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India moving to pole position for Security Council challenge

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — U.S. President Barack Obama made a splash in India recently when he indicated that the United States would back India’s bid for a permanent seat on an expanded United Nations Security Council.

It was a major policy shift that India has long clamored for and Washington has been reluctant to offer. By suggesting that he looks “forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member,” he warmed the hearts of Indian policymakers who have long viewed American political support as a litmus test of the burgeoning U.S.-India partnership.

It was suggested before the visit that the U.S. president might announce America’s support for a permanent Indian council seat. But publicly the Obama administration had argued that while it supported India’s rise, America’s explicit support would be difficult to come by. Yet during the visit to India, Obama made a leap of faith and talked up U.S.-India ties to a new high.

With the support of 187 states in the 192-member United Nations General Assembly, India secured a place for itself in the Security Council last month as a nonpermanent member along with Germany, South Africa, Colombia and Portugal. New Delhi had worked hard for the seat; Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna spent 10 days in New York and personally spoke to his counterparts of more than 130 countries.

India would like to use its nonpermanent presence at the U.N. high table to make a case for permanency more forcefully. As Krishna made clear, India would work with “like-minded countries and groups” to bring about “much needed structural reform” to the council.

The last time India contested elections for permanent council membership was against Japan in 1996, when it could muster only about one-fourth of all U.N. votes. It was a stinging defeat that jarred India’s rising global profile.

It is interesting that all four “BRIC” and three of the Group of Four countries (India, Brazil and Germany) will be on the council as nonpermanent members. It’s a big chance for these states, which have been arguing for several years that the council needs to better represent the changing global order, to demonstrate that their presence does indeed make a difference on the pressing issues of our times.

The composition of the new council more closely mirrors the changing global balance of power. An organization that reflects the post-World War II balance of power is no longer tenable.

As of now, there is little likelihood of council reforms progressing soon. A campaign led by Brazil, Germany, India and Japan for council reforms has stalled primarily because of opposition from China, which views inclusion of India and Japan as a threat to its position as the pre-eminent Asian power on the council. This political power play will continue to be the biggest obstacle to India’s permanent membership.

The thumping majority for India in last month’s U.N. election is a recognition of India’s credentials as a major global power. But India still needs to convince the world that it has a legitimate claim to a permanent seat on the council. India now finds itself in the spotlight and its actions on crucial global issues including Iran, Israel- Palestine, Sudan, North Korea and Myanmar will be scrutinized closely.

India will be forced to jettison old foreign policy assumptions and create a fine balance between the pursuit of its narrow national interest and its responsibility as a rising power to maintain global peace and stability. It won’t be able to please all nations in proposing solutions that involve difficult choices. Merely suggesting that India will be the “voice of moderation and constructive engagement” won’t help. India’s stint on the Security Council will, to a large extent, determine the type of great power India will become.

New Delhi has always wanted to be taken seriously as a global power. Unfortunately that means everyone will be watching when it says something (or can’t figure out what to say). That’s life in the fast lane. It’s not surprising therefore that many think that India is better off not being a permanent council member.

If India became a member, it would have to take positions on various issues that, given the fragility of Indian domestic politics, are harder to resolve than many anticipate.

India would do well to use a permanent council membership to credibly project in the international realm what it stands for. Raymond Aaron has suggested that the legitimacy of a great power diminishes if that power is not associated with a vibrant set of ideas. Global reassessment of India is primarily predicated on its recent economic rise.

India’s rise will remain incomplete in the absence of a credible vision with a larger purpose. India not only appears to be devoid of big ideas backed by assertive political conviction but also lacks the intellectual infrastructure essential to debate and achieve clarity on what being a great power means for India.

India has always been a nation of great ambition, but today more than ever it needs to answer the question: What is the purpose behind its ambition? India should try to answer this as it takes its seat at the U.N. high table from January and moves toward permanent membership.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.