The Duck of Minerva

6+1 Questions

What’s the book?

Christopher Clary. 2022. The Difficult Politics of Peace: Rivalry in Modern South Asia. New York: Oxford University Press.

So what’s the argument?

How can states that have long viewed one another as enemies improve their relationship? Governments often remain rivals long beyond the point when continued competition becomes a clear strategic liability. Even leaders who face strong pressures to embrace more cooperative relations—such as from an unsustainable arms race or the emergence of a new power that threatens both rival states—struggle to navigate the difficult domestic politics of peace-making. 

Domestic opponents of peace enjoy important advantages. Enduring rivalry creates deeply rooted distrust of the other country among officials and the public. It also creates a wide variety of stakeholders invested in continued competition. Any number of important players—members of the opposition, competitors from within their own political faction, military officers, intelligence officials—may seek to derail a thaw in relations. Merely exploring the possibility of peace initiatives can trigger a political backlash. 

Leaders who want to end an interstate rivalry therefore need to first consolidate their control over foreign policy. Otherwise, veto players can slow or halt important changes in foreign and defense policy, and can torpedo conciliatory initiatives; domestic spoilers can produce escalatory pressures and actually worsen relations between the two countries.

The book focuses on South Asia, but its argument explain a wide variety of cases in other parts of the world. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union desperately needed to shift resources from its military to other sectors of the economy. He couldn’t pursue such a policy, however, as long as the United States and China posed major national-security threats. But when he tried to dial back tensions, his subordinates repeatedly got in his way.

Over the next few years Gorbachev replaced his foreign minister, defense minister, principal foreign policy advisor, heads of the Central Committee’s International and Liaison departments, and seven of eight deputy foreign ministers. With his team in place, Gorbachev managed to end the Cold War and transform Sino-Soviet relations.

Why should we care?

India and Pakistan are together home to 1.6 billion people. They have fought four wars. The most recent of those, the 1999 Kargil war, “enjoys” the distinction of being the only war between two nuclear weapons states and between two countries that observers generally agreed were democracies.

Bill Clinton said India and Pakistan’s dispute over Kashmir made it the “most dangerous place on earth.” Given recent events that might seem like an overstatement, but South Asia remains one of the most likely locations for a full-scale war between nuclear powers. In 2019 India launched air strikes against targets in Pakistan—giving South Asia another “first” in the history of military conflict between nuclear powers.

The India-Pakistan rivalry also complicates U.S. grand strategy. The competition diverts resources away from other serious problems that both New Delhi and Islamabad face. 

Why will we find the article (or book) persuasive?

Many accounts only look at a few episode in the history of relations between India and Pakistan; I test my theory and major alternatives across nearly the entire seven-decade-plus India-Pakistan rivalry.

I present new evidence from recently declassified documents and from interviews with policy makers, which help clarify why Pakistan fought losing wars with India over Kashmir in 1965 and 1999 and over East Pakistan in 1971.

I don’t just look at crises and wars, though. I also examine the successes and failures of summit diplomacy at Tashkent in 1966, Simla in 1972, Lahore in 1999, and Agra at 2001, and the quiet backchannel diplomacy in the 2000s.  

Why did you decide to write it in the first place?

I have worked on India-Pakistan ties more or less continuously since I was an undergraduate intern at the Stimson Center in DC in 2000. A major crisis in 2001-2002 happened to coincide with my first visit to the region. I worked on South Asian affairs for the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2009. I was in government during progress in backchannel talks between India and Pakistan as well as the Mumbai crisis of 2008. So, when I went back to graduate school, I wanted to better understand why South Asian leaders weren’t able to sustain peace processes and what made crises more likely. 

What would you most like to change about the piece, and why?

One of the reasons the politics of peace are so difficult is there aren’t easy policy recommendations. The solution isn’t just to encourage every national leader everywhere to consolidate authority. Many of the same institutional checks and balances that make it difficult to extricate states from rivalries also limit the ability of leaders to, say, restrict political rights or use military force.

The book only discusses this “dark side” of concentrated executive authority in the conclusion (see also). However, in light of Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine, I wish I would have moved a discussion of these concerns into earlier chapters since I suspect they will be on many readers’ minds. 

How much difficulty did you have getting the piece accepted?

I hoped that this book would be part of Oxford University Press’ Modern South Asia series . When I approached series editor Ashutosh Varshney and social-sciences editor David McBride, they were quick to give the manuscript a chance.

Both were enormously helpful throughout the entire process.

My real difficulties came much earlier in the process—before I even started to shop the book around. I needed to adapt an unwieldy 160,000-word dissertation into a length more appropriate for an academic book. I wound up removing a lot of my cases, including the ones from outside South Asia.

I also tried to shoehorn entirely new chapters on the India-China rivalry into the book, but I couldn’t make that work without making the manuscript too long for university presses.

I encourage first-time book authors to think realistically about their word count before they sit down to write their manuscripts. I’m not exactly sorry that I wrote chapters that didn’t make it into the book. I learned a lot. But it made things more difficult—and delayed the entire process of moving from dissertation to published book.