In Memoriam, Stephen P. Cohen, 1936-2019


December 6, 2019: The first time Steve Cohen came into the lives of the Schaffer family was when he turned up in New Delhi as a grad student some time in the early/mid 1960s. My late husband, Howard Schaffer, was a young political officer at the U.S. Embassy; Steve was on his way to becoming one of the pioneers among the U.S. academics specializing in the region. What both men remembered was that it was freezing cold. Steve curled up in a blanket in Howard’s apartment to keep warm.

There followed a friendship that lasted over half a century, and two careers – eventually three, when Howard and I married – that wove back and forth. Steve spent most of his career as a professor. He also served in the State Department’s Policy Planning Council during the 1980s, when Howard was U.S. Ambassador in Bangladesh, and we had the opportunity to receive him in Dhaka. A decade later – by some quirk of fate, when I was U.S. Ambassador in Sri Lanka – Steve was taking an “excursion tour” in the Ford Foundation’s office in Delhi. By this time, Steve was recognized as the most authoritative American scholar on the Indian and Pakistani armies.


Another decade went by. Howard and I had both retired from government service, and Steve turned up in Washington. This time, it was my career that was intertwined with his. We were both in the think tank world, he at Brookings and I at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He and I were both trying to get our minds around the likely trajectories of India and Pakistan. When I became professionally homeless after leaving CSIS, Steve made a path for me into a non-resident fellowship at Brookings. The books Steve wrote after 2000 focused on the India-Pakistan dynamic, on the diverging characters of the two countries, and still, importantly on the security sector. He left behind a remarkable collection of books on India and Pakistan – books that any serious student of the region must read.


What didn’t usually make it into print, however, was the wry humor that made us love him. Soon after he moved to Washington, he commented that “my kids call this town a work-free drug-place.” An occasional tongue-in-cheek made it into the titles of his books: his last book on the Indian military was called Arming without Aiming.


Steve was a faithful friend. His academic friends, the Indian and Pakistani military officers he had come to know in writing his books, the Indian and Pakistani scholars who had joined forces with him in probing the dynamics of their countries’ ties, the Foreign Service people whose paths had crossed with his, all remained close to him until the end. He was generous with his time and his ideas. Howard’s and my books on India and Pakistan benefited greatly by his comments.


His wife Bobby was his strength – and he was hers. Their move out of Washington to North Carolina about a year ago was a wrenching disruption in their lives, but also brought them close to children who were there to ease the burdens.


The Twitterverse and Facebook have lit up since his death with praise and sorrow at his passing. His intellectual contribution lives on – and I have faith that his humor will too.

12 Replies to “In Memoriam, Stephen P. Cohen, 1936-2019”

  1. Dear Tezi,
    I read your remembrance of Steve Cohen with great sadness. His death brings an end to an era of academic and policy analysis that he uniquely defined. Our SA community is much diminished with his passing.

    Can I ask a favor? I’d like to send Bobby a note but do not have the NC address. Do you have it? Many thanks.

    With good memories


  2. He was an inspiration in many ways. Above all, he listened – to anyone and everyone, no matter where that person stood in the academic hierarchy. He melted history, political science, and contemporary policy issues with ease. He was not afraid to speak his mind. And, yes, his humor was infectious. In all these ways and more, I have tried to follow in his footsteps and to inculcate these qualities in my students (with much less success). A truly remarkable human being!

  3. Dear Ms Schaffer
    Thank you for the remembrance on Prof Cohen. I was one of the many beneficiaries of the Prof’s understanding of South Asian geopolitics.
    In one lunch session in a Dosa joint on Delhi, where he loved the lunch, he nostalgically told me and my wife of his PhD work in Andhra ! Always friendly, helpful and understanding, the good Prof Cohen was a meaningful contributor to thinking on India during and after the Cold War.
    VR Raghavan
    LT GEN (Retd)

  4. Deeply saddened at the loss of our wonderful teacher, mentor and supporter.
    Stephen specialized in understanding the India and Pakistan militaries but he was always a supporter of democracy and civilian rule.

  5. Thank you Tezi. Steve indeed was a remarkable person– a leading South Asia hand no doubt; but a dear friend who has been very helpful to me both before and after my retirement from the Army.

    Met him first in the early 1980s in Bonn, where I was posted as Pakistan’s Defence Attaché, and then when he came as a guest speaker to our Defence College where I was the Commandant. Met regularly thereafter. He got me invited to a number of conferences; I spoke in Lahore where his book, The Idea of Pakistan, was launched; and of course his invaluable contribution when he looked at the draft of my book, Pakistan Adrift.

    His credibility can be judged on a simple criterion: both in India and Pakistan, he was regarded as leaning towards the “archival”.

    God bless his soul

  6. Dear Tezi – a lovely remembrance of a warm man. Both he and Howie were big influencers for me (as another one of those initial grad students who turned up looking for guidance and hospitality). Warmly, Alexander

  7. Dear Tezi,

    A moving and beautiful tribute to Steve. Your words poignantly described this remarkable man, whose life combined a deep love of family with wide friendships, scholarly authority, policy insight, governmental influence, and a vibrant wit. We will all miss Steve but never forget him.


  8. Dear Tezi,
    I am sad to read about the untimely passing away of Steven Cohen, an eminent scholar on Pakistan and India. I heard some of his interviews on TV have read some of his books and greatly admire his clearity of vision and insightful analysis.
    May He rest in peace and may Heaven be his abode.
    Please convey my condolences to his family.
    Yours in sorrow
    Syeda Henna Babar Ali

  9. Tezi,

    I had not heard about Steve’s passing. Thank you for letting me and so many others know via
    the South Asia Hand.

    Your lovely Memoriam captured the Steve we knew.

    I would only add that, yes, Steve “spend most of his career as a professor”– I often referred to him as the Dean of South Asian scholars — but I also want to stress that he was a professor with policy impact. I was in his debt during my time heading the South Asia bureau at State for his insights and advice, as were those who came before and after me.

    “Advice”, I would remind, is defined in Webster’s as “an opinion offered as a guide to action.”
    That is what Steve was aiming for — and what he achieved on so many occasion during his
    remarkable career.

    May a new generation of South Asia scholars follow in his footsteps.

    My sincere condolences to Bobby and their family.

  10. Dear Tezi,
    I agree with your brief comments on and about Steve. He was truly an intellectual of the highest calibre, but more importantly, he was a thorough gentleman, fair and objective in his writings and and honest and principled in his dealings with all humans. The best proof of this was evident from the fact that he enjoyed the respect and trust of both Indians and Pakistanis! Surely, a very rare trait!
    I met Steve in the mid eighties, when he was Director in the State Department’s Policy Planning and I was the Deputy Chief of Mission in our Embassy. That was the beginning of a life long association with this soft spoken straight shooter, who retained his sense of humour, even when dismissing my usual gaffes and mistakes!
    But it was in the tiny, stunningly beautiful island of Bellagio in Italy where he invited me to join a select group of American, Indian and Pakistani scholars and retired diplomats to collaborate on what became “The Future of Pakistan”.
    Rest in Peace Dear Friend!

  11. I somehow did not hear of Steve’s death until I read of it today in the University of Chicago alumni magazine. Your thoughtful words on his life helped to comfort the sadness that came with knowing that he is no longer with us. He was truly a remarkable scholar and friend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *