When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders meet later this year, they will debate the recommendations from a group of experts that advocates, among other things, extending a formal offer of partnership to India.
Such an idea has been discussed before but has always delayed on India’s aversion to entanglement in rival geopolitical blocs.
NATO: A backgrounder
NATO was found in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its purpose was to secure peace in Europe, to promote cooperation among its members and to guard their freedom – all of this in the context of countering the threat posed at the time by the Soviet Union.
- NATO is a military alliance established by the North Atlantic Treaty (also called the Washington Treaty) of April 4, 1949.
- It sought to create a counterweight to Soviet armies stationed in Central and Eastern Europe after World War II.
- Its original members were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
- NATO has spread a web of partners, namely Egypt, Israel, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and Finland.
Why was it founded?
Communist sweep in Europe post-WWII and rise of Soviet dominance
- After World War II in 1945, Western Europe was economically exhausted and militarily weak, and newly powerful communist parties had arisen in France and Italy.
- By contrast, the Soviet Union had emerged from the war with its armies dominating all the states of central and Eastern Europe.
- By 1948 communists under Moscow’s sponsorship had consolidated their control of the governments of those countries and suppressed all non-communist political activity.
- What became known as the Iron Curtain, a term popularized by Winston Churchill, had descended over central and Eastern Europe.
And the US (the torchbearer of individual liberty and the master of democracy) had to enter (for no reasons) …
In 1948 the United States launched the Marshall Plan.
- It infused massive amounts of economic aid to the countries of western and southern Europe on the condition that they cooperate with each other and engage in joint planning to hasten their mutual recovery.
- As for military recovery, under the Brussels Treaty of 1948, the UK, France, and the Low Countries—Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—concluded a collective-defense agreement called the Western European Union.
- It was soon recognized, however, that a more formidable alliance would be required to provide an adequate military counterweight to the Soviets.
Ideology of NATO
- The NATO ensures that the security of its European member countries is inseparably linked to that of its North American member countries.
- It commits the Allies to democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law, as well as to peaceful resolution of disputes.
- It also provides a unique forum for dialogue and cooperation across the Atlantic.
The Article 5
The heart of NATO is expressed in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, in which the signatory members agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.
NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in 2001, after the September 11 attacks organized by exiled Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City and part of the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., killing some 3,000 people.
NATO and its present relevance: China on radar
The end of the Cold War precipitated NATO’s identity crisis. With the US at the centrestage, the organization pivoted away from its longtime focus on collective defence against Moscow.
- In December 2019, US made it clear that China is now on NATO’s radar screen.
- Following continuous pressure by the Trump administration, the alliance agreed in April 2019 to initiate a study of China’s more assertive role on the international stage.
- This culminated in NATO formally acknowledging, in its December 2019 summit declaration about China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges.
Why NATO should focus on China?
China presents a novel and complex challenge for NATO and it cannot rush into a confrontation. Four important considerations dominate NATO’s approach.
(1) China is not the Soviet Union
- Beijing has far greater economic clout; modern Chinese citizens, unlike their earlier Soviet (and Chinese) counterparts, now live in a more market-oriented society.
- The US and Chinese economies are intertwined in a way that differ markedly from the US and Soviet experience in the Cold War.
- Despite talk of “decoupling,” China is continuing to integrate into global financial markets, which is something the Soviet Union never did.
(2) It dwells on new tasks
- NATO is well-suited to take on new responsibilities thanks to the ambiguity of its founding text.
- That is not, however, the case with China. Aside from internal difficulties, NATO is not facing an immediate threat to its survival, nor does it need new functions to justify its relevance.
(3) Repairing Transatlantic Divisions
- There has been some limited transatlantic convergence in recent years, as the European Union has toughened its stance, labeling China a “systemic rival” in 2019.
- Furthermore, the pandemic’s origins in China and the Beijing government’s initial response to the virus have given more voice to those who see China as a threat.
- Recently, the United States and Europe have quietly increased their cooperation when trying to tackle China, such as over the Belt and Road Initiative.
India and NATO
During the Cold War, India’s refusal was premised on its non-alignment. That argument had little justification once the Cold War ended during 1989-91. Since then, NATO has built partnerships with many neutral and non-aligned states.
Reasons for India’s reluctance
- India’s real problem is not with NATO, but with Delhi’s difficulty in thinking strategically about Europe. This inhibition has deep roots.
- Through the colonial era, Calcutta and Delhi viewed Europe through British eyes. After Independence, Delhi tended to see Europe through the Russian lens.
- In the last few years, Delhi has begun to develop an independent European framework but has some distance to go in consolidating it.
- Talking to NATO ought to be one important part of India’s European strategy.
As the Cold War enveloped the world, nuancing Europe became harder in Delhi. India began to see West Europe as an extension of the US and Eastern Europe as a collection of Soviet satellites.
Why should India join NATO?
Core to NATO’s future is its standing as an alliance of democracies, particularly given that its principal strategic competitors are China and Russia, major authoritarian powers.
(1) Non-alignment is irrelevant
- Non-alignment is a worn-out misnomer. India is under no illusions that a truly non-aligned path remains a viable option.
- China’s meteoric rise has dramatically heightened India’s need for closer security relationships with politically reliable, like-minded states.
- India’s policy of equidistance, with tilts towards Russia and China, is not viable enough to meet the juggernaut of China’s power in Indo-Pacific.
(2) India is already partner with its members
- An India-NATO dialogue would simply mean having regular contact with a military alliance, most of whose members are well-established partners of India.
- India has military exchanges with many members of NATO — including the US, Britain, and France — in bilateral and minilateral formats.
(3) Strategic benefits
- Longer-term, India would derive military-strategic benefits from partnership with the world’s most powerful alliance.
- In the event of a conflict, India would benefit from having prior planning and arrangements in place for cooperating with NATO and its Mediterranean partners.
(4) Technological benefits
- Partnering with NATO also carries technological benefits.
- Under a US Act, India now enjoys the same technology-sharing and cost-sharing perks as other non-NATO US allies for purposes of the Arms Export Control Act.
- It could also help to offset the growing concerns and negative scrutiny that India is increasingly attracting in Congress for its disproportionate reliance on Russian military equipment.
(5) Membership would not corner ties with Russia
- Russia has not made a secret of its allergy to the Quad and Delhi’s alliance with Washington.
- Putting NATO into that mix is unlikely to make much difference. Delhi, in turn, can’t be happy with the deepening ties between Moscow and Beijing.
- As mature states, India and Russia know they have to insulate their bilateral relationship from the larger structural trends buffeting the world today.
- To play any role in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and NATO need partners like India, Australia and Japan.
- Delhi, in turn, knows that no single power can produce stability and security in the Indo-Pacific. India’s enthusiasm for the Quad is recognition of the need to build coalitions.
- More broadly, an institutionalized engagement with NATO should make it easier for Delhi to deal with the military establishments of its 30 member states.
- On a bilateral front, each of the members has much to offer in strengthening India’s national capabilities.
- India’s continued reluctance to engage a major European institution like NATO will be a stunning case of strategic self-denial.
- NATO is not offering membership to India; nor seems New Delhi interested. At this issue is the question of exploring potential common ground.
- A pragmatic engagement with NATO must be an important part of India’s new European orientation, especially amidst the continent’s search for a new role in the Indo-Pacific.
Treaties are concluded in the national interest purely. Hence India should think of NATO.