Geo-neutrality: India is lukewarm to Nato’s invitation for good reason

Nato was born 75 years ago in 1949 with 12 members from Europe and North America, including the US, Canada, Britain, France, Norway and Denmark. (REUTERS)
Nato was born 75 years ago in 1949 with 12 members from Europe and North America, including the US, Canada, Britain, France, Norway and Denmark. (REUTERS)


  • Russia’s recent aggression in Ukraine has renewed Nato’s relevance, but while the US may be keen for the alliance to expand its geopolitical reach, the era of such military pacts is over.

During the spring of 1948 in post-war Europe, an extra-parliamentary coup brought Czech communists to power in Prague. At the same time, there was an ongoing civil war in Greece and unrest in Turkey. In Italy, it appeared as if the Italian communist party would make inroads in an upcoming election. 

Russian premier Joseph Stalin made a move to test the West by blockading West Berlin. This series of events caused nations of Western Europe to seek the help of the United States. The US reciprocated with the Marshall Plan for Europe’s economic recovery and with first steps towards the creation of a collective security architecture.

Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg signed a European collective defence treaty in 1948. President Harry Truman persuaded an isolationist Republican Congress to ally with Europe. Senator Arthur Vandenburg proposed a security treaty with Western Europe that would exist outside the UN Security Council (to circumvent a Soviet veto), but still adhere to the UN charter. The Vandenburg Resolution became the basis for the negotiations that resulted in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).

Nato was born 75 years ago in 1949 with 12 members from Europe and North America, including the US, Canada, Britain, France, Norway and Denmark. Sweden chose not to join and maintained a policy of non-alignment in peace and neutrality in war. Even though the original idea of Nato was to protect Western countries against a potentially remilitarized Germany as well as communist Soviet Union, West Germany joined Nato in 1955. 

After that, Nato’s role heightened as the Cold War worsened. Nato has now expanded to 32 countries, the most recent additions being Finland and Sweden. Nato’s operational structure was catalysed by the Korean War that began in 1950.

The famous Article 5 of the treaty requires member states to come to the aid of any member state under armed attack. Article 5 has been invoked only once, and that too by the US, after the 11 September attacks. The less-known Article 4 requires consultation among members and has been invoked seven times. Elements of the Nato Response Force were activated for the first time in history during the current Ukraine war.

Nato has proven to be a credible deterrent in many instances, the most recent example being the containment of the Ukrainian conflict to just Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Some political thinkers from the realist school, like professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, believe that Nato’s eastward expansion is culpable of having goaded Russia into conflict with Ukraine. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, despite Nato’s initial expansion during that phase, its influence was in steady decline—until the Ukrainian war broke out.

Prior to its expansion, an agile Nato led by the US was able to make and execute decisions quickly. Today, its 32 member states have begun to openly squabble about things like leadership and often express opposing points of view. Turkey, Slovakia, Hungary and others have begun to express disagreements openly. The US under former president Donald Trump expressed disappointment over all members not ponying up their share of Nato’s budget.

Also read: Nato prepares to face Russia—and problems of its own

While the containment of Russia is important to Nato, America’s major strategic adversary has now become China. The US Congressional Committee on China has been seeking to expand Nato to include five more countries: Australia, New Zealand, Israel, India and Japan.

For these countries, one advantage of the proposed Nato-plus grouping is that the legislative process has already been completed by Nato’s 32 members. The invitees simply have to approve. The obvious disadvantage is that the grouping would become even more unwieldy and disparate than before and its ‘theatre’ of focus would move from solely the North Atlantic to a very wide area that includes the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

There are other focused organizations that have been formed to counter potential threats posed by China’s rise. The Quad grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia as well as the more recent Aukus with Australia, the US and UK are examples of smaller and more nimble strategic coalitions. In times ahead, the strategic intent of collaborating countries may be different, requiring more nuanced forms of collaboration, rather than simply lining up militarily.

Nato expansion could lead us to some perplexing scenarios. If Israel were part of Nato and had invoked Article 5 after last year’s Hamas attacks, for example, what would have happened? Similarly, if India had invoked Article 5 after China’s 2020 border incursions, it boggles the mind what might have ensued.

Even if India gets permanent membership of the UN Security Council, its power will be circumscribed by China’s membership. In the same way as Nato was created to circumvent the Soviet veto, India may need a mechanism to get around a Chinese veto. Nevertheless, the era of broad and fixed alliances is over for the foreseeable future. Narrower and more flexible but friendly relationships are likely to serve India’s future needs better.

As for Nato, Russia’s belligerence has given it a lease of life. The pact may yet live to see a 100th anniversary, but will likely have to remain confined to the North Atlantic.

P.S: To paraphrase Victor Hugo, how do you prolong the life of an idea whose time may have gone?

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