fbpx Why Stronger NATO and QUAD Relations is the Need of the Hour After the Afghanistan Withdrawal | Atlantic-Forum

Why Stronger NATO and QUAD Relations is the Need of the Hour After the Afghanistan Withdrawal

By Arpit Chaturvedi, this article was originally published by the USANAS Foundation, on 15 September 2021.

 

The reason why the US’s prestige is hurt with the withdrawal from Afghanistan is not because of serious questioning of its ability to retaliate effectively when attacked. Rather the reason is that the world now knows that there is a deficit of will in the American establishment and that it will not put boots on the ground or commit substantially to geopolitical entanglements far from home, until and unless its own security is directly and seriously under threat.

Analysis

The exit of the United States (US) from Afghanistan has left the former with a substantial dent in its prestige. Where it has lost out in prestige, it has gained in its reputation for retaliation. It cannot be doubted that the US has earned a crystal-clear reputation that it will attack, even preemptively, when it believes its own security is directly threatened.  Despite reluctance and criticisms from Fellow NATO members, the United States initiated, pursued, and ended its “War on Terror” which has indeed given a credible and costly signal that as a nation it will go to great lengths against any forces which it sees as national security threats. However, the US has also shown that in its aggression it will not be able to contribute substantially towards state-building. Herein, it must be pointed out that reputation and prestige are two different constructs. Reputation pertains to a belief that a state will behave in a particular manner given a certain set of situations and circumstances. On the other hand, prestige, in the words of the celebrated international relations scholar Robert Gilpin, “is the reputation for power… prestige refers primarily to the perceptions of other states with respect to a state's capacities and its ability and willingness to exercise its power”.

The reason why the US’s prestige is hurt with the withdrawal from Afghanistan is not because of serious questioning of its ability to retaliate effectively when attacked. Rather the reason is that the world now knows that there is a deficit of will in the American establishment and that it will not put boots on the ground or commit substantially to geopolitical entanglements far from home, until and unless its own security is directly and seriously under threat.

A Lack of ‘Will to Commit’ on part of the US?

Recently, the ‘avoidance of military intervention’ has, in many senses, become a holy cow in the public opinion of the United States, and the world now knows it. Predictability is not good for strategy in most circumstances. On close observation of the public opinion surveys from Pew, it becomes clear that there was a turning of the tide in the American public opinion from around the year 2013. The public opinion graphs look like a pair of scissors from 2009 to 2018 with a pivot in the year 2013. In 2009, a majority of American citizens believed that the US’s strategy was mostly succeeding in achieving its goals in Iraq as well as Afghanistan (respectively). However, the gap in the number of people who believed that the American policy was succeeding and those who thought it was failing kept reducing until 2013, after which more people started believing that the US’s strategy is failing in both countries and fewer people believed in its success each passing year.

Figures showing the change of opinion (of US citizens) on United States Policies towards Afghanistan and Iraq from 2006 to 2006:

Source: Pew Research Centre

There could be many explanations regarding the perception of poll numbers but what is clear is that there is an increasing sense in the population of the United States that their strategy in both nations has been a failure. Moreover, now there seem to be drastically fewer Democrats as well as Republicans who feel that the US’s strategy succeeded in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This essentially proves that there is growing reluctance of direct military intervention among the US public and across the aisles among its political elite.

A Strategy for the Adversary

When an adversary state or a non-state actor has the knowledge that the consensus in the majority opinion in the United States is of non-intervention in military matters abroad, then a likely strategy for the adversary to gain an advantage over the US would be to harass the United States and diminish its power indirectly. It can do so by:

(a) going against its allies, perhaps its weaker allies (weak both in terms of its state capacity to avert adverse actions on their own and also in terms of its strength of alliance with the United States) and thereby creating a situation where they expect more help from the United States which it may, in its own turn, not be able to offer satisfactory support owing to its own financial priorities; and

(b) avoiding a direct confrontation with the US while still inducing some threat perception for it thereby creating a situation where the US feels threatened, but not threatened enough to retaliate significantly.

As long as an adversary ensures these, it will be able to weaken the United States’ allies and therefore the US’s influence in the world order without inviting a direct retaliation from the United States, especially in the form of use of force against itself.

With this possibility, some obvious targets are the weaker allies of the United States such as the eastern European members of the NATO given their low rankings on military strength (aggregate), as well as Taiwan. Interestingly, some of these nations - Taiwan, Croatia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, and Albania  - are also in the list of top 44 countries which have seen the sharpest increase in military capabilities in 2021 (the highest in this ranking is Pakistan but their reasons are different) released by the Global Firepower Index. This indicates a preemptive response on part of the comparatively weaker allies of the United States due to the increasing threat perception from their adversaries.

