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Why India must not say ‘no’ to NATO

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.

NATO is not offering membership to India; nor is Delhi interested. At issue is the question of exploring potential common ground. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Any suggestion that India should engage the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is usually met with a cold stare in Delhi. India in recent years has broken many presumed political taboos in its foreign policy, but talking to NATO is not one of them. Why are regular consultations with NATO, the post-War military alliance between the US and Europe, so unimaginable in Delhi?

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. NATO has regular consultations with both Russia and China, despite the gathering tensions with them in recent years.

An India-NATO dialogue would simply mean having regular contact with a military alliance, most of whose members are well-established partners of India. If Delhi is eager to draw a reluctant Russia into discussions on the Indo-Pacific, it makes little sense in avoiding engagement with NATO, which is now debating a role in Asia’s waters.

India has military exchanges with many members of NATO — including the US, Britain, and France — in bilateral and minilateral formats. Why, then, is a collective engagement with NATO problematic? If Delhi does military exercises with two countries with which it has serious security problems — China and Pakistan — under the rubric of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), why should talking to NATO be anathema?

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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.

British Rule in India involved a continuous struggle against rival European powers. First it had to prevail over the Portuguese, Dutch and the French. Then it had to constantly keep an eye on the plans of other European powers to undermine British hegemony in the Subcontinent. In this so-called Great Game — with France, Germany and Russia at different stages — suspicion of Europe was written into the Indian establishment’s DNA. In the great reversal after Independence, driven by multiple considerations that we need not go into here, Delhi came to rely on the Soviet Union for its security in the Cold War, amidst India’s widening political divide with the West.

To be sure, there were countervailing trends over the last three centuries. As the East India Company expanded its reach, many princes sought cooperation from other Europeans in their (losing) battles to preserve their sovereignty vis a vis the British.


As nationalist forces gained ground at the dawn of the 20th century, they sought alliances with European powers to overthrow the British empire. Wilhelmine Germany helped set up the first provisional government of India in Kabul headed by Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh and Maulana Barkatullah in 1915. The newly established Soviet Union became an attractive partner for Indian revolutionaries for the overthrow of the British Raj. In the Second World War, Subhas Bose looked for German support to oust Britain from India.

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. Europe’s many internal contradictions did not disappear in the Cold War; but Delhi’s rigid ideological framing of the world in East-West and North-South axes left little room for a creative engagement with Europe.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union demanded a fresh approach to Europe. But Delhi could not devote the kind of strategic attention that Europe demanded. The bureaucratisation of the engagement between Delhi and Brussels and the lack of high-level political interest prevented India from taking full advantage of a re-emerging Europe.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has certainly sought to end this prolonged political neglect. The deepening maritime partnership with France since 2018 is an example. Joining the Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism in 2019 is another. Modi’s first summit with Nordic nations in 2018 was a recognition that Europe is not a monolith but a continent of sub-regions. So was the engagement with Central Europe’s Visegrad Four.

Delhi appears to be poised for a vigorous new push into Europe this year. 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.

While NATO is an impressive military alliance, it is not ten feet tall. It is riven with divisions on how to share the military burden and strike the right balance between NATO and the EU’s quest for an independent military role. NATO members disagree on Russia, the Middle East and China. Meanwhile, conflicts among NATO members — for example, Greece and Turkey — have sharpened. NATO’s recent adventures out of Europe — in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have not inspired awe.

NATO is not offering membership to India; nor is Delhi interested. At issue is the question of exploring potential common ground. 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 a recognition of the need to build coalitions.

A sustained dialogue between India and NATO could facilitate productive exchanges in a range of areas, including terrorism, changing geopolitics; the evolving nature of military conflict, the role of emerging military technologies, and new military doctrines. More broadly, an institutionalised 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.


Would Russia be upset with India’s engagement with NATO? Russia has not made a secret of its allergy to the Quad and Delhi’s dalliance 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.

Meanwhile, both Russia and China have intensive bilateral engagement with Europe. Even as hostilities between Moscow and Brussels have intensified, multiple European voices call for a dialogue with Russia. After all, Europe can’t wish away Russia from its geography. Meanwhile, China has long understood Europe’s salience and invested massively in cultivating it. Delhi’s continued reluctance to engage a major European institution like NATO will be a stunning case of strategic self-denial.


This column first appeared in the print edition on April 6, 2021 under the title ‘Why Delhi must talk to NATO’.  The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

First published on: 06-04-2021 at 04:18:07 am
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