Who's who at NATO's banquet
By M K Bhadrakumar
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is still printing the invitation cards to its Chicago summit on Sunday. A card was printed for Pakistan President Asif Zardari on Wednesday. Pakistan became "eligible" following indications it will get down from the high horse and reopen the transit routes for military convoys into Afghanistan - despite the stubborn refusal by Washington to either apologize for the massacre of Pakistani soldiers last November in an air strike or terminate the deadly drone strikes on Pakistani villages.
Pakistan will receive US$1 million per day from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a transit fee. Is it a fair deal - an invitation to the NATO banquet at Chicago in lieu of the reopening of the transit routes? Pakistan's main opposition parties do not think so. But then, the government in situ always knows better. Moreover, the Pakistani military wants it that way, too.
Zardari is raring to go, which is only to be expected. To be seen at a dazzling party is a matter of national prestige. Also, NATO isn't inviting any Tom, Dick or Harry. For instance, neither China's nor India's presidents have been invited to the charmed circle in Chicago. (Russia's was sounded out and said nyet, but that is another complicated story; and, NATO wanted to invite Israel, but Turkey put its foot down and said hayir.)
NATO's guest list shows Western ingenuity and, in turn, it is also a road map of the West's global strategies in the 21st century. How does the guest list look? What is most striking is that somewhat like in Dante's Inferno, there are rings.
The hardcore cluster comprises the 28 NATO member countries. The next layer is of 13 countries which are considered NATO's "global partners" - Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand from Asia-Pacific; Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco from the Middle East; Georgia from the Eurasian region; and Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland from the good old European backyard.
This is the creme le creme of NATO's allies. The most glaring omissions are Indonesia and the Philippines (the latter despite being "frontline states" in the Asia-Pacific and willing to needle the Chinese dragon), Saudi Arabia (despite being the Western economies' single-biggest gas station for well over half a century), Egypt, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina (which are prima donnas in their regions). On the whole, it seems NATO feels rather uncomfortable with the Group of 20 club that is straining to be formed.
Game of 'tough love'
Moving further ahead, yet another outer ring comprises countries that are participants or collaborators of NATO's Afghan war. These are the real "VIPs" (or "heroes", depending on one's point of view regarding the bloody Afghan war), because they put their necks on the block and attracted the attention of al-Qaeda to rescue NATO from the Afghan quagmire. They are (in alphabetical order and not in terms of their shedding of sweat and tears): Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bahrain, El Salvador, Ireland, Montenegro, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, Ukraine and Tonga.
It may come as a sensational detail that if the Afghan war is ever won, it could also be due to Tonga's contribution, but facts are facts.
The list is incomplete. This ring also has a sub-section that has Afghanistan (which is the main topic of discussion at the NATO summit) at the center surrounded by its neighbors from the Central Asian region. It seems Russia has been accommodated under this sub-head. Most certainly, Zardari goes into this niche.
Russia is deputing merely its head of the Afghan desk at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, making its displeasure loud and clear that it resents being excluded from NATO's key meetings regarding the conduct of the Afghan war, which regularly take place in Brussels, rain or sunshine. But it is a "nuanced" displeasure, too. Russia has no objection to NATO's Afghan war and is even an ardent votary of it. But Russia resents NATO's monopoly of the war; the war should be "democratized".
The Central Asian states are deputing their foreign ministers because technically they are also members of the rival alliance known as "NATO of the East" - the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
CSTO is locked in a game of "tough love" with NATO: it rivals NATO as the principal military alliance in the post-Soviet space, but it also wants NATO's recognition as an equal so that it can convince itself of its existence (which, unsurprisingly, NATO refuses to accord on Washington's insistence, since the US would prefer to deal with the former Soviet republics individually rather than as Moscow's junior partners).
