dean” of U.S. South Asian studies, is a dominant figure in the fields of military history, military sociology, and South Asia’s strategic emergence.

Cohen introduces this work with a critical look at his past writing—where he was right, where he was wrong. This exceptional collection includes materials that have never appeared in book form, including Cohen’s original essays on the region’s military history, the transition from British rule to independence, the role of the armed forces in India and Pakistan, the pathologies of India-Pakistan relations, South Asia’s growing nuclear arsenal, and America’s fitful (and forgetful) regional policy. 


Stephen P. Cohen
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  • {BE4CBFE9-92F9-41D9-BDC8-0C2CC479A3F7}, 9780815728337, $35.00 Add to Cart

Indian foreign policy: Ideas, institutions, and practice

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Inaugural Session of the India-Africa Forum Summit.

Event Information

November 13, 2015
9:00 AM - 10:30 AM EST

Saul/Zilkha Rooms
Brookings Institution
1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made India’s external relations a key focus of his policy agenda over the past year and a half. The recently released book, "The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy" (Oxford Press, 2015), is well-timed. Edited by David M. Malone, C. Raja Mohan, and Srinath Raghavan, the "Handbook" includes essays which focus on the evolution of Indian foreign policy, its institutions and actors, India’s relations with its neighbors, and its partnerships with major world powers.

On November 13, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings hosted a panel discussion featuring some of the contributing authors to the "Handbook." The panelists discussed the current state of Indian foreign policy, its past, and its future, as well as the tools available to India’s foreign policy practitioners today and the constraints they might face.

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Managing intractable conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia

REUTERS/Aamir Qureshi/Pool - Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry (R) holds talks with his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyan Jaishankar at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad, March 3, 2015.

The failure of successive U.S. presidents to sustain a Middle East peace process, and the inability of Presidents Clinton and Obama to promote normalization efforts in South Asia, demonstrates that, in these two regions at any rate, U.S. approaches to top-down diplomacy have not produced conclusive results—or worse—over the last fifty-plus years.

Sometimes strategic wisdom consists of expanding a problem, not narrowing it down. If a coalition can be reached on the larger threat, it might create the framework in which bottom-up and track two approaches might advance. This is especially true in the Middle East and Asia. In these scenarios, the parties might also discover that their cherished strategic positions are, in comparison with new, real threats, less important than they thought.

Neither unique nor exceptional, an “intractable conflict” is usually defined as having lasted for 25 years or longer, with no sign of resolution. Peter Coleman, Valman Volkan, and others have presented the theory that often, such conflicts are civil wars. They certainly have costs. A recent RAND study notes that Israeli-Palestinian peace could have a $183 billion windfall, and India-Pakistan normalization, with the restoration of trade to Central Asia, would yield even more. A Middle East peace would benefit directly nearly 13 million people, whereas the India-Pakistan dispute impacts about one-fifth of the world’s population.

Among the first disputes brought to the U.N. for resolution, these are now 50 years old. Except for periodic moments of crisis, and a few intimations of successful resolution, the world has grown weary of them.

One structural fact underpins each case. A lack of trust in the other side causes embedded hard liners to derail detente. As argued in “Shooting for a Century” (Brookings Institution Press, 2013), this perpetuates the India-Pakistan conflict, whereas in the Israel-Palestine case, it appears that even the status quo is unsustainable, as right wing Likudniks attempt to further diminish the Palestinian presence, while hardline Hamas cadres prepare for the next round of warfare.

Paving the way for diplomatic negotiations

Trusting the other side to uphold a diplomatic agreement is crucial to the success of negotiations—hence President Ronald Reagan’s still useful injunction, “trust but verify”, originally a Russian term. Thus, bottom-up methods that theoretically build people-to-people, business-to-business, and market-to-market ties, could create trusting relationships which pave the way for top-down diplomatic negotiations. These, alone, have regularly failed, but so have well-intentioned bottom-up efforts. The optimism of the foundations is as inexhaustible as their wallets—and they have poured considerable money into the assumption that if only Israelis and Palestinians, or Indians and Pakistanis, would just sit down—preferably with an American interlocutor at a five star resort—that they would realize the error of their ways and pressure the politicians to move down the path of peace. Such efforts are mostly a waste of time and money—excepting those that concentrate upon younger participants whose views have not been set into concrete.

