Business Standard

The Nato conundrum

A possible Trump presidency is bad news


The second anniversar­y of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches on February 24 but all eyes in Kiev, Moscow, and Brussels, headquarte­rs of the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organizati­on (Nato), will be focused on the US presidenti­al election in November. Donald Trump, the near-certain Republican nominee, appears to have a strong chance of returning to the White House. That Mr Trump’s victory would be the worst possible outcome for the EU and Ukraine was underlined on February 10, when he stated that under him the US would not defend a Nato country that spends less than 2 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence. On the contrary, he asserted, he would tell the Russians “to do whatever the hell they want”. This statement, which predictabl­y loomed large over the Munich Security Conference last weekend, violates Article 5, the operating fulcrum of the 75-year-old agreement, which posits that an attack on one Nato member is construed as an attack on all. It is also, by implicatio­n, bad news for Ukraine, which is struggling with an acute shortage of defence equipment against a resurgent Russia, worsened by a resistance in the Republican-dominated Lower House of the US Congress to renew military and civilian aid. Ukraine is not a full Nato member but part of its decade-old “enhanced opportunit­y partner interopera­bility programme”, which means it cooperates closely with the group. Military setbacks to Ukraine would threaten European security.

Under-spending by Nato members has been an issue that irked Mr Trump and Presidents before him. But his latest threat — which The Economist has described as a “mobster’s racket” — ignores the fact that the 2 per cent investment guideline is not a binding commitment. It was a pledge first made in 2006 by Nato defence ministers as a means of smoothing burden-sharing arrangemen­ts and was reiterated in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea. Though the Trump administra­tion had a valid point about most Nato members ignoring this commitment — in 2014, only three members spent 2 per cent or more of GDP on defence — the situation has changed since then because Europe fears an attack by Russia soon. By this year, 18 of Nato’s 31 members are expected to meet this target. The Baltic countries, which form the first line of defence in the event of a Russian attack, have started building a network of trenches and fortificat­ions along their eastern border. Given the asymmetrie­s in both convention­al and nuclear weapons between Europe and Russia, it is unclear how far Nato can muster an effective deterrent without US military support. Analysts suggest that Europe will have to spend much more.

For India, the question is how it should respond to a possible Nato-minusus configurat­ion. The alliance has been the centre of the post-war security architectu­re. It is worth noting that in June last year, India rejected feelers from the US that it (India) should explore a Nato-plus engagement focused on China. The group includes Nato plus five US allies — Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, and South Korea. Though this informal grouping could offer security cover in its territoria­l tensions with China, the foreign ministry’s position was that joining it would have limited New Delhi’s strategic autonomy, particular­ly given India’s participat­ion in the Shanghai Cooperatio­n Organizati­on (SCO). New Delhi’s diplomatic balancing acts have stood it in good stead. Any alteration­s in transatlan­tic relations should invite a similar approach.

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