Take the biggest political-military alliance in history, protecting over 900 million people. And then take the world's second biggest country, whose population has just moved past the 1 billion mark. How could these two giants work together?
When NATO’s Heads of State and Government met for their Lisbon Summit in November 2010, they had to answer a critically important question: Can NATO become a true 21st century Alliance?
The answer they gave was an unequivocal “yes”. By adopting a new Strategic Concept that embraces globalisation as the key characteristic of the strategic environment, they acknowledged that the Atlantic Alliance has to transform further – and that one important part of this transformation will be the development of closer relations with countries across the globe.
In the run-up to the Lisbon Summit, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had already outlined what this would entail: closer relations with all major global players, including India and China.
Only a few years ago, any mentioning of India and China as potential NATO partners would have led to raised eyebrows not only in Delhi and Beijing, but also in many NATO member countries. Not any more. The Secretary General’s suggestion sparked little debate, let alone controversy.
And why should it? After all, reaching out to India is not a veiled attempt to draw this country and other rising powers into the Alliance’s political and military orbit. And neither is it an attempt to outflank the United Nations as the ultimate arbiter of global security. The suggestion to use NATO as a forum for consultation and cooperation is much less grandiose, and much more pragmatic. In an age that is increasingly shaped by the forces of globalisation, managing common security challenges requires a much tighter network among key players.
Afghanistan is a compelling case in point. NATO’s leadership of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not only brought the Alliance to China’s borders, it has also created much greater interdependence between NATO and India.
As a major international donor with a considerable civilian presence in Afghanistan, India has a strategic interest not only in the security that ISAF forces provide, but also in the stabilising influence which NATO’s engagement brings to the region. NATO’s long-term success in Afghanistan, in turn, hinges on the success of the civilian reconstruction efforts that India and others provide. Afghanistan has thus become a prime example of how new challenges create new dependencies and relationships.
NATO has made a sustained effort to adapt its policies and structures to these new realities. Today, the 28 member Alliance entertains diplomatic and military relations with over 30 non-members throughout the world. The scope and intensity of these relationships vary according to the specific interests of each partner country.
Some countries prefer to keep things low-key, with ad-hoc staff-level talks or by attending seminars or courses. Others limit their interaction with NATO to political dialogue. Still others opt for a much closer military partnership, to be able to take part in demanding operations alongside NATO Allies.
But all these relationships with NATO are voluntary and “à-la-carte”. They do not include the mutual defence commitment that binds the Allies, but neither do they compromise a partner country’s particular foreign policy, for instance its non-aligned security tradition.
Still, many Indian analysts harbour doubts about the possible implications for their country’s international position should it develop closer ties with NATO. As one eminent Indian analyst put it at a conference in Delhi, India is simply too big to be just another partner country to the Atlantic Alliance.
And while most members of the Indian strategic community readily admit that NATO’s Afghanistan mission coincides with India’s own strategic interest in stabilising that country, they do not necessarily conclude from this that India and NATO should develop closer cooperation.
On the contrary, many seem to believe that NATO’s eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan will mean the end of its interest in Asia.
Finally, since India enjoys close bilateral relations with all major NATO allies, and in particular its ever closer ties with the United States, some see little added value in building closer ties to the Alliance.
Are these valid arguments? First, any concern that India could be relegated to the status of a junior NATO partner is misplaced. China's staff level contacts with NATO have certainly not hindered that nation’s rapid ascent. And neither has the international stature of countries like Japan, Egypt or Australia suffered from their cooperation with NATO.
Hence, India will not need to compromise the fundamental tenets of its foreign and security policy. As Switzerland’s long-standing cooperation with NATO should demonstrate even to the most ardent sceptics, neither non-alignment nor neutrality need prevent a country from cooperating with NATO.
Second, even after the responsibility for security in Afghanistan has been handed over to Afghans, the Alliance will remain interested in the stability of the wider region and in further developing political and military ties. The enduring partnership agreed between NATO and Afghanistan testifies as much. NATO views its partnerships as a long-term strategic investment rather than a short-term tactical tool. The history of NATO’s partnership demonstrates as much. While these partnerships develop at different speeds, they all tend to intensify over time.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the case for closer cooperation between India and NATO does not rest solely on Afghanistan. There is a growing need for nations and organisations to cooperate more closely in many other areas, too. Much of the consultation will take place in the United Nations. But challenges such as cyber attacks, energy security, nuclear proliferation, failing states and piracy all compel nations to look for additional frameworks which allow them not only to talk together, but also to work together, including militarily. NATO is one such framework – and the only one with over six decades of experience in multinational military planning and cooperation.
For the Alliance, sharing this unique experience more widely is both natural and inevitable. That is why NATO’s cooperation with the Indian navy in counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia will likely be followed by closer cooperation in other areas as well. Another sign of a new dynamic is India’s high-level participation in NATO’s annual seminar on weapons of mass destruction proliferation. This seminar brings together over 50 nations from five continents, including India’s neighbours China and Pakistan.
In sum, the issue is not whether India and NATO should consult and cooperate, but how this can best be done. Should one continue on an “ad hoc” basis, with the limited effectiveness that is inherent to improvisation? Or should India and NATO opt for a more regular dialogue, in which they learn about each other’s perceptions, policies, and procedures, and are able to quickly operationalise that knowledge in tackling common challenges? The choice should be clear: exploiting NATO’s potential as a forum for consultation and cooperation is a “win-win” situation, both for India and for the Alliance.
Michael Rühle is Section Head of Energy Security Section in NATO's Emerging Security Challenges Division. He writes here in a personal capacity and the views expressed are his alone.