CSTO's predicament is almost a mirror image of Russia's - longing for a room and a warm bed in the common European home but insistently being kept out and ever looking in while the US selectively keeps engaging it highly selectively on areas of concern to American strategies. (NATO, too, may well selectively engage CSTO someday, for example, to nab drug traffickers in Central Asia who subvert the Afghan economy.) CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
All said, however, Moscow is unsure about NATO's invitation to the Central Asian leaderships to attend the summit. It has misgivings about NATO's intentions in Central Asia, especially against the backdrop of the impending establishment of US military bases in Central Asia.
After all, one purpose of the Chicago summit is to build on the alliance's "smart strategy", which was adopted at the Lisbon summit in 2010 to project NATO as the only truly global security organization that could eventually operate even without a UN mandate in the world's "hot spots".
What will worry Moscow is that NATO has already developed a taste for forcing "regime change" in foreign lands, as the Libyan war testifies - and if the current ominous trends over Syria are any indication it could do the same.
Besides, NATO is baiting Central Asian states with offers that they are increasingly finding to be irresistible. The hard reality is that Central Asian regimes have developed vested interests in the Afghan war with NATO generously doling out lucrative contracts for sourcing goods and services to local companies that are front desks for the region's elites.
The US pays a handsome amount to Kyrgyzstan as the rent for Manas air base. Now there is talk that some of the weapons and equipment in Afghanistan may be gifted to Central Asian countries through the 2014 transition withdrawal period of the war.
Clearly, a gravy train under NATO stewardship is moving into the Central Asian steppes, which would make Moscow feel uneasy. Nonetheless, it is interesting that the Central Asian states have taken a collective decision that their heads of state will keep away from the NATO summit in the gorgeous Windy City. Arguably, it is an act of supreme self-denial by the Central Asian leaderships in deference to Moscow's sensitivity.
A question for the chef
Indeed, a key country neighboring Afghanistan has been scrupulously kept out of the NATO summit although its capacity to influence the tide of the Afghan war is quite appreciable still - Iran.
A great opportunity has been lost in constructively engaging Iran. But then, US President Barack Obama decided to play it safe.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is a mercurial personality, utterly charismatic and he might have ended up stealing the show that Obama has carefully, painstakingly choreographed to showcase his stature as a world leader. Too big a risk to take for Obama, no doubt, in a tricky presidential election year. Besides, Republican challenger Mitt Romney and the Israel Lobby would have given him a hard time explaining his "softness" toward Iran.
Yet another ring on the NATO invitation chart comprises the four applicants who are waiting in the ante-room for NATO membership - Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Montenegro and Macedonia.
Georgia has the unique distinction of figuring in three rings - as NATO's global ally, its partner in the Afghan war and as an eligible full member. The hidden message behind this extravagant attention being paid to Georgia wouldn't be lost on Moscow. Interestingly, President Vladimir Putin's first official visitors from "abroad" have been the leaders of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
However, this is not to say that Moscow is apprehensive of an imminent decision by NATO to admit Georgia as a member. Putin can count on major European partners like Germany, France and Italy to ensure NATO doesn't get into a confrontation with Russia. Putin has warmed up to the exit of Nicolas Sarkozy and the emergence of the socialist government in Paris.
At any rate, Obama too would know that the priority in his second term - if he gets it - in the Oval Office ought to be to rework the US's "reset" with Russia and make the Russian-American partnership predictable and optimally useful for the US's global strategies - especially with the problem of China's rise looming as a complex challenge.
Admittedly, NATO's invitation list gives a fair picture of what Marxist-Leninists would call the "co-relation of forces" in international politics today. The above is not the whole picture of global politics, but it is more than half the scenario on a highly fluid panorama.
Let me end up uncharacteristically with a touch of hubris to ask: What is a NATO summit when China and India are minding their own business and ploughing their independent furrows?
At a minimum, Brussels should have included a category of invitees labeled as "NATO + BRICS". Surely, the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - is no less important than the European Union in the making of the world of tomorrow. Indeed, the main chef at the banquet at Chicago should answer this question - Obama.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.