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Pakistan Election Primer

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April 24, 2013: Pakistanis are scheduled to go to the polls on May 11 to choose members of the country’s National Assembly and its four provincial Legislative Assemblies. We offer a handy primer on the election – and why and how it matters. The bottom line: despite pre-election violence from Islamic extremists, chances are this election will eventually produce a viable government. If mass public protests occur after the election, that would be the clearest indication of a more troublesome prognosis.

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Political Confrontations Grip Bangladesh

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A series of increasingly violent, interlocking political confrontations have gripped Bangladesh for more than a month. The conflict threatens the country’s fragile democratic institutions and its remarkable export-oriented economic progress. As we found in a recent visit, many observers fear that the fundamental issues that underlie these confrontations cannot be resolved within Bangladesh’s constitutional framework.  Some worry, as we do, that in the absence of some form of compromise among the main political parties, especially on the hot-button issue of the conduct of the upcoming parliamentary elections, the Bangladesh Army will again step in, as it has many times before in the country’s forty years of independence.

The United States, for its part, should privately warn political leaders of the dangers Bangladesh’s democratic institutions face – and they with them. But as the experience of one of us as American ambassador in Dhaka in the mid-1980s suggests, any effort by Washington or other friendly foreign powers to intervene more directly is likely to fail. The only country that might effectively do so is China, but it avoids such roles.

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American China Hand in World War II India

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John Paton Davies’s China Hand: An Autobiography, the posthumously-published 2012 winner of the American Academy of Diplomacy’s annual Douglas Dillon Award for distinguished writing on the conduct of U.S. diplomacy, is one of the best diplomatic memoirs we’ve read in years.

Davies, who died in 1999 at the age of ninety-one, is best known as one of the most prominent of the State Department China-specialists who were hounded out of the Foreign Service during the McCarthy era because of their alleged sympathy for the Communists in the Chinese civil war. But his memoir includes more than recollections of his experiences in China.  A fascinating surprise, for readers interested in South Asia, lay in its accounts of his meetings in India in 1942-43 with top leaders of the independence movement at a crucial period in their struggle against the British Raj. His spirited, well-written reports of his talks with these prominent figures, his incisive observations of their personalities, and his analyses of other salient features of the contemporary Indian political scene add an important dimension to his book. They provide fresh insights into the way Indian leaders viewed their struggle as well as their – and Davies’s –  assessments  of  what the United States was doing and should do in the Indian subcontinent in those years. Read more

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The Kashmir Issue: What is America’s Role

From Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/mandala_travel/7682803992/sizes/m/in/photostream/

I always enjoy coming back to the Boston area. I spent four happy years here as an undergraduate at a college on the Charles in the late ninety-forties. This is something that Harvard fund-raisers and football team promoters never let me forget.

Coincidentally, it was during those times so long ago that Kashmir first came to the world’s attention. A classmate, one of the few Indian undergraduates then studying in this country, assured me that the problem was the result of Pakistani mischief, that India was completely in the right, and that the United States was at fault in not recognizing these verities. I am sure that if there had been a Pakistani in my class at Cambridge – unfortunately there was not – I would have gotten a very different story. India and Pakistan have embraced sharply conflicting narratives of what happened way back in 1947 and 1948. Their ideas on the role the United States should play have been similarly at odds with one another. As we’ll see, this U.S. role has taken many different forms and shapes over the years, sometimes to the liking of one side or the other, sometimes to the liking of neither, as far as I can recall never to the liking of both.

Read Howard Schaffer’s talk at Boston College on the history of the Kashmir problem and the modest prospects for a U.S. role in the future.