Indeed, in the case of Beijing especially, it finds assurance in the precedence set by the United Kingdom’s and in general the west’s lackadaisical response after the China’s takeover of Hong Kong in June 2020 which led to the imposition of Hong Kong National Security Law by the central government and resulted in the suspension of bilateral extradition treaties by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, and Ireland. Similarly, the western nations’ lack of substantial action after Kremlin annexed Crimea from Ukraine should tempt China to over-reach in Taiwan.

A Shift Towards Power Parity Between the US and China Means Greater Probabilities of Conflict

The weakening of the US allies and the US’s influence among its allies would increase the power parity between China and the United States (i.e., bringing them closer in terms of overall power), thereby also increasing the likelihood of escalation between them. In his empirical study based on a dataset of 456 militarized disputes occurring between 1816 and 1986 across the world, Daniel S Geller has found that “power parity and shifts toward parity are approximately twice as likely to be associated with war (and armed conflict) as is a condition of power preponderance” (parenthesis in italics are my additions). This means that there is more conflict among rival nations when their aggregate power is closer to equal, as opposed to a situation when one nation is considerably more powerful than the other. With the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and in future perhaps Iraq too, if indeed the United States loses more power and China closes the gap leading to shifts towards power parity, then there is a greater likelihood of heated, even armed conflict between the two nations (US and China).

The dilemma for the United States would be the realistic need for increasing escalations with China to contain its influence and a reluctance on part of the public to get involved in a military conflict. Such a situation would likely be resolved either by a massive revision of public opinion in the US (which seems unlikely for now) or through acceptance on part of the US is playing a lesser role in organizing the world system. Such situations where action and inaction both lead to greater losses are typical of the great power decline.

Positive action on part of the United States here would mean going against its public opinion and playing an increasing role in managing the world order at the cost of domestic public support, more drawings from the already dwindling goodwill account of the NATO allies, as well as a considerable commitment of economic resources which are much needed internally in the United States for the revivification of the economy post the pandemic.  Inaction would mean ceding space to China, Russia, and Turkey which could emerge as a nexus against the US’s influence in the world. This ceding of space would mean, that the adversaries would harass US allies which would further strain the US’s relations in its circle of influence. It is a peculiar situation of “Catch 22” for the United States.

Impact on India, the QUAD, and the Great Power Competition and a Strategy for the United States

In a situation where direct intervention from the United States is not to be expected, the probability of a greater degree of conflict in some of the abovementioned countries, especially Taiwan, has serious implications for South Asia and Indo-Pacific. 

For the Indo-pacific region, it means that the United States’ commitment to the quadrilateral security grouping (or QUAD) will remain more in terms of the creation of a security regime through signalling and supporting the same indirectly rather than through direct military involvement. This would also mean that while the quadrilateral grouping may see favourable symbolic posturing from the United States, there will be a low probability of direct military support and even indirect financial support from the US to increase military capabilities among the quadrilateral nations could be underwhelming. This is because the unfavourable public opinion towards military involvement abroad in the United States stems partially from the excessive expenditures related to its geopolitical involvements. Therefore, financial considerations may limit the US in strengthening the QUAD grouping in a substantial manner. Some hopefuls are indeed of the belief that the United States can commit more resources towards the Indo-Pacific (or the QUAD grouping) once it has pulled out of Afghanistan but they fail to appreciate the internal political compulsions within the United States where the overwhelming public opinion is not to spend resources (not just troops, but resources) in security entanglements abroad.

However, not all is lost for the United States and the QUAD. Greater cooperation between the QUAD countries, especially India and Japan with other NATO countries, something that is currently lacking, could be just the rabbit the Unites States needs to pull out of its hat. Greater cooperation between the NATO and QUAD countries could ensure greater coordination, resources, and thereby capacity for the self-strengthening of these countries which could, in turn, play a significant role to support Taiwan as well as the US’s Eastern European partners. The big payoff here could come with the United States playing the role of the facilitator on two fronts:

  • By facilitating greater security cooperation between the European members of NATO and Japan, as well as India. Such cooperation already exists to a considerable extent with Australia which is considered as an “enhanced partner of NATO”. Increasing such cooperation with India and Japan would contribute substantially towards creating a safer Indo-pacific.
  • By facilitating greater market integration between the European Union members of NATO and the non-US QUAD countries. As is well known, economic strength translates into military capabilities. Hence it would be beneficial for the QUAD countries to integrate their markets more closely with the non-US NATO members. This could be facilitated by the United States. On the economic front, Japan is already the second-largest trading partner for the EU in Asia (China as the largest Asian trading partner of the EU). Therefore, free trade agreements between India and the EU as well as Australia and the EU would greatly strengthen the capabilities of these countries to maintain a favourable balance of power in the great power competition.

To effectuate greater military and economic cooperation between NATO and QUAD would certainly be a complex task but it is perhaps the only viable strategy for the United States to maintain a favourable balance of power and its position in the world order. This strategy comes with little military or economic costs for the US and only demands it to play the role of a deft facilitator than an active contributor. It may prove to be a strategy to avert a hegemonic decline.

Thursday, 23 September, 2021 - 08:00