Leaders in any sphere of public life need followers. Indeed, without followers there can be no leader. The relationship between leaders and followers is always complex but ultimately must satisfy the interests of both. These interests cannot be defined or evaluated only in monetary terms. What is true of individuals also largely applies to interstate relationships and ties between major powers and less powerful or influential countries. The onus has to be on leaders, whether individuals or states, to carry followers along with themselves. While doing so they have to take care that the honour of their followers is maintained.
These basic principles have surfaced in the United States in the context of President Trump's approaches to NATO as he left for Europe to attend a NATO summit, visit Britain and thereafter Helsinki to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prior to his departure he emphatically reiterated his America First policy and once again demanded that NATO countries should meet their financial obligations to the organisation. He overlooked the dictum that financial contributions alone cannot be the determinant factor of relations between a leading country and its allies. Consequently, he has caused great discomfort and confusion among America's traditional allies in Europe and has also given ammunition to his domestic critics. He does not seem to care because his faithful American support base is behind him as is evident from their comments.
Presidential candidate Trump had emphasised that NATO was "obsolete". For him NATO was a cold war relic and as that contentious period was over with the dissolution of the Soviet Union it was no longer needed. Besides, he had strongly criticised European countries for not making the required contributions to NATO. This meant that the US had to underwrite the organisation. Trump's business instincts always come to the fore on the question of the financing of international and multilateral organisations.
Initially President Trump ostensibly had a change of heart. He said NATO was no longer obsolete. At the same time, he underlined that its member countries should raise defence spending to 2% of their GDP as decided by the organisation. It seemed that Trump had become conscious that NATO which had grown to 29-member countries continued to be the security anchor of the Trans-Atlantic Partnership which continues, without doubt, to be the most important international grouping in the world. This is so in the areas of trade and financial and investment flows and so also in terms of international security arrangements.
The rise of emerging powers such as China attracts greater international attention than the status of the US-Europe ties and of the situation in NATO. The reality however is that NATO continues to have a greater reach and has also morphed. It was established in 1949 to meet the Soviet challenge to Western countries but after the cold war it enlarged its focus to issues such as terrorism. Thus, NATO countries have contributed troops for action in Afghanistan since 2001 in Afghanistan. Over the past few years as Russia became more assertive under President Putin, NATO decided to contain Russia. This was in keeping with US policy under President Obama. However, Trump really wants to normalise US ties with Russia and that is what acutely worries its NATO allies. They feel that it may be at their cost.
At the summit Trump was openly critical of Germany for relying on Russian gas. He went so far as to stigmatise it for being "captive to Russia". This broadside was obviously meant to demonstrate that Europe's reservations on a warming up of the US-Russia relationship was hypocritical. While Trump will continue to pressure Europe and step on its ego it cannot retaliate for its security demands close cooperation with the US.
These developments in NATO raise issues of how emerging powers like India and China should handle less influential countries in their neighbourhood. Clearly, China relies on using its enormous financial muscle to win over smaller states. It is doing so systematically across the world. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is part of this endeavour; its strategic purpose is the creation of a group of countries that are tied to China really as allies. It may not work out to be so for the Chinese are imposing onerous economic and financial terms on BRI projects. In cases of default in repayment of loans they are taking over land assets leading to resentments.
India has tried, but not consistently, to offer market access to neighbouring countries as well as project assistance without demanding full reciprocity. At the same time, it has urged its neighbours not to undertake any activity or allow any actions from its territories that have negative connotations for its security. This is not an unreasonable approach. Where its diplomats and political leaders have to exercise caution is to avoid giving an impression that it is a big brother. Certainly, the language Trump uses against his European allies is offensive and that has to be avoided for it insults the dignity of allies. It should be completely avoided by Indian leaders.
In this day of strong world leaders, the old graceful and courteous ways of handling international relations have given way to invective. The use of harsh language, not always followed up with harsh actions, is meant for domestic constituencies but do not remain confined to them. Instant communications spread them far and wide making the management of global relations far more complex and demanding than in times past.