‘Even determined US leadership may not be enough to get India in’

Venky Vembu

(This is a longer version of an interview with Dr Stewart M. Patrick, global governance expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, that was published in DNA edition dated November 14, 2010 as part of a package of articles on US President Barack Obama’s announcement of US support for India’s candidacy as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The other elements of the package can be accessed here and here. And over here, you can access all of my articles on Obama’s visit to India.)

Global governance expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department policy wonk Dr Stewart M. Patrick tells Venky Vembu that it is in US national security interest to enlarge the Security Council to include India and a few other countries, but that even determined US leadership – not yet in evidence – may not be enough to deliver that result, given the entrenched vested interests. Excerpts:

What does the US gain or lose from getting India and others in as permanent members of the Security Council?

We’ve just completed the draft of a report, which talks about UN Security Council enlargement and US national interest. It takes a broader look and suggests that the time is now right for the Obama administration to begin pushing for Security Council enlargement. In that context, the timing of President Obama’s announcement was good. But our report takes a broader perspective to say that it’s not just about naming countries, but how you do it: what are the stakes involved, what is the rationale for doing it, and how would you go about it. 

How does Security Council enlargement advance US national security interest?


It’s not an open-and-shut obvious case that it is in US national security interest, and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides. Until it made the announcement about India – and even after that – the Obama administration has been ambivalent about whether or not it would be in US national interest. So, there are two questions: is it in US national interest, and is it remotely possible for the US to bring this about?

Most of the dialogue surrounding Security Council enlargement or reform has been held outside of the US, and is based on concepts like legitimacy, credibility and declining effectiveness (of the Security Council). But those arguments are a little overstated – for now, at least. The Security Council has some frustrations and difficulties, but it’s not facing an immediate crisis.

The argument we make is that over the long term there’s a good chance it will be in crisis – and that it will suffer from a crisis of credibility and effectiveness. The argument to make is twofold.

First, as a practical matter: the US and the international community need to have the premier forum and mechanism for global peace and security reflect the distribution of power as it exists today. There are two reasons for that: one of them is that at a practical level you want to get continued contributions from major aspirant players that want to be in the inner sanctum. It’s not just India, even Brazil and perhaps others. Now, how do we enlist their participation? The other issue is of tangible contributions to global public good.

In the administration’s national security strategy report released in May, one of the definite themes is that the “international architecture of the 20tht century is buckling”. The question is: how do you strengthen it? There’s a big emphasis on integrating emerging powers.

The second consideration – beyond just the practical one that you need their contributions – relates to general reflection on the nature of power transitions in the history of international politics.

World politics tend to be particularly turbulent in times of rapid power transition in which international institutions and frameworks don’t keep pace. For example, in the 1930s you had the League of Nations, but many of the world’s major powers were not members of it at some stage. Now, I’m not suggesting we’re remotely facing that sort of turbulence. If you look around the world, none of the rising powers are truly revolutionary, even if they are, to some extent, revisionist: they would like a rejiggering of international organisations – not just in terms of weights – but in some of the thrust areas.

Our argument is that the time to try to engage these countries and lock them into a predictable pattern of international order under a sort of ‘international rule of law’ is when when the US still remains the dominant country, but where it has the ability to cede some of the burden of global leadership – as opposed to having to do it under duress later on.

So, at the broadest level, (Security Council enlargement) seems to be in US national interest. But it’s not a clear-cut case; there are people who would say, ‘That’s an important question, but it’s not urgent.’

The Security Council has a very large agenda right now, ranging from  Sudan to North Korea to Iran, a number of peacekeeping efforts around the world, and efforts from counter-terrorism to non-proliferation… How would adding additional permanent members members or enlarging the Security Council improve its ability at a practical level?

Might it compound the muddle?


There are two issues here. One of them is of numbers. There’s a typical trade-off between the size of any body and its efficiency. You can, of course make the argument that effectiveness is another question: it may be harder to make decisions quickly but ultimately if you get all the right countries on board, it perhaps takes a little more time, but implementation may be better.

So you’d have to think of how large any enlargement would be. Here there is a real problem because of the nature of the decision-making for any enlargement: you’d have to get two-thirds of the General Assembly to approve a proposal, and then you have to get the national political processes to ratify them, including in the five permanent members. That’s a big hurdle.

Because of the need for it to have a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly, there is also the likelihood that there will be a lot pressure. Many members of the General Assembly don’t like the idea of permanent members; or, if there are going to be permanent members, they say have to have a lot of newly elected members too. So very quickly you’re going to get a dynamic which would push the numbers to 25 or 26. That’s something the US would be very reluctant to see.

The major plans that are out there – the ones that were discussed in 2005 – were for 24-25 countries: the new members being the G4 (India, Brazil, Germany, Japan), perhaps two permanent members from Africa, and additional elected members from different regions.

The US would have difficulty endorsing anything that’s over 21. Under that proposal, the new configuration would be an addition the G4 and perhaps one nor two African countries: that’s 21, and all would be permanent members.

