South Asia scholar Michael Kugelman on lessons from the pandemic for peace in the region

“What we’ve learned, over the pandemic year, is that even when we all confront the same huge and deadly threat, hate and conflict will endure, if not intensify. Toxic nationalism is one of the great ills of our times, and it drives us apart instead of bringing us together,” says Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at leading American think tank and policy forum Wilson Center.

Speaking to Money Control on the subject of peacebuilding in South Asia, he goes on: “It’s an irony, isn’t it, that on many levels the world has never been more prosperous, more technologically advanced and safer, and more connected than it is today, and yet who could reasonably argue that our world will enjoy peace anytime soon? I wish I could be more optimistic.”

A specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan and their relations with the United States, Kugelman calls the South Asian region “a paradox” that is “heavily linked and deeply disconnected at the same time.” He observes, “The links give hope for deeper collaborations, but the disconnections have made the goal elusive. On the one hand, you have a region with shared borders, rivers, and—especially on the Subcontinent—histories. But on the other hand, you have a region cursed with poor infrastructure, bad diplomatic relations, and very little trade. The main regional organisation is woefully ineffective. The challenge is how to square this circle of connectivity amid disconnectivity.”

Kugelman suggests that the ideal solution is to end the two prime geopolitical constraints to better cooperation across South and Central Asia—the war in Afghanistan, and the India-Pakistan dispute. Though he predicts that this isn’t in the cards anytime soon, he believes that people-to-people relations could drive cooperation. “Even at the worst moments for India-Pakistan relations,” he says, “there have been small but significant constituencies from the business sectors calling for more bilateral trade.”

The editor or co-editor of 11 books covering topics ranging from US policy in Afghanistan to terrorism to water, energy, and food security in South Asia, Kugelman shares that, at this point in time, the best bet for collaboration in the region is to “zero in on two deadly threats that impact the region on the whole: the pandemic and climate change”.

“The best model is for a dialogue that gets the blessing of the region’s governments, but is carried out by academics, civil society activists, and business leaders. It can ideally take place under the institutional rubric of SAARC. Let’s be clear: If there’s one thing that the region should be able to cooperate on, it’s a regional initiative that builds resilience to combat these two shared and deadly threats. These collaborations, in due course, can build more goodwill and trust and allow the region to chip away at the entrenched political tensions that have held the region back from greater cooperation,” he asserts.

Kugelman, who received his Master’s in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, was first drawn to study the political history of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan after the US invasion of Iraq, soon after he received his Bachelor’s from American University’s School of International Service. “That was a seminal event for my generation,” he recalls.

Born in the US, he spent most of his pre-university years living overseas in Asia and Europe due to his parents’ work. “Third-culture kid, global nomad, whatever you want to call it—that was me, and I was fortunate to have that experience growing up overseas,” he says. “It seeded in me an early interest and passion for international relations. It was my time abroad, from an early age, that prompted me to study foreign affairs and later make a career out of it.”

Based in Washington DC for over 25 years now, Kugelman has continued have a very global outlook, “Or at least I’d like to think I have,” he smiles. Since 2005, when he joined the Wilson Center, South Asia has been his area of focus, and especially its ties with United States.

On the subject of the new American President’s foreign policy towards India and the Indo-Pak conflict, Kugelman expects a fair amount of continuity between the regimes of the Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump.

“We hear so much that Biden’s foreign policy will be so different from Trump’s, and in many ways it will. And yet South Asia policy is an outlier,” he says, predicting that the Biden administration will continue to push deeper partnership with India. “There is, to be sure, bipartisan support in Washington for US-India partnership, in great part because of an equally bipartisan desire to work with New Delhi to counterbalance China. And with the India-Pakistan relationship, Biden’s policy will be like Trump’s: to promote a workable, and relatively stable, relationship between India and Pakistan,” he says.

Kugelman believes that Biden will continue to resist any Pakistani requests for the US to get involved in the Kashmir dispute. “Biden, like Trump, will view it as a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan,” he avers, while adding that he does expect some differences. “Biden has pledged to make democracy promotion a pillar of his foreign policy, and so I can see him being more willing than Trump was to call India out for its democratic backsliding. I can envision in particular a willingness on Biden’s part to highlight Internet curbs and bans in India—something that Biden has taken a strong interest in calling out on the whole around the world.”

