As America’s President Donald Trump prepares for yet another series of summits, the world fears a bull-in-a-china-shop scenario. Like his Singapore foray to meet North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, following a spat-strewn G-7 summit in Canada, Mr Trump will attend a Nato summit on July 11-12 and then engage Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.
The 29-nation Nato was created in 1949 under the North Atlantic Treaty after Western paranoia rose over two 1948 events — the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Blockade, which forced the US and its allies to airlift supplies to the besieged German capital carved up between the four victorious powers of World War II. The Soviet threat constantly drove the alliance as it grew and sometimes shrank – such as the gradual French withdrawal while developing its own military and nuclear deterrence from 1966, and its eventual return in 2009.
The moment of reckoning came when Berlin Wall fell in 1989, followed by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. What was Nato’s utility, it was asked, if the principal threat to Europe had dissipated. Also mooted was whether Nato should expand to the east, incorporating the newly-liberated Warsaw Pact members? Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s memoirs and others have confirmed an unwritten understanding with the former USSR that German reunification would not lead to Nato’s admission of the former Warsaw Pact countries. An alternative suggestion mooted, including by then US President Bill Clinton, was to admit Russia to Nato. Even the Soviet Union had suggested it in 1954, before creating the Warsaw Pact. Unfortunately, this outreach to a weakened Russia was not pursued amid the Western euphoria of assumed permanent dominance, which American thinker Francis Fukuyama called the “end of history”.
What happens to Nato matters to India as since 2001 it has operated in Afghanistan under a UN Security Council mandate. Its role expanded following the 2003 US troop withdrawal for the Iraq operation. At its peak, Nato operations, called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), covered the whole of Afghanistan. It had six regional commands, special operations forces and a training mission. Currently, 16,000 troops from 39 Nato and partner countries remain in Afghanistan. India has always encouraged a US presence there, calculating that only this could counter Pakistani interference in Afghanistan or obtain its reluctant cooperation, without which peace cannot be restored.
Mr Trump’s unpredictability allows for multiple outcomes at the upcoming Nato summit. He has by turn called Nato “obsolete”, or more recently, at the G-7 summit, as bad as Nafta – the US trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. His lietmotif has been that the Europeans have exploited a naïve US for their security by spending the least. He demands all Nato members should raise defence spending to two per cent of their GDP. It has had variable compliance, with the largest European economy, Germany, being a prime defaulter, with defence expenditure of a little over one per cent, though last year has seen one of the biggest increases in defence spending across Europe and Canada.
But the Europeans fear that under the guise of more burden-sharing, Mr Trump may dilute the US commitment to Article 5, enshrining mutual defence, as the core of the Atlantic Treaty. In fact, the US invoked this clause when roping in the Nato allies for the Afghanistan intervention after the 9/11 attacks in the US. The Europeans are also envisioning alternatives to stymie Mr Trump. They have agreed on “four 30s” by 2020, involving the ability to move 30 mechanised battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 battle-ships within 30 days. Separately, French President Emmanuel Macron led the creation of a nine-nation initiative called E12, which retains a post-Brexit Britain, for joint European operations. Germany reluctantly joined when assured it can omit operations. This group also ties in with a larger 25-nation initiative for coordinating European defence capabilities under the rubric Permanent Structured Co-operation (Pesco).
The Afghan intervention by Nato was its first out-of-area operation well beyond Europe. This recognised that new threats like terrorism or weapons of mass destruction or non-state entities operate seamlessly globally.
The Helsinki Trump-Putin summit creates a new uncertainty. If Mr Trump no longer sees Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a threat to Europe, despite the Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, then what is the future of the Baltic republics which feel threatened by Moscow? Russia is, nevertheless, critical to two issues vital for Mr Trump — Syria and Iran. Russia is also vital for oil price stability being the largest producer, besides Saudi Arabia. The Russian convergence with China also increases Mr Putin’s options and strategic importance. The visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Europe and his plea that for the nuclear deal to survive Europe must defy the US sounds unrealistic.
India needs to watch all these developments very closely. India’s interests lie in Europe adopting a role more independent of the US, as a new global security order evolves. German strategic reluctance and British isolationism can only be partly compensated by a neo-Gaullist France under Mr Macron. Lord Ismay, Nato’s first secretary-general in 1949, said the aim of the new organisation was “to keep Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. Clearly, the last hypothesis is inapplicable today. The second is becoming doubtful and the first mutated. Europe cannot remain immobilised by the fear of Russia, hordes of immigrants and terrorism. A more proactive response, like that of France in Francophone Africa to counter the terror affiliates of Al Qaeda, has to emerge. Similarly, Europe cannot ignore an aggressive and revisionist China spreading its tentacles across the Indo-Pacific region.
Can Europe function without the certainty of US partnership in solving its strategic dilemmas? That opens up space for India to engage the remnants of Nato and the European Union in a new 21st century partnership. Joseph Schumpeter had devised the phrase “creative destruction” for economic change and growth. Mr Trump, being a business tycoon, is now applying it to global strategic structures. The outcome creates great uncertainty and opportunity.