India obviously wants to have the veto power; they don’t think they should be second-class citizens. But all of the P-5 permanent members would be reluctant to see any extension of the veto. There may have to be some kind of compromise.

That’s the issue of numbers. The other issue, which is really the wild card is, how would those countries, including India, that are elevated to permanent membership, actually behave? That’s the huge unknown. From a US perspective – and one can argue whether or not the US should be in a position to define global responsibility – the attitude is: these are wild cards. With Germany and Japan, there are some reasonable expectations of general commonality of outlook and interest – in part because they’re both advanced industrial economies. Although it’s not that we haven’t had our differences: we had it with German over Iraq in 2003.

With India, Brazil, South Africa and other emerging countries, the question is: do they share the same world view? On the one hand, they’re all great democracies. But when it comes to issues of intervention and coercive diplomacy against Iran and how to engage countries that are in a sense ‘outliers’ or in a sense ‘misbehaving’…

But there’s a case to be made that had the US abided by Germany’s objections to the Iraq war of 2003, it would have been better off today. So, maybe you do need checks and balances in the Security Council…

Ill be the first to acknowledge that the US is quite inconsistent. Also, how credible is it that the US and other established powers would sit there as judges and jury?

There needs to be a lot psychological adjustment on the part of US policymakers about the new world we’re entering. There’s been this default position that the US is the world’s unquestioned leader and that its vision for the world should not be challenged. In international institutions, the US has tended to constrain other powers, rather than itself. The US believes in checks and balances domestically in its system, but it has a hard time transferring that to the UN system and accepting that there should be checks and balances on its own behaviour.

There are understandable reasons for that: other counties don’t have our political system and don’t always share our values. But the psychological adjustment of the new world has eventually to be made. The US must get used to a world in which it’s not necessarily a US-dominated or a Western-dominated view of international order and rules that prevails…. But for now, it’s difficult for the US to get its head around that. It’s still trying to define the terms in which others become full-fledged members.

What are India’s strengths and weaknesses as a candidate?


I can answer that from a US perspective. In the aftermath of the civilian nuclear agreement, the degree to which Indians – in their own strategic conception – are embracing the notion that the US and India are natural partners is striking.

Then you have India’s contributions to UN peace-keeping operations, long-standing military (including naval) capability, its increasing interest in governance of the global commons. On these, it has ideas that are largely compatible with the US. The fact that it’s the world’s largest democracy, has a growing economy…. These are its strengths.

As for its ‘weaknesses’ (from a US perspective): it still remains a spokesperson for the non-aligned movement and the Group of 77, and is seen to be ideological in multilateral forums, which is very frustrating for the US State Department. At a bilateral level we get along, but at large-membership multilateral forums – whether it’s the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly – we don’t. There are understandable reasons for (India’s position): for all its growth, India still has enormous levels of internal poverty and is interested in issues of global equity. There are a lot of post-colonial legacies that are just as important, as well as identitity issues and political culture issues… So perhaps India has to up its ante a bit…

India’s difficult regional neighbourhood is problematic as well. That can be overcome, and the US has made a beginning by getting away from hyphenation (with Pakistan), but it’s an open question whether or not a country that wants to be a global power must first be in a sense the recognised regional leader. Brazil struggles with the same thing too, and India’s

regional neighbourhood is difficult. There are border disputes with neighbours. And India will probably have to normalise its status within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime. Over the past decade, it’s made enormous progress, but it still has some way to go.

Has the US calculation – perhaps starting with Nixon’s time – that China will be a responsible stakeholder worked out as well as expected? Would it be fair to say that China perhaps constitutes the most severe challenge to an international order based on the western liberal model?


There’s been the notion that if you can get countries within the tent, they will become ‘socialised’ to accept existing rules and contribute – and not be free riders. China has been quite problematic in that regard. It’s beginning to do more in the sense of peacekeeping and policing around the world…

Aren’t you overlooking China’s record of proliferation – in Pakistan and elsewhere?

True, it’s been quite problematic in a lot of ways, particularly with respect to Pakistan. India is probably much ‘easier to trust’ perhaps because it’s a democracy, although it’s not without its complications. In China, the fact that policymaking is so incredibly opaque – and the accountability links to citizenry are so broken – makes it more difficult to engender trust.

But that gives rise to the question of whether we’re entering a world in which we have to have greater tolerance for pluralism and diversity – in outlook and conceivably in regime type. After all, Russia has had a centuries-long debate about whether or not it is ‘of the West’ or ‘against the West’.

I may be being harsh on India: I’m sure there will be people in India who will say ‘We’ve been quite responsible, Thank you very much!’

But look at it this way: if you look at the Bush administration’s policies: who was revolutionary, with the doctrine of pre-emptive strike? Who was shaking up the world order a little bit more? The US was.  So, I can appreciate that critique.

So what’s a realistic time-frame for meaningful reforms?


