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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 47, November 13, 2010

Cost of Permanent Membership of UNSC

Post-Obama Promise, India’s Challenge Increases

Tuesday 16 November 2010

by K.B.

For long, India’s political discourse has been dominated by what Pakistan does in the inter-national fora vis-a-vis India. Pakistan has a particularly typical history as far as multilateral organisations are concerned. Most recently, a junior level official of Pakistani origin ended up speaking for UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on the Kashmir issue embarrassing both the UN and India. Every multilateral forum has been used by Pakistan to highlight issues that mark the soft spots of India. The Organisation of Islamic Countries, World Bank, United Nations are some of the many organisations where Pakistan has tried to embarrass India.

It is out of the mentality to counter this eternal Pakistani campaign against India that the idea of the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for India was born. It was perceived as the ultimate way to prevent abuse of the high table of the UN by the Pakistan-misinformed superpower or other great powers. This perspective makes India believe that the UNSC’s permanent membership means just prevention of Pak misuse of the UNSC through the willing-to-play powers in the UN.

This attitude betrays a lack of world opinions and compulsions. World powers need to have a broader perspective; India can tackle regional compulsions, but as a great power it also needs to play a bigger role in the world. Regional ambition for hegemony is just a small reason to be a great power.

There are a number of big challenges before India in the international arena as a great power.

How will India behave in the UNSC as a permanent member when the issue of Kosovo comes before the UNSC, or when the issue of Falklands is pushed to the table, or when the long forgotten (in the Indian mind) issue of North vs South Korea comes to the UNSC?

Over the last sixty years, India has willingly restricted itself to regional issues. The last time India indulged in a global affair was during the Korean war in the early 1950s. Ever since, there has not been a single effort by the ruling elite of India to play a role in conflict resolution at the global level.

India’s international diplomatic performances have also been dwindling. There was an exception in 1996, when India played a sterling role in the UN Conference on Disarmament (UNCD). When the next opportunity arose in the 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, India was represented by a Minister of Environment and not a career diplomat.

Bottomline: India’s rise in the pecking order of the UN is not dependent on Pak alone. India might expect the whole world to revolve around Pak, but there will be the farmers in Papua New Guinea, and the drug traffickers in South-East Asia who might need India’s attention. As a great power, Indian people and the media must generate widespread interest in issues that are beyond the conventional realm of awarness. The coverage of American affairs in the Indian media is typical of the blindness that plagues the Indian attitude towards the US. While the Indian media focuses on the Air Force One and the style and substance of the first couple of the US, it happily forgets that community kitchens and charity meals have increased in the US manifold. This is the ultimate sign of social and economic distress in the US. Not a single Indian media channel or publication has provided the backdrop that led to the defeat of the Democrat candidates in the mid-term polls of the US, that finally turned the India visit of President Barack Obama into a tour for generation of American jobs. It was left to some Russian TV channels to highlight the alarming economic distress that has gripped the US. Russia Today, a TV channel from Moscow, has sent correspondents to cover a ghost town like Detroit that has closed its prized car manufacturing units leading to a terrifying social-economic vacuum in the heart of the most powerful nation of the world. Many prominent media houses have correspondents in the US, but they are all building on the empty shell of imperial power that is basically an yesteryear affair for contemporary US.

It is not just the media but also the diplomatic community in India that needs to open up to permanent issues that will be of India’s share if New Delhi was to be one of the members of the UNSC.

INDIA’S diplomatic establishment has the hidden potential to assess and deal with issues like Kosovo, Iran, Serbia, Sebrenica, Arab-Israel conflict, and
Iran but it has not spoken openly on the basis of principles and priorities on these issues. But the growing responsibility will be preceded by a period of internship. From January 2011, India will sit in the UNSC as a temporary member alongside Portugal and Colombia, Brazil and South Africa. While Portugal and Colombia are just ornamental, IBSA countries will be keenly watched by the West for their perfor-mance.

For far to long in the post-Cold War era has India played it safe. Paddling both sides of conflicts without taking sides. But as a temporary member of the UNSC, it will be under obser-vation from the Americans. Barack Obama made it amply clear in his speech before the joint session of Parliament that issues like Burma and Iran, where Indian interest has dictated its stance, will be contentious. India will be asked to fall in line with its Western backers. Will India succumb to that condition or hold back for the sake of its national interest?

The UNSC’s permanent seat is already promised to India, but the road ahead is not smooth. India has to perform to suit the interests of the powers that be in the world. India so far does not appear ready to pay the price that is part of the UNSC’s permanent seat package. To become a permanent member, India has to convince the big powers that this stature is completely unrelated to its traditional concerns like good relations with Iran and Burma. Can its diplomats play that skilful game? They must succeed as a lot depends on their skills.

Secondly, over the years, India has been seen as a leading contributor to the UN peacekeeping forces. This suits the Gandhian image of the largest South Asian country. But India has to also consider the issue of “collective security” that is at the heart of the UN system. What will its position be if a war is sought to be waged by the leading Western powers in the UNSC on a state that is friendly to India? Such an action by the UN can effectively neutralise all the advan-tages that India had enjoyed till then as a great power out of the UNSC. The crux is: India will have to change a great deal of its foreign affairs imperatives if it takes on “international partner-ship” as part of the UN Security Council’s permanent membership.

A number of issues will determine whether India will finally make it to the UNSC despite the goodwill and support from the majority of the UNSC’s permanent members. First, can India disagree with its backers in the UNSC and yet make it? Second, will it surrender its vital stakes in the region to earn the goodwill of the permanent members of the UNSC? Third, what is the skill level of the diplomats of the current generation to deal with these nuanced issues? Fourth, can India be frank with the US and tell it that if they can have a six-decade old association with dictatorial Pakistan, then India too can have friendship with Burma while enjoying friendship of London and Washington D.C. Goodwill and support has come to India, the rest of the journey to the UNSC is dependent on how India deals with its growing responsibility. Every single move as a temporary member of the UNSC will be crucial from the Indian point of view. Every single move can be a make or break move. The world has pulled its strength together, can India focus its energy to achieve the permanent seat of the UNSC? This is the challenge before Indian diplomacy in the next decade. The narrow focus on cornering Pakistan and challenging China in its game is an outdated formula and the sooner it is given up the better will it be for the future ambition of the world’s largest democracy.

The author is a commentator on foreign affairs.

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