The Power Club

Venky Vembu

(This article, which addresses five fundamental questions arising from US President Barack Obama’s announcement of US support for India’s candidacy for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, was published in DNA edition dated November 14, 2010 as part of a package. 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.)

During the course of US President Barack Obama’s masterly oration at the Indian Parliament earlier this week, the high point of his visit to India, he was greeted with much thunderous applause. His glowing references to India’s civilisational achievements, his invocation of iconic Indian leaders and institutions, and his tribute to Indian democracy and resilience, were calculated to strike an emotional chord not just among his parliamentary audience but among millions of Indian people watching on television.

But of all his stirring words and lyrical turns of phrases, perhaps the most vociferous ovation was reserved for 21 somewhat prosaic words, which had been eagerly anticipated – the more so since Obama had only earlier in the evening given a tantalising teaser of what was to come.

For many Indian analysts and observers, those words from Obama – “in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member” – came laden with intimations of India’s attainment of Great Power status. It signalled an acknowledgement, however feeble, that the Pearly Gates to superpowerdom, outside which India had been waiting longingly for years, may yet be opened some day.

Just what is it about the prospect of a seat at the high table of global governance that has us excited? What gains – material or intangible – will it bring India? What trade-offs must Indian foreign policy formulation have to make to realise this powerful yearning? And what are the chances that this dream may never be realised, given the odds stacked against it? Sunday DNA spoke to a galaxy of experts around the world to understand the power dynamics of permanent membership at the UN Security Council…

What’s the big deal?
Obama’s articulation of support for India’s candidacy is “an important signal that the US has embraced India’s arrival as a great power,” says Andrew Shearer, senior research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. But beyond that symbolism, he says, “it won’t straightaway make any meaningful difference” to tracing the arc of geopolitical history.

“It’s recognition of India’s importance in global geopolitics,” notes former UN diplomat Shashi Tharoor. “To speak of a ‘high table’ that excludes a country like India makes no sense given the geopolitical reality of 2010.”


Not everyone, however, agrees with such upbeat assessments. Dibyesh Anand, an internationals relations expert at London’s Westminster University, sees the gush of pride over Obama’s words as symptomatic of “Shining India’s need for constant validation from outsiders about their arrival” – this time from the “High Priest”. Indians, he adds, need a more sober assessment of how little influence they have in global governance. The ability to set the agenda is the real sign of power – and on that count, India falls far short, he says.

What will we gain?
Apart from considerations of prestige and status, countries that seek permanent membership look to have a voice on global issues that could potentially affect their interests, says Shearer.

But there are also material gains to be had, given the very nature of the UN system, adds Srikanth Kondapalli, professor in Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “For every dollar of investment that the US makes in UN operations, it extracts four dollars by way for contracts for its companies,” he says. China too leverages its Council permanent membership to secure diplomatic influence around the world – and lucrative contracts. The bottomline: it’s not just about power, it’s also a gravy train that feeds the Big Powers’ economies.

Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at Lowy Institute, reasons that although India is unlikely to secure permanent membership for a long time, it holds out the prospect that such an elevation could influence Chinese perceptions of India for the better. “It will make it more difficult for China to see India as an inferior Asian power, and contribute to a relationship of mutual respect between them.”

Will it make us a pawn in US hands?
In his address to the Indian Parliament, Obama reminded India that “with great power comes great responsibility”, and that if it aspires for that power, India must man up. “The flip side of Obama’s good intentions in supporting India’s candidacy is that he and America will put pressure on India when the time comes – and expect it to make some tough choices,” says Medcalf. The challenge for India, he notes, is to define what it means to be a ‘responsible power’ – and it doesn’t have to be on American terms.

Kondapalli believes that plenty of hard bargaining – and yielding ground – lies ahead of India. And it won’t be just to the US; even China could seek concessions, including, perhaps, territorial concessions, he reckons.

