Posts Tagged ‘india permanent seat’
With great power, everyone from Jesus to FDR to Stan Lee seems to think, comes great responsibility, scrutiny and accountability. India would do well to remember this as it continues to campaign for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
I would emphasize, first of all, that India’s canvassing for a permanent seat today is profoundly ironic from a historical perspective. We now know, thanks to Shashi Tharoor, that India’s Prime Minister at the time, Jawarhal Nehru, who was deeply skeptical of power politics, rebuffed a similar offer in 1953 from the United States and suggested that it instead be given to China. Now, Beijing, by most accounts, remains the chief obstacle to India’s campaign agitating for a UNSC permanent seat.
Irony aside, there are three major questions one could ask regarding this issue: two have been beaten to death, and one hasn’t been asked.
The first is whether a permanent seat for India is even possible. That question is pretty much resolved, in my book. Substantively, it doesn’t matter how many major countries publicly endorse India’s bid because China will veto any such measure both because of its strategic rivalry with India and, to a lesser extent, its long-standing alliance with Pakistan.
But let’s pretend for a moment that the China obstacle didn’t exist and a permanent seat were hypothetically attainable. The second question then becomes whether India deserves a seat at the table. Here, again, the answer is pretty clear. India is the world’s second largest country by population and the globe’s biggest democracy. It boasts one of the fastest growing economies (expected to expand by almost 9% this year) and the world’s fifth largest navy, and is one of the top contributors to UN peacekeeping operations with strong record on non-proliferation as a nuclear power (even if it is still outside the NPT). Going by the trite but true observation that the UNSC needs to be reformed to better reflect the current global distribution of power, India obviously deserves a seat at the table.
Most analyses often stop here and ignore an important third question: should India itself want a permanent seat, even if it deserves one and it is attainable? I emphasize India itself because I think that while Western powers – chiefly the United States – would like another democracy on the UNSC to shift the balance of power away from China and Russia and for India to assume more ‘global responsibilities’, I’m not sure if this would be good for India, or if it is even ready for this.
Many tend to answer this question symbolically. If India had long ago dreamt the dream of becoming a global power and felt it was entitled to a significant role in world politics based on its size, history and culture, then a permanent seat in the UNSC would satiate its appetite for greatness. Yet one of the central puzzles of contemporary India, Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution has argued, “[is] the large disparity between India’s own view of its “greatness” and the skepticism in this regard voiced by many others”. That’s why any comprehensive answer to the question of whether India would benefit from a UNSC permanent seat and is ready for it needs to move beyond symbolism to substance.
Viewed substantively, the answer becomes more complex, and a permanent seat could prove less beneficial and more problematic for New Delhi than it might think.
First, there will be increased pressure for India to take stronger positions on tough issues when it would ideally like to be more nuanced. Take Iran, for instance. On the one hand, New Delhi has made it more difficult for its companies to secure funding for energy deals with Iran in order to adhere to U.S. sanctions as it cozies up to Washington. But on the other, it has tried to find creative ways to circumvent this because Iran is the second-biggest supplier of crude to India after Saudi Arabia, accounting for about 14% of the country’s imports. Or Myanmar, where New Delhi since the 1990s abandoned its short-lived support for democracy and human rights and has been propping up the junta in exchange for natural resources and counter-terrorism cooperation despite its “world’s largest democracy” label.
For all states, foreign policy involves balancing ideals and interests, and India is no different. Yet one could argue it will become much harder for an emerging power with an evolving foreign policy like India to maintain this tricky balance as a permanent member of the UNSC. Not only will decisions there tend to be more high-profile, but India will also be expected to play a “more responsible” role as the world’s largest democracy and a ‘legitimate’ nuclear power on big questions of the day which may not be in line with its interests. As it is, India’s recent win of a non-permanent seat in the UNSC has already prompted such calls. Is India ready for this on a larger scale, and would a seat better serve its interests? Where would it fit in terms of a pretty clear division between France, US, and UK vs. China and Russia on some issues, for instance?
China’s record as a permanent member of the UNSC also suggests that the position is not all it is made out to be. This is particularly the case with regard to the power of the veto, which Beijing has exercised in a very limited way due to the fear of international censure and with mixed blessings in its foreign policy. China was extremely frustrated in 2007 when it had to cast its first non-Taiwan related veto in the UNSC since 1973 with regard to Burma, and spent the next few months calling on the junta to speed up reforms and increase international cooperation in the face of global pressure. And when Beijing vetoed a UN Security Council resolution advocating sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2008, it had to weather visceral international condemnation before its Olympic Games and faced further scrutiny when a Chinese arms shipment to Zimbabwe set off a political firestorm in South Africa.
India’s role as a permanent member in the UNSC will present an even greater dilemma than China’s experience suggests because it is a fractious and boisterous democracy. More will be expected out of it, foreign policy will likely become even more contentious as tougher positions become necessary, and its shift away from non-alignment may even be accelerated. In short, New Delhi will be forced to make tough calls on tricky issues at a time when its view of the world is still evolving.
Is that a good thing? Perhaps grappling with the globe’s top problems should not be viewed as a short term paralysis but necessary transition phase for Indian foreign policy in the longer term. But the point I’m trying to make here is that the question of whether India should want a permanent seat in the UNSC is at least a debatable proposition, and not one that should be blindly pursued simply because it is deserved, attainable, or symbolically beneficial. Foreign policy decisions of this magnitude ought to be made not just based on the symbolism of power or image, but the substance of policy and the constraints and dilemmas they may present in that regard.