The UN: Memo to the next Prime Minister

“Now would be a good time to review and overhaul your UN policies – if only to make space for more pressing priorities.”

Dear Prime Minister,

Congratulations on reaching 7 Race Course Road. As you take office, you have numerous political dilemmas to address.  Your policy towards the United Nations is unlikely to rank high among them, even if 2,000 Indian peacekeepers are in the line of fire in South Sudan. India is an important member of the UN, especially because it is willing to deploy soldiers in far-flung blue helmet missions. But the UN is not necessarily important to India. The organisation is irrelevant to the economic challenges you face, and it cannot protect you from threats from China and Pakistan.

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Yet you may find that you cannot avoid grappling with crises at the UN – and your responses will have broader ramifications for India’s international position. Your predecessor Manmohan Singh adopted an ambivalent attitude to the institution, often skipping the annual gathering of world leaders in New York for the General Assembly. New Delhi has not ignored New York completely, launching repeated drives for a permanent seat on the Security Council during Singh’s tenure. But this has been a source of disappointment: India probably came closest to success in 2005, but was stymied by last-minute counter-attack by the Americans and Chinese.

Since then the Council reform debate has been largely ritualistic.  President Obama voiced support for India’s ambitions for a permanent seat in 2010, but his administration did not follow through on this.  As I have previously written in Pragati, India’s previous representative to the UN, the rambunctious Hardeep Singh Puri, took a big bet on forcing a decision on the Council’s future in 2011 — and lost.

Ambassador Puri’s successor, Asoke Mukerji, has provided a steady hand on the tiller, wisely avoiding unnecessary bust-ups.  But in diplomacy, bust-ups strike even the canniest envoys. As I have also noted in these pages, India has found itself at odds with both Western and African powers over the need for peacekeepers in the Congo and South Sudan to use increasing force to maintain stability.  Another bone of contention is development policy. The UN is engrossed by debates over a new package of targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015.

When debates on this issue began, as Shailey Hingorani and Rohan Mukherjee have argued, “India sat largely on the sidelines, paying insufficient attention to opportunities for addressing domestic priorities and enhancing India’s standing in international affairs.”  Today, it is more engaged, pushing for recognition of the need for a “global partnership” on development that would presumably advantage big non-Western economies such as itself and Brazil.  But it is still suspicious that the West wants to create goals on issues like governance to meddle in their old colonies.

These tensions are only likely to increase up to September 2015, when some sort of deal on the post-MDG agenda is supposed to be hammered out. The international dividing lines involved are unpredictable. African governments, for example, quite like the idea of common goals on governance – even if some of them basically view this as a road to more aid.  India, once proud of its role as a leader of the developing world at the UN, is increasingly cut off from many of the poorer and smaller nations.

While this sort of thing may excite UN insiders, should it bother a prime minister?  It is tragic that peacekeepers in trouble spots like South Sudan are in danger, but this hardly matches up to the strategic dilemmas confronting Indian commanders stationed face in Assam or Kashmir.  India’s contribution to economic growth in the developing world will not be defined by the wording of multilateral goals but by the country’s underlying economic vitality.  Isn’t the UN now merely a bit of a sideshow?

Before dismissing the organisation altogether, however, it is worth recalling its recent role in great power relations.  The overarching story of UN diplomacy over the last few years has been the decline of relations between the U.S. and Russia, seen in debates over Syria and Ukraine.  These fights have been of true world-historical import, as Washington and Moscow have shredded their post-Cold War relationship.

India has been caught up in this turbulence, and seen its foreign policy priorities damaged as a result.  Whereas Indian diplomats spoke of the UN as a platform for better relations with the U.S. a few years ago, they have instinctively sided with Russia over both Syria and Ukraine. While a temporary member of the Security Council in 2011 and 2012, Ambassador Puri only grudgingly supported a series of draft resolutions condemning Damascus.  This March, India abstained on a General Assembly resolution reaffirming Ukraine’s sovereignty over the Crimea.

These manoeuvres have created the impression that India is basically a pro-Russian power at the UN, even as a growing number of states have recoiled from Russia’s cynicism over Syria and aggression in Crimea. This has not only hurt India in New York but reduced its leverage in Washington. Many Obama administration officials have a knee-jerk view that India cannot be trusted on international security affairs.

Sticking close to Russia, meanwhile, looks like a costly strategy. Russia and India may have many policy goals in common, such as limiting pressure on Iran. But Moscow risks losing its grip over global affairs because of its erratic behaviour, while within the UN it relies on China to back it up on issues like Syria.  Russia needs Beijing’s help at the UN more than it needs Indian support — and Moscow and Beijing remain firmly opposed to Security Council reform. India may be drawn to Russia’s vision of a post-Western world, but this could actually damage its interests.

So whatever you think of the UN, prime minister, you need to make a choice.  Do you want to stand by Russia in New York or compromise with the U.S. and other Western powers?  There are a host of issues – from development and peacekeeping to saving lives in Syria – on which compromise would be the savvy move.  The UN may not be crucial to Indian security, but making the wrong moves in New York can create unnecessary headaches in New Delhi.  Now would be a good time to review and overhaul your UN policies – if only to make space for more pressing priorities.

Good luck!

Photo: ser_is_snarkish