Anand makes a more trenchant assessment. “Closer relations with the US, if they acquire a balance-of-power dimension vis-à-vis China, are a poisoned chalice,” he says. And rather than “putting all its eggs in one American basket,” New Delhi should work with all existing and rising powers, not resort to “bandwagoning” with a declining power.

Will we get the veto power?
The five current permanent have the right of vetothe Brahmastra of Big Powers – which they invoke to secure their interests – and those of their allies. China, for instance, uses it to defend its sovereignty and “extended national interest”, notes Kondapalli. In face, in 1974 China even used it (indirectly) against India and in defence of its “all-weather ally” Pakistan when it vetoed Bangladesh’s membership to the UN, he recalls.

The issue of whether new permanent members  – whenever they gain admittance – will get the veto power has proved contentious. Tharoor says that India has taken the position that for now, it will forgo the veto. “In fact, it’s been of the view that the veto is a bad thing for anybody to have.”

Not getting the veto power will reduce India to a “second-class permanent member – and that’s not good enough,” says Medcalf. And if it had a veto, India will gain greater confidence in working with the UN and allowing it to look at security situations in India’s own neighbourhood, he adds.

What if it never happens?
For all the premature rejoicing, India may not get its permanent membership of the Council any time soon – if it ever does at all, given the entrenched vested interests in maintaining status quo and the clamour from various geographical groupings seeking admittance.

“I don’t this will happen anytime soon,” says Jonathan Holslag, Belgian political scientist and author of China and India: Prospects for Peace. “There is no consensus on which countries to accept.”

Global governance expert at the Council on Foreign Relations Stewart M. Patrick has an even more sobering assessment. Even in the best-case scenario, it could take 10 or 15 years to undertake the reforms necessary; and at the end of the day, it might even prove unrealisable, he adds (see interview). “India should go into this with an appreciation of the tremendous hurdles – and even about whether the US will go to bat on its behalf,” says Patrick. There are very strong entrenched interests – and in large membership organisations, 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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6 Responses to The Power Club

  1. Pingback: Will China spike it? | It's only words…

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  3. Pingback: Round-up: Barack Obama’s India visit | It's only words…

  4. Hariharan says:

    Reforms should be directed towards making the UNSC more effective. First off, veto power cripples the action of the council and should be abolished. Permanent members often use veto on issues crucial to their allies. The US has used veto in resolutions unfavorable to Israel. The UNSC has been more like an exclusive club of countries, which only take action in their own strategic interests. This can’t be allowed to continue going forward. The UNSC took action to protect Kuwait, which has substantial oil reserves, while it dragged its feet on measures to protect thousands of Rwandans even when genocide was anticipated. Also note that the 2003 US-led campaign for war against Iraq took place without a green signal from the UNSC. A democratic India should take the lead in proposing democratic reforms to the UNSC and the UN structure.

  5. Hariharan says:

    Kondapalli is an idiot. India needs to produce more intellectuals such as yourself and Brahma Chellaney (and myself:). Why would India oblige to any territorial concessions even if China seeks them? If anything, Indians need to take every opportunity to point out that everything to the west of the Great Wall is illegally annexed territory! Hasn’t the world letting China double up on its size enough of expansionism? If a large country like India were to meekly concede territory to China for any reason, what are the other little countries around China going to do when the dragon tries to gulp them sooner or later? The Indian subcontinent has a big problem understanding what global balance of power means. A UNSC seat is not that important. India would be much better off continuing to act in its interests within the G20 until a realization sets in among UNSC members that the UNSC is irrelevant without India, and India would be in a more powerful position to negotiate then. The onus is on the US and UK to do the bidding for India before it is too late. As I’ve recommended in one of my previous posts, CFR’s Dr Stewart M. Patrick has also said that India needs to move past the NAM. Perhaps passing the baton to a new leader like say Indonesia would be a good idea as India moves on. That would help build more trust and confidence with western powers, especially the US.

    IMO, the most serious issue India faces is lack of world-class think tanks which could collaborate strategically with western think tanks. Consensus building is the name of the game!

  6. Pingback: 5 reasons why Obama’s visit was a colossal flop | It's only words…

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