There is, to our knowledge, no programmatic comparison of these conflicts (except one at the University of Karachi), let alone strategies, to resolve or ameliorate them. Here is a preliminary overview:

  • Both disputes involve many issues and other states; Kashmir was identified as the core India-Pakistan issue by Clinton and Obama, but it is more than a territorial issue and involves China; similarly, the West Bank is an element of the identities of Israelis and Palestinians, but so is the status of Jerusalem and the right of return; and Muslims everywhere have taken up the Kashmir cause as they once took up the status of the Palestinian territories. 
  • Each has an element of civil war in which two closely related peoples are in a mostly zero-sum struggle.
  • All four states see themselves as the victim, surrounded by threats, a vulnerable minority still haunted by apocalyptic visions with paranoia baked into the political culture.
  • This allows such states to do unacceptable things in the name of fighting for their very existence.
  • Rarely will one of these four parties take a first step; never a second or third, hence the term “intractable.”
  • In both, there is an ultimate absence of trust; all sides have resorted to “other means” when diplomacy has run its course. 
  • In both, there is a notable decline in social and cultural interaction between the parties; both regions had greater mobility and economic integration under the Ottoman and Mughal empires than they do now.
  • There is a “peace process” in each case—more realistically, a normalization process—using open trade relations, the movement of people, a low expectation of war, and cooperation in restraining those who would disrupt the process.
  • All four states have “blockers,” that try to ensure that normalization does not lead to an unfavorable peace.
  • Determined Israeli settlers and Palestinian hard-liners who seek a one-state solution at the other's expense, Pakistan Intelligence Service (the ISI), and Modi’s ultra-conservative base are South Asia’s leading blockers; so is India’s Congress Party, which, except for Mahatma Gandhi, assumed that Pakistan would collapse, and whose leader, Indira Gandhi, used force to vivisect Pakistan, thus ensuring permanent Pakistani paranoia—and an “Islamic” bomb. 
  • As for the armies and intelligence services in all of these states, they are paid to be skeptical and they duly earn their salaries.

The role of democracy and the United States

Democracy seems to play less a role than the existence of “created” minorities. The identities of all four states are severely defined by a partition. As the scholar Itty Abraham has written, “geopolitics and partition created natural enemies within the state, and natural allies outside of it; partition multiplied insecurity, it did not end it.”

Secularism is fragile in both parts of the world, thus, U.S. values do not always sit well in Pakistan or Israel, or even in India, where some in the BJP would welcome an Islamic Pakistan, if they could get a Hindu India; in the Palestinian territories, Hamas has turned out to be an extremist religious party, while Fatah is more moderate, and the two have an uneasy relationship.

The role of the United States is mixed: it is intermittently engaged in each pair, but its main role has been to contain conflict or prevent the states from going nuclear. (Yet, even in this, it turned a blind eye to both the Israeli and Pakistani nuclear programs, and normalized relations with nuclear New Delhi as soon as it could). America still has not committed itself to a position either on Jerusalem or Kashmir, Gaza or the West Bank. Unusually, it did declare that the Kashmir Line of Control (forcefully violated by Pakistan in 1999), was tantamount to an international border, but it has failed to turn this into policy. President Obama asked his staff about Kashmir just before his recent visit to New Delhi: They quickly dissuaded him from talking about it like President Bill Clinton, who called Kashmir “the most dangerous place on earth.”

Two paths to normalization

There are theoretically two paths to normalization. “Top-down,” artfully described in the European context by the American scholar Charles Kupchan. This involves consensus among the strategic leadership, followed by a progressive opening up, so that two societies, nations, and economies become intertwined and therefore mutually dependent. “Bottom-up” first involves trade, people-to-people diplomacy, and cultural ties, with the assumption that this will persuade leaders to normalize. Realistically, both approaches have to be present, but none have brought either dispute to a resolution. Nor have the participants tired, the grievances and fears of the past have mostly been transferred from generation to generation.

