In his address to India's parliament on Monday, President Obama explicitly endorsed New Delhi's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It was an effective diplomatic move from the standpoint of Washington's bilateral relationship with India. Not surprisingly, the audience gave that portion of the speech a thunderous ovation.
More significant, though, is that Obama's endorsement sends a clear signal that the United States acknowledges India as not only a rapidly rising economic power, but a significant political and security player in the international system as well. The president's comments also reduce concerns that the arms control crowd in his administration might roll back the improved relationship that had developed between the two countries during the Bush years. Arms control zealots have never forgiven India for deploying a nuclear arsenal and striking a blow against the fraying nonproliferation system. Because that faction seemed to have greater influence in the Obama administration than it did in the previous administration, there were legitimate worries that the nonproliferation issue could create a chill in U.S.-Indian relations. That prospect now seems less likely.
There are, however, some major questions that remain following Obama's speech. Most notably, if India is added to the roster of permanent Security Council members, how many others — if any — should be added? And if so, which countries? It's a little hard to advocate adding India without simultaneously adding Japan, since Japan has both a larger economy and (on balance) a more potent conventional military. The one major difference, of course, is that Japan would be the only permanent member that is not a nuclear-weapons state. But should that be enough to disqualify Tokyo?
There is also the matter of China's probable opposition. Beijing has been noticeably unenthusiastic about India's bid, and has been downright hostile to Japan's. And the desire to block Tokyo's UN ambitions existed long before the nasty spat erupted between the two countries this autumn over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets. A threatened Chinese veto may stymie Obama's proposal before it can advance very far. Moreover, by making such a splashy endorsement of India's bid, President Obama may have further exacerbated tensions in the U.S. relationship with China.
Beyond those issues, if the Council's permanent membership is expanded to include India and Japan, what about the next tier of key regional powers, such as Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia? Should there also be a greater effort at geographic inclusion, adding at least one African country (most likely South Africa or Nigeria)?
Cryptically, Obama also spoke of India's joining the roster of permanent Security Council members as part of unspecified reforms to the Council. It is not clear whether he meant only that other permanent members should be added as well, or if there ought to be changes in the Council's powers and procedures. A crucial question is whether new permanent members would have the same veto rights as the current five permanent members. If the president has in mind a second tier with inferior status, New Delhi's enthusiasm about his endorsement may fade rather quickly.
President Obama's overall objective, though, is admirable. The roster of the Security Council's permanent members reflects the distribution of international influence and status in the late 1940s, not today. It's hard to justify fading, second-tier powers such as Britain and France having that status, while Japan and a rapidly rising major power like India remain on the outside. That just creates needless irritants.
Permanent membership on the Security Council is far more a matter of prestige than real power. Both supporters and opponents of the UN have always viewed the organization as being far more important than is actually the case. For good or ill, the nation-state is still the primary decision-making unit in the international system. The UN Security Council has been aptly described as a "waste basket" for dealing with problem issues. Over the decades, it has been tasked with addressing issues that the major powers did not deem important enough to handle on their own or through more effective multi-lateral organizations — in Washington's case, that was usually NATO.
The UN Security Council's role as a marginal international player is not likely to change in the foreseeable future regardless of the number or composition of the Council's permanent members. Enlarging the Council is a diplomatic gesture that should be carried out, and President Obama has made an appealing, relatively low-cost move. One hopes that China and other opponents of enlargement come to understand that the issue is not important enough to warrant their expenditure of diplomatic capital.