There is a particular breed of ‘analysts’ in the subcontinent who pride themselves on their supposed ability to think dispassionately about the otherwise emotive issues of war and conflict. Often situating their worldview within a ‘realist’ perspective that sees inter-state relations as a zero-sum game in which the pursuit of national interest by any and all means is seen as both inevitable and desirable, these analysts see no difficulty in justifying even the most morally reprehensible actions taken by governments; assassination, espionage, terror, torture, and war are nothing more than tools in the arsenals of states competing with each other for influence and resources.

Realism – which has long been a mainstay of thought within the academic discipline of international relations – is often presented as being a simple statement of fact; states locked in competition with one another do unsavoury things when operating in an international context bereft of any universally binding norms or laws, and cannot afford to reflect on the morality of their actions lest more unscrupulous rivals take advantage of such qualms. That there is some truth to these observations is immediately clear as even a cursory familiarity with how things work on the international stage should reveal the existence of practices – clandestine and otherwise – that confirm the nihilistic tendencies of countries around the world. How else, some may argue, can we explain the hypocrisy of powerful states supporting some dictators while opposing others, the cynicism of ‘humanitarian’ interventions in resource-rich and strategically important countries, the opportunism with which conflicts within states are manipulated by external actors, and the continued use of militant proxies and spy agencies to disrupt and destabilise rivals?

When taken to its logical conclusion, this way of thinking leads to the inevitable conclusion that the absence of trust between different states necessitates the need for them to always be ready to defend themselves from potential antagonists, and develop the capacity to use offensive capabilities, in the broadest possible sense, to achieve their objectives. Where there is an imbalance of power, alliances between states can be cultivated to offset common foes and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, and asymmetric tools can be employed to counter disparities in conventional war-making capabilities and economic strength. Locked in perpetual competition for power and influence, states thus inhabit an anarchic world of perpetual conflict and shifting allegiances in which they seek to maximise their ability to secure their own interests while imposing costs on their rivals.

In the wake of the Pulwama suicide bombing which left over 40 members of the Indian CRPF dead in Kashmir last week, there has been no shortage of ‘realists’ of the type described above enthusiastically welcoming the prospect of war between India and Pakistan. On both sides of the border, the logic employed is similar; in India, hawks wedded to the idea of Pakistan’s perpetual perfidy and untrustworthiness have been calling on Narendra Modi’s BJP government to go to war and settle matters between the two nuclear-armed neighbours once and for all, while their Pakistani equivalents have both justified the Pulwama attack in realist terms (suggesting the potential involvement of Pakistan-based militants is just another dimension of the conflict between the two countries) and responded to the prospect of Indian retaliation by calling for an escalating military response.

During the past week, at a time when tensions between India and Pakistan have been higher than any time since the 2008 Mumbai attacks and perhaps even the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, matters have not been helped by the media and ultra-nationalist politicians seeking to use the Pulwama attack for their own advancements. Particularly in India, a hysterical media has been baying for blood, with anchors and celebrities frothily denouncing Pakistan while conjuring up ever more fantastical visions of death and nuclear fury, suggesting that war is the only way to resolve the ‘Pakistan’ question forever. The media in Pakistan has looked positively restrained by comparison but even here; armchair experts and social media warriors have taken to the airwaves and screens across the country to denounce India and lambast it for its enduring hostility towards Pakistan.

While a war to end all wars might seem like a suitable if messy way to finally settle things in the subcontinent, the truth is that it is possible to move beyond the seemingly intractable positions taken by India and Pakistan, and the constant emphasis on war and the ‘reality’ of statecraft often deflects attention away from more peaceful and incremental routes to stabilising the subcontinent. The issues involved are admittedly complex; both countries are home to political and institutional elites who derive legitimacy from stoking tensions across the border, both have publics that have long been fed a diet of nationalism premised on hate for the ‘other’, and both remain locked in a regional rivalry for power and influence that continues to shape their approach to one another. At the same time, both India and Pakistan have serious internal issues to wrestle with that have a bearing on their bilateral relations. Inasmuch as conflict between the two countries can be traced back to the Kashmir issue, the Modi government has done little to legitimise itself in the eyes of the Kashmiri populace, unleashing a wave of repression that has stoked the fires of separatist sentiment and potentially generated indigenous resistance that cannot simply be attributed to the machinations of generals sitting in Rawalpindi. At the same time, while the question of Pakistan’s direct involvement in the Pulwama attack remains debatable, the continued existence and operation of groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad on Pakistani soil is hardly a good thing, especially when such groups have a proven history of igniting regional tensions and contributing to domestic instability.

The problem with the realist perspective, which sees states and monoliths constantly striving to outdo each other, is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that channels energies towards inevitable conflict while crowding out perspectives that might suggest alternate paths forward. It should be obvious that the best possible course for India and Pakistan, one that truly advances the interests of their people, is one that emphasises meaningful dialogue aimed at repairing relations and fostering ever-closer ties in the years and decades to come. The challenges shared by India and Pakistan are immense; dealing with climate change, water scarcity, and poverty will require collective regional responses and as long as policymaking is held hostage by actors whose worldview does not admit the possibility of peace, imaginative solutions to the problem of Indo-Pak hostility will remain elusive.