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In Memoriam: Harry Barnes in India

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Obituaries memorializing the diplomatic achievements of Ambassador Harry G. Barnes, Jr., who died in Vermont on August 9 at the age of eighty-six, have focused on his role in Chile, where his promotion of democratic institutions famously incurred the wrath of General Augusto Pinochet, the country’s military dictator. They ought to have paid more attention than they did to Barnes’s outstanding record as U.S. envoy to India. As the first career ambassador to hold that position in a generation, he played a major role during his 1981-1985 assignment in New Delhi in substantially improving ties between the two countries.

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Hillary Clinton’s Whirlwind Visit to Bangladesh

US Government photo, http://www.flickr.com/photos/us_embassy_newzealand/5147456283/sizes/m/in/photostream/

May 11, 2012: After the tumult that surrounded her visit to Beijing, when Chinese dissident activist Chen Guangcheng’s defection stole center stage, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 20-hour stopover in Dhaka must have been a welcome change of scene. The visit provided a highly successful public diplomacy spotlight on U.S.-Bangladesh relations and showed Hillary Clinton at her most engaging. It also provided an opportunity for quiet discussions about some of the problems that are likely to intensify as Bangladesh navigates an increasingly turbulent and controversial pre-election period. Read more

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U.S. Kashmir Policy in the Obama Administration and Beyond

Dal Lake, Kashmir. Photo by babasteve, http://www.flickr.com/photos/babasteve/43688615/

Neither India, nor Pakistan, nor the Kashmiris seem to understand the major change in the international community’s view of the Kashmir issue brought about by the introduction of nuclear weapons into South Asia. The specter of a catastrophic nuclear war between India and Pakistan has made regional peace and stability the primary goal the United States and other interested outside powers now pursue in Kashmir.

Read Howard Schaffer’s article published in the January 2012 issue of South Asia Journal.

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Making Peace When Disaster Strikes: Sri Lanka, Aceh, and the 2004 Tsunami

Photo by S. Baker, http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarahbaker/214791736/sizes/m/in/photostream/

On the day after Christmas 2004, a powerful 9.0 magnitude earthquake under the Indian Ocean off of northern Sumatra sent massive waves crashing against the coastlines of countries as far away as Kenya and Madagascar. This tsunami killed or left missing some 226,000 people and displaced an estimated 1.7 million more in fourteen Asian and African countries. Damage to property—infrastructure, residences, government buildings, and commercial establishments—was enormous. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and the Maldives were the most seriously affected. The cata­strophic tsunami boosted on efforts to bring about a negotiated settlements of the insurgency then raging in Aceh, Indonesia; it had the opposite effect in Sri Lanka.

Read full report by Howard Schaffer, released by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

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Bangladesh-India: Great Expectations, Limited Results

Photo by Justin Brockie, http://www.flickr.com/photos/justinstravels/5993705461/

September 15, 2011: For diplomats like us, there are few things worse than a highly touted bilateral summit meeting between two friendly national leaders that at the last minute fails to meet either the expectations of the summiteers themselves or the inflated hopes of their publics. These setbacks are not supposed to happen. According to the “diplomatic rule book,” basic agreements are worked out in advance by subordinate officials. These are then ratified by the leaders, perhaps with minor changes.  If major outstanding problems are not ironed out before the summit begins, as sometimes happens, the two government try to limit expectations, not to encourage them.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s September 6-7 visit to Bangladesh is a case study of a summit whose preparation didn’t follow these rules. Read more

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Pakistan’s Gloomy Anniversary

Jinnah, photo by Eye 4, http://www.flickr.com/photos/12492827@N03/2910111156/

August 17, 2011: In South Asia, as in many other parts of the world, national independence days are a time for editors and other commentators to reflect on their country’s state of affairs, spell out what’s going well and what’s going badly, and offer some — hopefully original –ideas about what can be done to set things right. We’ve made it a practice to check out these commentaries. We’ve found that they can often help us and other outsiders get a better idea of the national mood in these countries, or at least of their elites. With this goal in mind we went through the editorials and other commentaries in Pakistan’s English-language press that “celebrated” the 64th anniversary of the country’s independence on August 14.

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