Of 'focused' alliances?
While homiletic interventions by multilateral organisations are proving out to be ineffective in deterring conflicts, committed alliances are gaining ground
In recent times, the United Nations Charter to 'maintain international peace and security' and 'achieve international cooperation in solving international problems', has struggled with its objectives. Its notable failures have been the likes of the Rwandan genocide, UN Oil for Food Programme in Iraq, Srebrenica massacre, Russian takeover of Crimea, Chinese incarceration of Uighurs etc., and now the bloody Israeli-Palestinian violence. The history of 172 peaceful settlements negotiated by the UN, is woefully backloaded. Former US President, Donald Trump, had called the forum 'a waste of time and money' – later, the US withdrew from affiliated forums like United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). But for a last-minute reprieve from the Joe Biden administration, Trump had even announced withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The inefficacy and the systemic misuse of the 'veto' power by the five Permanent Members have diminished the United Nation's ability to take pre-emptive measures or implement mitigative/de-escalation abilities in a conflict. Yet again, the United States had vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution that was critical of Israel's recent conduct – the standard playbook 'veto' favouring the Israelis, was for the record 53rd time, thereby encouraging Israel's disproportionate retaliation. The hypocrisy of the US cover afforded to Israel still does not belie the reality of Israel facing the most UN resolutions against itself in the world – in just 2020, it had almost three times compared with the rest of the world (17 versus 6). Yet, Netanyahu cares two hoots for the same and routinely calls the United Nations, 'shameful', 'biased', 'house of lies' etc., and bashes on regardless. It was the direct behind-the-scene moves by the Egyptian leader, Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, along with the acquiescence from Joe Biden, that was able to stitch a 'formula' for a truce, sought by both sides – this was seemingly intractable with the ponderous framework of the United Nations.
The same homilies-laden approach of the United Nations was equally ineffective in last summer's Indo-Sino border hostilities when it urged to 'exercise maximum restraint', or subsequently in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and later in condemning the Junta takeover in Myanmar – the UN's motherhood statements notwithstanding, these flare-ups have not restored the status quo ante and the matter has settled relatively, with its own dynamics of power balances. More importantly, forums like the United Nations are structurally susceptible to vested and unmasked 'power play' that brooks no morality or ethics – China had brazenly vetoed the UN's move to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad Chief, Masood Azar, as a global terrorist, four times. While the UN itself remained incapable of correcting the systemic lacunae, it was the direct and concerted diplomatic pressures from the US, the UK and France that finally led to China vacating its objections. Even the tag of UN-designated 'terrorists' has little impact on the ground as the likes of Hafiz Saeed, Abdur Rahman, Zaki ur Rahman and Dawood Ibrahim continue plying their trade with impunity in a country that repeatedly beseeches the intervention of the UN in another country!
Modern-day success in deterring conflicts or perpetuating the status quo is predicated on the security shield afforded by belonging to a strategic alliance or 'bloc', that commits military intervention by fellow members. If Azerbaijan was openly supported by Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, landlocked Armenia had to settle for platitudes as support from the Western Powers, as it wasn't a full-fledged member of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). Similarly, the substantial bind, bite and commitment of the Taiwan Relations Act's provision that 'the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities', ensures that China's sabre-rattling does not go beyond words. Similarly, the Mutual Defense Treaty (United States-South Korea) provides for 'mutual aid, if either faces external armed attack' besides allowing the US to station military forces – this Defense Treaty more than any other lever, has deterred threats from North Korea or China. Whereas the still-incubating status of the QUAD dialogue/alliance (US, India, Australia and Japan) has remained in the realm of symbolism and posturing, the commitment towards the aspired 'free and open Indo-Pacific' has led to occasional naval exercises and the sailing of aircraft carrier-led strike groups, that still do not match the fortitude of the NATO, as yet. Despite India's philosophical-moral clarification that the Indo-Pacific concept was 'for something, not against somebody', the cold reality of the urgent need to 'counterbalance China' remains the foremost urgency – the memories of last summer, when Donald Trump at best offered to be 'ready, willing and able to mediate', exposed the limits of plain vanilla 'good relations', as the Indian troops fought off the Chinese challenge, against all odds and minimal external support. The American aid, in terms of military weaponry and other wherewithal, was in any case, ongoing and made commercial sense – what was lacking was a formal and actionable 'military alliance' that is tangible enough to deter Chinese aggression, as it does for Taiwan or South Korea.
Conceptually, QUAD is the workable counterpoise for India's security needs in the foreseeable future. Aspiring to get a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), is indeed a matter of justifiable right, but not of any consequential game-changing abilities on the ground. Big, wieldy, multilateral forums have demonstrated extreme inabilities to deliver in recent times – the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) or the 41-member Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC, which boasts of Palestine as a member), were conspicuous with their silence and irrelevance in the recent Israeli-Palestinian violence. Interestingly, the Riyadh-based IMCTC is led by the former Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, who had once threatened to 'wipe Israel off the map'! The Chinese hyperrealists have never bothered too much about the Multilateral forums, but QUAD has irked its calculus – herein, lies the differentiated barometer of implications between gargantuan, bureaucratic and manipulatable multilateral forums versus sharper, leaner and more clearly committed 'alliances'.
The writer is the former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are personal