Sometimes outsiders can induce or force an agreement. In South Asia, the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, brokered by the World Bank but conceived in America, was a milestone. It is now significant because it was the last major successful agreement between India and Pakistan. Both sides regret having signed it, and despite later agreements, there has been nothing that led to a reciprocal negotiation process. Even the 1971 Simla agreement between Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a failure. It supposedly led to a settlement in Kashmir and a new set of rules for both sides, but in reality it led directly to the Pakistani nuclear weapon and gloating in New Delhi that Pakistan had finally been put in its place.

In the Middle East, there have been summits aplenty, most of them promoted by America—notably the Camp David meetings—but these have been followed by a hardening of positions in Israel and among Palestinians. The disappearance of a liberal Israeli government, and the rise of a militant PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah, has brought Israel and the Palestinian territories back to square one. The United States is content with supporting low-level initiatives, valuable in themselves, but hardly a strategy. For example, USAID-funded the venerated Near East Foundation to support its Olive Oil Without Borders program, that links olive growers in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Israelis allow this, because it does no harm and placates American liberals; similarly, the U.S. government and foundations support several “Track Two” dialogues, although some of these may be endangered by a tougher Indian line on support for “sensitive” (e.g. anything that is not under government control) security programs. It is hard to be optimistic about a resolution of either dispute. Studies such as that by RAND about theoretical future benefits cannot overcome the passions of the moment and the memories of the past.

Yet, the current situation in the Middle East and South Asia suggests a third approach: a regional context. Besides the classic realpolitik top-down approach, and the good-intentioned bottom-up, it may be the case that if both parties agree on a shared threat that a sustainable agreement could be achieved.

The threat of chaos and Islamic radicalism

In both regions, that threat is now a combination of chaos and Islamic radicalism. This has already brought new contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and has generated a Chinese interest in Pakistan that goes beyond the latter’s obvious role as balancer of India.

The United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, China, and most Pakistanis and many Palestinians and Israelis, as well as every European state, do not want to see either region succumb to a genuine revolutionary Sunni Islamic movement. This provides a common ground, a shared set of interests. They are evident most clearly in Afghanistan, where no one (including most Afghans) wants to see the Islamic State (or ISIS) replace the Afghan-centric Taliban.

Iran could be a partner in such an agreement; can the United States after the recent nuclear agreement bring itself to work with Tehran to counter Sunni extremism that threaten Iran and the West? The proper model here is how the United States worked with Stalin’s USSR to defeat the Nazis in World War II. Washington worked with Iran after 9/11—but that was before President George Bush’s assertion that they were part of the axis of evil.

While the U.S. government must put more emphasis on bottom-up peace-building efforts, it should also understand the reason why these two conflicts are also intractable, and that a combination of approaches—not one alone—will take time. In both regions an ironic opportunity to start a sustainable process may be at hand because of the emergence of new and greater threats.

A further irony is that conservative leaders often try to forge peace deals (Nixon and China, Begin and Sadat, and Vajpayee and Musharraf). In these cases, hard-liners support the conservative initiative, while the doves would be hypocritical not to support it; conversely, when doves try to make peace, the hawks block it.

We observe that when a nation’s identity is formed around a single external enemy only a newer and greater threat can refocus attention in another direction. We also observe that in some of these countries (notably Pakistan and Hamas), internal developments and reform take second place to the external bogey man, and it looks to some outsiders that these countries do not want to normalize because their internal issues would cause their stability to implode. Here is an opportunity for leaders in the Middle East and South Asia to use the larger threat of chaos and extremism to justify their entry into a process that might not yield an idealized and unreachable “peace” but might bring about more normal relations.


Image Source: © POOL New / Reuters

Building the India-U.S. Partnership

REUTERS/Jim Bourg - U.S. President Barack Obama and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) talk as they walk through the gardens at Hyderabad House in New Delhi January 25, 2015.

