Originally Published 2021-03-18 10:26:37 Published on Mar 18, 2021
Despite last year’s quadrilateral Malabar exercises and the recent announcement of new working groups, Quad cooperation on naval interoperability, critical technologies, and Covid-19 had been manifest previously.
Locating Quad in geopolitical history
For almost six centuries, the leaders of England (and later Great Britain) saw France as their primary strategic challenge. The Anglo-French rivalry was so all-consuming — from the Hundred Years War through the Napoleonic Wars — that it resulted in the consolidation of territory and national identities in both countries, shaped dynastic successions, altered religious and linguistic developments, determined alliances and military involvement, and fuelled colonial competition. But centuries of rivalry came to an end in 1904, when Britain and France signed a series of agreements, known as the Entente Cordiale. The impetus was the rise of a new European power — Germany — which both France and Britain perceived to be a shared challenge. The Entente Cordiale was not a commitment to each other’s defence. Contradictions remained. Later that year, France’s ally, Russia, and Britain’s ally, Japan, were to wage war against each other. Nonetheless, Germany was sufficiently motivated by the new Anglo-French condominium to attempt to test the Entente. This resulted in a crisis over the status of Morocco, which only brought London and Paris closer. Understandings such as the Entente Cordiale were, in fact, a common feature of international relations prior to World War II and the nuclear age. The Cold War infused new thinking that alliances had to be credible and watertight to deter adversaries and thereby preserve peace. Critics argued that this logic was costly, and that it resulted in over-extension, fuelled unnecessary conflict, and gave reason for allies to engage in risky behaviour. Debates about international security commitments — whether in the United States (US) or Europe, or indeed in India or even China — reflect vestiges of these competing worldviews. But in many respects, we have experienced a reversion to a pre-alliance era. The motivations are different. Democratically elected leaders — or any leadership responsive to its people — will confront difficulties in making open-ended security commitments to another sovereign State. Publics are more sensitive to the presence of foreign troops on their soil, including the legal complications that might arise. Despite nationalist impulses, public opinion surveys generally reflect a scepticism of overseas military involvements and a preference for greater spending on social welfare and services at a time when defence spending is already at historic lows. (According to the World Bank, 2018 marked the lowest year on record for military expenditure around the world at 2.18% as a proportion of global Gross Domestic Product.) The need to adapt to new strategic challenges amid fiscal and political constraints is resulting in a return to ententes as an important feature of international relations. Successive governments in the US have now made it clear that the relationship with a non-ally such as India matters much more than some of its formal treaty alliances. Quad — involving India, the US, Japan, and Australia — is emerging as perhaps the most prominent new entente. But the relationship between China and Russia is also exhibiting similar features, much as the China-Pakistan relationship has for decades. Nonetheless, criticism of these new relationships often continues to raise the bogey of an alliance. For example, some American critics of Quad have implied that this arrangement will somehow contribute to Indian tensions with China and Pakistan, and risks dragging the US into conflicts in the Indian Ocean region. Similarly, Indian critics fear that the US’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy would entangle India in unnecessary competition in the Pacific. Such criticism is misleading, and perhaps deliberately so. Priorities will continue to differ among Quad countries. This is clearly reflected in the relative importance India has granted to South Asia and the Indian Ocean when it comes to maritime security, foreign assistance, and vaccine diplomacy. Ententes are also not useless, as some seem to believe. Those who contend that Quad is simply a talk shop have not been paying sufficient attention to its accompanying activities. Despite last year’s quadrilateral Malabar exercises and the recent announcement of new working groups, Quad cooperation on naval interoperability, critical technologies, and Covid-19 had been manifest previously. Moving forward, arrangements such as Quad could play a pivotal role in coordinating responses, reducing frictions, and enabling participant-States to concentrate more on their core competencies and geographies. The return of ententes in plain sight (although to little fanfare) reflects the yawning gaps between public opinion, academic scholarship, and actual policy on matters of international relations. A closer examination of the long history of “strategic partnerships short of mutual defence” would be instructive. For example, the Anglo-French partnership, which became the Triple Entente with the addition of Russia, failed to deter Germany, resulting in the outbreak of World War I. But it contributed significantly to the victorious outcome for its members (although at great cost, especially to Russia and France). By contrast, it was the seemingly more ironclad Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, which crumbled. The parallel suggests that debates about the wisdom of international partnerships and commitments are unlikely to abate. But a sense of precision and perspective about the nature of new and emerging strategic arrangements is sorely needed.
This commentary originally appeared in The Hindustan Times
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