This is going to be a protracted process. We’re calling for an effort by the Obama administration, conceivably at next years’ General Assembly, to lay out a vision for UN Security Council reforms, which would begin to establish some criteria for membership that are commensurate with the obligations inherent in the UN Charter. That’s not to say everyone has abided by it – as demonstrated by China and, to an extent, Russia. But the effort is to try to get away from a sense of entitlement and towards performance and try to answer the question of how countries are going to behave. As one of my colleagues said: ‘permanent’ is, after all, quite a long time, so one would want to be fairly confident of the behaviour of those who aspire to this status?

So, what time-frame? Ten years? Fifteen years?

I would probably see this as a 10-, maybe 15-year process. I mentioned the high hurdles. You’re going to have to come up with some solution that clears them. Right now, you have several blocs that are at loggerheads. A clear majority wants to see expansion in in permanent and non-permanent categories, but that’s were consensus ends. You have the G4 coalition; then you have a smaller grouping of regional rivals – countries who would want to be spoilers so that their regional rivals don’t get permanent membership.

There’s been an effort by the British and the French to come up with some sort of an interim or intermediate plan. But the vision of that differs, depending on who you talk to. The idea would be some sort of middle ground: longer-term renewable seats of four years. The question then is: is that a perpetual intermediate seat or an interim seat that, after a review period, becomes permanent? Britain and France would like to have an evolutionary arrangement.

But ultimately, this is not going to be decided in a big negotiation session up in New York.

Most of the big decision will have to be made in the capitals of 192 countries around the world, and some deals have to be cut.

The third bloc is the African Union, which has been holding out for an unrealistic and maximalist demand for at least two African permanent members with veto powers and a number of elected African seats. The African Union has shown solidarity in that position, btu if you started to break that down and peel off South Africa and Nigeria, you might start to get some movement that would allow you to get a two-thirds majority.

India doesn’t insist on a veto power. Does that make it easier to accept its candidacy?


It still formally says it wants a veto, although in their 2005 proposal, there was an agreement to defer the question of veto for a number of years. My sense is that India right now, as any good negotiator would, is holding to the fact it would like the veto. But if push comes to shove and there’s a possibility of having permanent membership without the veto, India would probably compromise on that.

What sort of international goodwill does India have, and who might oppose its candidacy?

India enjoys general goodwill and appreciation, and is seen as a natural leader within the developing world. So it would have some significant diplomatic support. Within its region, obviously Pakistan would be kicking and screaming, although I don’t know that it would necessarily prevent it.

I think a lot of resistance could come from China. But my sense is that it would be behind the scenes. China might wield its influence with African countries to discourage them from supporting India’s candidacy.

So, I’d say that the obvious opposition would come from Pakistan, but the less obvious, but arguably determined opposition, could come from China as well.

On the whole issue of Security Council reforms, Russia would like no change: it would like to stay with the world as it existed in 1945. China has a little bit more of a nuanced position.  To the extent there is an expansion, they would favour an expansion of the elected membership, which does nothing to threaten its permanent status, while also perhaps diluting the ability of the US to harness the Security Council as an instrument of its own policies and those of the West in general.

Chinese have been very happy to hide behind the lack of US movement on Council enlargement. But at the end of the day, they will not want to be seen as blocking an enlargement process that gets under way.  They don’t like to be diplomatically isolated.

Is the US serious about having India in, and can it deliver?


My suspicion is that the US administration remains divided on whether or not it really wants to take this on. There is some advantage in appearing on the side of the angels and making rhetorical statements that strengthen US strategic partnership with India, but whether the US will go the extra mile in making this change happen is uncertain.

It won’t happen without determined US leadership; but at the end of the day determined US leadership may not be enough, because there are hurdles. It’s not something the US can deliver on by itself. And because of that uncertainty, US officials see this as a high-risk endeavour with high hurdles and uncertain rewards. I’m sure some administration members, once they scratch the surface, will wonder if they can really deliver.

So at the end of the day, it may be unrealisable?

Absolutely. It will take an incredibly determined push to clear the logjams we see in New York. Obama’s recent statement on India restores some momentum to this and creates the possibility of breaking this logjam. The obvious question is of the strategy to bring this about: how are you going to follow up on this announcement?

Is there some diplomatic effort ongoing even as of now?

I’d say no. There has been some frustration in New York among major aspiring countries, and in their capitals as well. Until this announcement, the Obama administration had been quite reticent on this topic. In fact, there are some who believe that the bush administration, in its second term, was more forward-leaning. While the Obama administration has been supportive of the G-20, IMF reforms and had been emphasising the importance of adapting global institutions, it’s maintained silence on Security Council reforms – until last week.

I assume this is now ginning up a whole lot of diplomatic activity; it will be interesting to see if the Obama administration will launch an internal study of the implications of Obama’s statement. Or say that it’s really too bad the logjam in New York can’t be broken.

So should India not get its hopes up?

India should go into this with an appreciation of the high hurdles to reforms – and even about whether the US will go to bat for this issue.  It should make a realistic assessment of the hurdles to getting reforms passed in the absence of a huge global cataclysm – because there are very strong entrenched interests. In large-membership organistions, the path of least resistance tends to win out.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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