The Second Modi-Obama Summit: Building the India-U.S. PartnershipFollowing their first summit in September 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an unprecedented gesture, invited President Barack Obama to be the chief guest at India’s 66th Republic Day, the first time an American president has been invited in this capacity. With his acceptance of this invitation, President Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit India twice during his time in office. This second summit within six months offers a further opportunity to deepen the India-U.S. relationship.

As the two leaders prepare to meet in New Delhi on January 25-27, the Brookings India Center in New Delhi and The India Project in Washington, D.C. has produced a briefing book consisting of 16 memos written by a wide array of Brookings experts. The memos are divided into three sections: the introduction offers an overview of the current state of India-U.S. relations; the next section presents “scene-setter” memos that provide insights into crucial geopolitical and geoeconomic issues between the two countries; and the third section covers a range of issues on which India and the United States are—or need to be—cooperating, including foreign, security, economic, energy, urban and social policies.

This briefing book is a follow-up to the set of memos written for the September 2014 Modi-Obama meeting: The Modi-Obama Summit: A Leadership Moment for India and the United States.


REUTERS/Larry Downing - U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington September 30, 2014.

Building Up the India-U.S. Relationship

Vikram Mehta and W.P.S. Sidhu note that Prime Minister Modi and President Obama were successful in providing momentum to the India-U.S. relationship with their first summit. They state that the New Delhi summit is an ideal opportunity to build on the joint vision outlined during the previous summit, but add that ultimately the success of the summit will be judged by whether or not the two countries deliver on the promises made. Read more »

Geopolitics & Geoeconomics

REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta - India's Border security Force (BSF) officers carry a coffin containing the body of a colleague during a wreath-laying ceremony in a camp in Jammu January 1, 2015.

India and Its South Asian Neighbors: Where Does the United States Fit In?

Teresita Schaffer writes that President Obama’s Republic Day visit is an opportunity to put the challenges posed by Pakistan and Afghanistan into the larger picture of India’s regional and global leadership, and to reflect together on how India and the United States can pursue the interests they share in South Asia. Read more »

REUTERS/Omar Sobhani - A U.S. soldier keeps watch as an Afghan police truck transports the wreckage of a European Union vehicle which was hit by a suicide attack in Kabul January 5, 2015.

Risky Business: The United States Turns Back to the Middle East

Tamara Cofman Wittes writes that President Obama’s new commitment to the Middle East is fraught with uncertainties that are already provoking anxiety, both in the United States and in the region itself. She observes that America’s Middle East allies are concerned about the depth of Washington’s commitment to their concerns and the restoration of regional stability. Read more »

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood - India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and China's President Xi Jinping (C) shake their hands as India's President Pranab Mukherjee looks on during Xi's ceremonial reception at the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace in New Delhi September 18, 2014.

The U.S.-India Relationship and China

Tanvi Madan considers the American and Indian relationships with China, the concerns they share vis-à-vis that country, how they see each other’s relations with Beijing, and the impact China has had on the India-U.S. relationship. She also offers recommendations for India and United States on how to deal with this factor and actor shaping their relations. Read more »

REUTERS/Jason Lee - A vendor selling vegetables and fruits waits for customers at a roadside stall in Beijing January 8, 2015.

China’s Economic Challenges: Implications for India and the United States

David Dollar discusses China’s current economic challenges and the reforms necessary to overcome them. He writes that India and the United States have a mutual interest in encouraging China to follow through on economic reforms, and identifies key areas for cooperation. Read more »

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood - China's President Xi Jinping (R) speaks with his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee during his ceremonial reception at the forecourt of India's Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace in New Delhi September 18, 2014.

China’s Domestic Dynamics: Implications for India and the United States

Cheng Li traces Chinese President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and describes the resulting changes in China’s domestic politics. He writes that the United States and India must keep these domestic dynamics in China and that country’s concern about containment in mind. Read more »

India-U.S. Relationship: From Promise to Practice

REUTERS/Amit Dave - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (front, 2nd L) and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (front, 2nd R) gesture after shaking hands at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in Gandhinagar in the western Indian state of Gujarat January 11, 2015. 

Economic Ties: A Window of Opportunity for Deeper Engagement

Eswar Prasad observes that India and the United States share a wide array of economic interests which provide a good foundation for building strong bilateral relations. He proposes measures and reforms that would enable the countries to strengthen these ties. Read more »

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi - U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman speaks during a conference organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), in New Delhi November 24, 2014.

Intellectual Property Rights: Signs of Convergence

Subir Gokarn notes that India and the United States have made considerable progress on the issue of intellectual property rights since the Modi -Obama Summit in September. He recommends that for effective cooperation to continue in the future, it is vital that the countries find an approach that reconciles both private and public interests in the two countries. Read more »

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi director, Professor R.K. Shevgaonkar, at the ITT campus in New Delhi July 31, 2014.

Strengthening India-U.S. Relations through Higher Education

Shamika Ravi states that it makes economic and strategic sense for India and the United States to strengthen ties in the higher education sector. She identifies critical areas for cooperation, including financing of higher education, curriculum design and teaching quality. Read more »

REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee - A schoolgirl reads from a textbook at an open-air school in New Delhi November 20, 2014.

Primary Education in India: Progress and Challenges

Urvashi Sahni writes that issues like quality of learning and teacher accountability impede the progress India has made in primary school enrollment. She writes that India and the United States share several concerns about education and suggests the two countries can achieve better learning outcomes if they pool their experience and resources – both intellectual and economic. Read more »

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood - U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (C) arrives for a meeting with India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (not pictured) in New Delhi August 8, 2014.

Enhancing U.S.-India Defense Cooperation

Stephen Cohen and Michael O’Hanlon write that the Obama -Modi joint statement in September signals an emerging common strategic vision between India and the United States. They recommend steps leading up to and beyond the upcoming Obama visit that can strengthen U.S.-India defense ties as well as the quality of defense policymaking in each state. Read more »

REUTERS/Mohsin Raza - Relatives gather beside the bodies of victims who were killed in yesterday's suicide bomb attack on the Wagah border, before funeral prayers in Lahore November 3, 2014.

Strengthening Counterterrorism Cooperation Against Growing Turmoil

Bruce Riedel explains that the multiple massacres in Pakistan and the transition in Afghanistan challenge the counterterrorism infrastructures built over the last couple of decades. He emphasizes that it is essential Obama and Modi reaffirm their commitment to closer counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation. Read more »

REUTERS/Larry Downing - U.S. President Barack Obama talks next to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, September 30, 2014.

Time to Act on U.S.-India Energy Cooperation

Charles Ebinger and Vikram Mehta examine the opportunities for U.S.-India cooperation in the energy sector. They write that India and the United States together can make tremendous strides in renewables development along with efficient management of fossil fuels and help bring electricity to nearly 300 million people. Read more »

REUTERS/Babu - Demonstrators try to climb down from a bus after being detained during a protest against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Chennai October 29, 2012.

Operationalizing U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation

Robert Einhorn and W.P.S. Sidhu assess current impasse in U.S.-India nuclear energy cooperation. They argue that Obama and Modi must take greater measures to resolve lingering issues surrounding liability and tracking of nuclear material. Read more »

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood - Commuters walk along the road on a foggy winter morning in New Delhi January 16, 2015.

India and Climate Change: Reversing the Development-Climate Nexus

Rahul Tongia discusses India’s position in global climate negotiations. He also comments on the status of India’s renewable energy projects and whether a second climate deal with the United States similar to the U.S.-China deal is feasible. Read more »

REUTERS/Larry Downing - U.S. President Barack Obama and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk at the National Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall in Washington September 30, 2014.

Delivering on the Promise of India’s Smart Cities

Amy Liu and Rob Puentes write that the United States and India have an opportunity to make their partnership on the three Indian cities (Ajmer, Vishakhapatnam and Allahabad) a model for smart city development. They further recommend five principles that can serve as a framework for a U.S.-India partnership on smart cities. Read more »


Image Source: © Jim Bourg / Reuters

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