Commentary

Obama Has Given India a Ticket to Mars

Euphoria over President Obama’s support has led some Indians to believe that India will soon become a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Others say Obama has offered a ticket to the UNSC contingent on India paying a ticket fee: it must support the US position on Iran and Myanmar. Wrong, and wrong again.

The US has no power to give anybody a permanent Security Council seat, regardless of the fee offered. Obama’s support is like a ticket for the first commercial flight to Mars: a favour no doubt, but one so far off in the future that most of us will be dead before it happens.

The United Nations was created with the Security Council as its top decision-making body. This had five permanent members (the P-5) with veto powers, and 10 non-permanent seats rotating among lesser powers. The P-5 were the victors of World War II: the US, USSR, UK, France and China.

The world has changed so much since then that everybody agrees that a very different set of countries should be in the top bracket. But there is much acrimony and no agreement whatsoever on who should be promoted. Cynics say the P-5 members want to continue with their monopoly of power and so they pretend to support reform while smiling quietly at the deadlock.

The US wants two additional permanent members, and two or three non-permanent members, taking the total to 19-20. This is completely unacceptable to smaller powers, many of whom want six more permanent seats and five or six more non-permanent seats.

Any major change of this kind requires a two-thirds majority in the UN General Assembly plus approval of the Security Council without any veto. No formula to date comes close to commanding the required support.

By the 1990s, Japan and Germany had become the second and third largest funders of the UN. Having overtaken Britain, France and Russia in GDP, they were obvious candidates for the UNSC. Brazil staked its claim as Latin America’s largest country, as did India with the second largest population in the world. Both had contributed massively to UN peace-keeping operations.

The G-4 contenders supported one another, and also got the support of Britain and France. But they were hotly opposed by their regional rivals, who soon ensured complete deadlock.

Japan’s promotion was bitterly opposed by its two historical foes, China and South Korea. Germany’s promotion was opposed by Italy, and Brazil’s by its main rivals in Latin America, Argentina and Mexico.

India’s promotion was resisted by China and Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan assured other G-4 members of its full support provided they kept India out! Similar plots and diplomatic games were played in all continents – all aimed at deadlock rather than radical change.

The Africans protested they were being left out altogether. Nigeria staked its claim as having the largest population in Africa. South Africa said it had the largest GDP on the continent. Egypt claimed it was the largest Arab nation. So acrimonious was the debate among Africans that at one point, it was even suggested that the “permanent” UNSC seat for the continent could, in practice, rotate among the top claimants!

Muslim countries complain that they are being left out of the UNSC, although a huge chunk of the global population is Muslim. The largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia, but it is only fourth in line in Asia after China, Japan and India, and other continents will oppose such high Asian representation. The Arab League demands that one of its members should get a permanent seat. Nigeria is substantially though not overwhelmingly Muslim.

If the US and China agreed, it would probably be possible to engineer the required majority to elevate the G-4, one African country and one Arab league country to the Security Council. But there is not the slightest prospect of that happening.

Does this mean that Obama’s support to India is irrelevant? Not at all. Much diplomatic activity is aimed at jostling for status. By throwing his weight behind Indian membership of the UNSC, Obama has signalled that the US is giving India a much higher position in the world pecking order, notwithstanding significant foreign policy differences. He has, in the process, sent an important message to China and Pakistan.

He has decisively squelched Pakistani aims of being bracketed with India in foreign affairs. At the last US-Pak strategic meeting in Washington DC, Pakistan demanded parity with India in civilian nuclear deals, not necessarily now but soon. Obama has made it abundantly clear that such parity is history. Thus he has consolidated the Bush legacy in Indo-US relations. But this does not ensure a UNSC seat in the foreseeable future.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.