The last time Stephen P Cohen and I corresponded was in late December 2017-January 2018 when I greeted him on Hanukkah (the occasion for Jews all over to celebrate the revival of the Second Temple in Jerusalem). It was my first intimation that Steve had the dreaded Parkinson’s disease — a fact he revealed without ceremony or trace of self-pity. “I [am] soldiering on”, he wrote, “with a minor case of Parkinson’s, not a pleasure but I can manage.” And, in the picture he attached with the note, he identified “the whole Cohen tribe” — six children (most, if not all, of them, like their father, budding academics and scholars of note) along with their spouses and a proliferating brood of grandchildren he reveled in.
Steve personally knew or worked with every South Asian analyst, academic and scholar researching the regional pol-mil issues and great power politics concerning the subcontinent. His reputation was established with his pioneering twin studies on the Indian Army and the Pakistan Army that applied the methodology and analytics developed by one of his gurus, Morris Janowitz at the University of Chicago. In the latter book he memorably disarmed the Generals then ruling the roost during the Zia years who he expected would be upset with his take on them and their armed Service with a quote from the Quran that “a drop of a scholar’s blood is more precious” than victories in battles. He mentored over the years a bunch of Indians and Pakistanis, shepherding many of them through the PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. Always eager to encourage new voices, different viewpoints, he was just as intent on convincing foreign skeptics of America’s benign intentions.
In off hours, Steve delighted in rating the universities, thinktanks, and foundations hosting international and regional talk-fests (conferences , seminars) in terms of the quality of exchanges, of course, as well as creature comforts afforded the participants. A meet we both attended arranged by Fundacao Oriente (Oriental Foundation) of Portugal (funded per government diktat by the revenues earned from the gambling tables of Macao when it was still a Portuguese colony) was high up in his affections in no small part because an invitation meant air travel by First Class, a Merc with chauffeur awaiting you at the Lisbon airport to cart you around for the duration, especially useful if one sought to discover in style and some luxury the beautiful little bays and fishing villages dotting that portion of the Atlantic coast, and stay at a beautiful resort on a cliff overlooking the ocean that masqueraded as the Foundation’s conference centre! An invite from the Fundacao, he chuckled, was therefore to be prized.
Great company though he was in these foreign locales, I remember him most for something else. In this business, I have found, one can occasionally luck into a true scholar and intellectual who, while completely disagreeing with your conclusions, is appreciative of such analytical rigour and/or sweep of analysis as one has mustered. Steve was this rare person. (Ashley J Tellis of Carnegie Washington too fits this category.) Their reactions to my writings is what I have prized most primarily because their criticism was always infused with goodwill, the weaknesses they perceived in my arguments were clearly identified and the differences with me robustly argued. How can one not gain from such company? In this respect, Steve’s (and also Ashley’s) catholicity was in the grand European intellectual tradition (of European Jewry in particular).
I first met Steve in Allahabad (as it was then called) of all places at a 1981 Conference on Indian Ocean politics (or some such subject). He was intrigued by my perspective and engaged me in a personal dialogue that lasted for the rest of the time I was acquainted with him in his tenures at the U of Illinois, US State Department, and at Brookings. He would on the side alert me to books (sent him as drafts by publishers) coming down the pike and whenever I passed through Washington unfailingly arrange get-togethers with his colleagues in Brookings, lunches in eateries around the Dupont Circle with various South Asian experts, or tete-a-tetes with US government officials.
Our relationship flourished despite my consistently rubbishing US nonproliferation and South Asia policies generally. Even so I was surprised by his generosity. After reading the draft of my first big 2002 book, which among many other things, recommended rapid weapon thermonuclearization — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security (whose secondary title — ‘The Realist Foundations of Strategy’ was provided incidentally by Tellis, then stationed in Delhi as adviser to US ambassador Robert Blackwill, who had read the manuscript), Steve urged me to be the first SmithKline Fellow at Brookings in 2001 (if I recall correctly). He had recently secured huge funding from this pharmaceutical company for a South Asia visiting scholars program. I declined the invitation because it would have meant taking up residence in Washington, DC, for 9 months — too long, I felt, to be away from Delhi.
It was after my book was published that Steve was at his most touching. “I rue the fact that Brookings lost the opportunity to publish your work”, he emailed me. It was high praise because as a critic and friend he was sans pareil. And he wrote a Foreword for my 2008 book India’s Nuclear Policy published by Praeger that helped propagate my views to the American security enclaves too steeped in the US nonproliferation policy discourse to readily appreciate the logic of a contrary viewpoint.
Steve was a GOOD man — to me the highest praise any person can draw, made better by Bobby, his companion and wife of some 5 decades whom he was head over heels in love with to the last. He referred to her fondly as “the begum”. He was perhaps the most influential among the second generation South Asia scholars in the US in the main because he had empathy in abundance and instinctively understood things subcontinental.
He will be sorely missed. And the sphere of South Asian studies will be poorer for his absence.