That said, Kugelman adds, any public messaging about India in this regard will be subtle and gentle, with the bulk of any comments about democracy made in private settings. “Biden’s Washington won’t want to rock the boat with what it considers to be a key strategic partner—and especially given the perception that the current Indian government is highly sensitive about outside criticism of its internal policies.”

He also thinks Biden will be amenable to pursuing bilateral and multilateral cooperation with India and Pakistan on non-security issues—such as climate change, public health and cyber security—in more ways than Trump was. “But the more stable dynamics of US-India relations mean that potential for forward movement here will be greater with India than with Pakistan,” he adds.

Kugelman, who has published policy briefs, journal articles, and book chapters on various South Asian topics including Pakistani youth, believes social media has been both a blessing and a curse. “It brings people together in great numbers, but the toxicity and hate speech on social media can often accentuate the very differences that it is meant to bridge,” he says. “That said, social media offers a rare opportunity for Indians and Pakistanis—and Afghans and Pakistanis for that matter—to engage regularly and with no restrictions. These people-to-people exchanges can be very productive, so long as they take place in a spirit of cordial and respectful debate.”

He also advocates the use of online Track 2-style formats, where private citizens from countries that don’t get along meet up on private platforms to discuss difficult issues and find pathways for cooperation.

“It’s never fair to penalise the general public for the volatilities of geopolitics and diplomacy. It’s unfortunate when Pakistani and Indian civilians must pay the price for India-Pakistan tensions and not be able to travel or trade with the other side,” he says, emphasising that people-to-people ties—and especially among those who have a shared history—can help build goodwill and trust.

“This is why I’m heartened about the recent détente in India-Pakistan relations following their inking of a new border ceasefire. Islamabad and New Delhi recognised that border violence was simply too high, and that it was time to bring it down in order to reduce the loss of civilian lives. In recent days, the countries’ two leaders have exchanged good wishes to each other, there has been a high-level exchange on water cooperation,” he informs, adding that there is now talk of reconstituting high commissioners on both sides and finding ways to partner on the pandemic response. “There may even be potential to open up limited border trade.”

While he admits that these small signs may not mean much to some, “given that the core issues—Kashmir for Pakistan and terrorism for India—aren’t about to be addressed, much less resolved, anytime soon”, he does hope sceptics will see the bright side: “How can anyone oppose modest engagements that can improve livelihoods, strengthen public health, and help save lives?”

So, could boosting trade ties be the key to peace in the region? Kugelman is cautious in his response: “It’s unrealistic to think that India and Pakistan will remove all barriers on transport and travel between the two countries—there are not only political but also security risks of doing so. But, to paraphrase Churchill, jaw jaw is better than war war. One can hope that ramping up commercial cooperation can build goodwill and generate larger constituencies for peace. But one can also assert that there needs to be peace, or at least more goodwill and trust, before substantive and sustained trade cooperation can flourish.”

Another problem, he points out, is that even when progress is being made in the India-Pakistan context, spoilers are always lurking. “There are always hardliners on both sides looking to sabotage cooperation. This means that Islamabad and New Delhi incur large political risks by pushing forward on trade, because if there is a setback or backlash, then both sides get burned and look foolish for extending an olive branch,” he says.

A more pervasive problem is that the burden of history is incredibly heavy in South Asia, says Kugelman, and it continues to impose heavy limits on political and diplomatic cooperation. “From the Durand Line and the Line of Control, to Partition and the 1971 War, there’s no shortage of historical baggage. And to be sure much of this can also be attributed to the ongoing legacy of colonialism in the region. It is heartening, however, to see some efforts to bury the hatchet,” he says, giving the example of Pakistani officials having signalled (“albeit to this point in word not in deed”) a desire to move on from the past and strengthen relations with India and Bangladesh.

“The India-Pakistan border ceasefire is an indication that even if there’s no agreement on the border, there can still be mutual respect for the border. Ultimately, though, the true test will be leadership. Will there be a set of leaders truly prepared and willing to pursue better relations with neighbours, and to move on from the past?” he muses.

He points out that it wasn’t too long ago that regional leaders such as Pervez Musharraf, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh were willing to push for peace despite obstacles. “We’ve seen many cases of small steps toward peace, but the one giant leap toward peace remains elusive. For that, you need the right leadership willing to swallow the political risks and prepared to take the bold steps. Indeed, for all we hear about the importance of institutions in international relations, personalities are just as, if not more, important,” he concludes.

First published in Money Control

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