India’s big bet at the UN

India’s recent stint at the United Nations Security Council leaves some questions unanswered.

India’s recent tenure at the Security Council was, to borrow a phrase used by English football commentators, a game of two halves. In the first half (2011) India played an attacking game. It was loudly critical of NATO’s air campaign in Libya and tried to play a leading role in diplomacy over Syria. Perhaps most importantly from New Delhi’s perspective, it launched a drive for Security Council reform.

All this activity secured international attention. India coordinated closely with Brazil and South Africa, both of which also held temporary seats on the Security Council. They worked together particularly closely over Syria in mid-2011, launching a brief peace initiative as violence began to escalate. By the end of the year, even representatives of the five permanent members of the Council admitted that the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) trio had affected the diplomatic dynamics in New York. But in diplomacy, as in soccer, it’s important to score a few goals, and India struggled to do so. NATO simply ignored its criticisms of the Libyan war. IBSA had no impact in Syria. There was no leap forward towards Security Council reform.


In 2012, India switched tactics and began to play a more defensive game.  It took a lower profile on Syria, supporting American and European positions in the Security Council, leaving China and Russia isolated in their opposition to serious pressure on Damascus.  Indian officials continued to look for new openings on Security Council reform, trying to whip up support among developing countries.  But they used their presidency of the Council in November 2012 to highlight the uncontroversial issue of piracy.

Now India is out of the Council, and able to focus once again on the more familiar routines of life in the General Assembly. This could be compared to switching from a high-speed soccer game to a particularly drawn-out test match.  It gives Indian diplomats a chance to reflect on their stint on the Security Council.

As they look back, they may dwell on the power of events to shake up diplomatic plans.  The Libyan and Syrian wars threw the Council into confusion, forcing ambassadors to improvise. The Libyan conflict created rifts between the U.S. and India which are still only partially healed.  Arab powers were highly critical of New Delhi’s initial failure to adopt an aggressive line against the Assad regime in Syria in 2011.

India was not the only member of the Security Council to struggle to find a strategy in this period.  There were fierce debates in Washington over whether to intervene in Libya.  The Obama administration’s efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis via the UN sometimes seemed half-hearted.  China arguably handled events in Syria worse than any other power, unhappily supporting Russia in defense of the Assad regime despite the damage to its relationships in the Middle East.  If India wobbled, it was certainly not alone.

But it would be a mistake to portray India solely as a reactive power at the UN.  It is arguable that its performance in the Security Council pivoted on a big bet that it made in early 2011 – and ultimately lost.

What was this bet? Here is a (simplistic) explanation. India wanted to be treated as an equal by the permanent five members (the P5) and also affirm the case for its own permanent membership. To do this it needed to assert itself inside the Council as a strategic player while creating momentum for Council reform among the UN wider membership. Its big bet was that it could win such a high level of support for reform that its status as a top power in the Council would be incontestable – and simultaneously demonstrate enough diplomatic dexterity in the Council to make the same point.

To this end India began a push in February 2011 with Brazil, Germany and Japan for a General Assembly resolution that would effectively endorse their shared ambition for permanent Council seats.  Indian officials, who were heard to say that they believed reform was possible in just months, were notably more gung-ho than some of their allies.  Although they were able to secure indications of support from more than half the UN’s members, they could not get the two-thirds backing the resolution required.

In the meantime, the IBSA countries caucused inside the Council to gain short-term leverage.  Their goal was create a pole in Council debates between the Western bloc and Russia and China (although there was also some coordination among all the BRICS members).  IBSA needed a cause.  Syria offered one.  In August 2011, after initial European efforts to get a resolution threatening Damascus with sanctions failed, the IBSA countries engineered a Council statement calling for peace.  Brazil was reportedly the main force behind this initiative, but India held the Council’s presidency when the text was agreed.

But this initiative went awry. A visit by IBSA envoys to Damascus had no effect, and when the Europeans tabled a resolution aiming to put pressure on Syria in October, the trio of countries abstained.  While China and Russia cast their vetoes, the IBSA powers had sidelined themselves.  India now faced twin problems.  It had not secured sufficient support for Security Council reform to impress the P5, and its main effort to demonstrate diplomatic dexterity inside the Council had run out of steam very quickly.

Thereafter, India’s potential leverage was significantly reduced. Diplomats did not believe that it could find a new route to two-thirds support for its reform ambitions, while the P5 increasingly dealt with Syria on their own, cutting out the rest of the Council.  If India had been able to say either that it had overwhelming backing to be a permanent Council member or that it had managed to win some concessions from Damascus in mid-2011, it would have had far more leverage.  But it could say neither.

This explains India’s relatively quiet approach during its second year on the Council (and as Brazil’s two-year term in the forum ended in December 2011, IBSA could no longer act as a bloc there anyway). Was India foolish to take such a big bet in 2011? To answer this question it is necessary to ask three further questions. Did Indian officials genuinely believe that it would possible to get the necessary number of votes to back Council reform? If so, was this belief based on hard numbers or just optimism?  And, turning to Syria, did the IBSA trio have any concrete reasons to believe their peace initiative there could succeed?

These are the questions that Indian official should reflect on as they get used to life outside the Council.

Photo- Dan Nguyen