A case in absentia

India has failed to leave its imprint in its two years at the UN Security Council

On November 1, India began its month-long presidency of the Security Council. It’s the last hurrah to a two-year membership of the most powerful chamber in the international system. December 31, 2012, marks the end of a term at the Security Council that had begun with much hope. India’s election to the Security Council in 2010, almost two decades after it had been beaten and bruised by Japan in a similar election, had gone majestically. It had been presented as reflection of the new respect the country had earned in the global framework – the second big test, after the exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, India had passed after achieving the high economic growth figures of the first decade of the 21st century.

As the 24-month stint at the Security Council ends, it is appropriate to ask some hard questions. How was India done? Has it made a comprehensive case for its elevation to permanent membership? At the beginning of 2011, there was some talk of the expansion of the Security Council and the bringing in of new permanent members, albeit without a veto. This would have created a three-tier system in the Council – five permanent members with a veto; about five permanent members without a veto; perhaps 10 members elected for two-year terms.

As 2012 draws to a close, nobody is talking seriously about any such expansion and any imminent increase in the number of permanent members. Perhaps this was only to be expected. Three candidates seemed to see themselves as near-automatic choices for permanent status but all three had regional rivals who could lobby against them even if not replace them. India had Pakistan (and behind it China) to contend with, Japan had South Korea, Germany had Italy. That aside, there was no unanimity on the candidate (or any candidate) from Africa.

All of these factors have delayed Security Council reform and may continue to do so for several years. For Germany and Japan, especially, time is running out. Demographically these societies are aging, and the United States would like to bring them into the club as soon as possible. Twenty years from now it may not be as easy, and they may not be obvious names. With a younger population profile, India has history on its side. However, it is fairly apparent that India’s under par and decidedly lacklustre performance at the Security Council has been an important impediment in the way of the US, or any clear-headed power, showing urgency in the matter of expansion.

Permanent membership of the Security Council, it must be realised, is not a geographically distributed honour, requiring representation from all continents. Neither is it an indicator of economic influence or potential. It is, bluntly speaking, a measure of hard power, of military capacities and of the willingness and ability of the individual country to contribute to international security. “Contribute to international security”, in turn, should not be confused with sending troops to serve on United Nations peacekeeping missions. If that were so, Bangladesh would probably have a stronger claim on a permanent seat than India.

Permanent members of the Security Council are the Praetorian Guard of the geopolitical status quo. This has been so since the end of World War II, when the victory – and keepers of postwar global security – gave themselves permanent seats at the Council. As such, built into this definition is not just the ability to exercise power but also the willingness to do so. The first implies military resources; the second suggests a stomach for political risk taking. That second factor is India’s weakness, one it demonstrated with embarrassing frequency over the past two years.

The big story of global politics in the 24 months India spent at the Council was the Arab Spring, the collective and catchy name given to disturbances and uprisings, with different, country-specific motivations, in North Africa and West Asia, notably in Egypt and Libya. India sat out this entire process. At the Security Council, it offered no notable inputs. It didn’t call for intervention; it didn’t call for non-intervention with any degree of conviction either. It simply buried its head in the sand and hoped the problem would go away.  It offered no channel to the craving for change in the Arab world. It designed no alternative, non-western/non-NATO template of civil rights, a modern political idiom and democracy for the Arab world.

The on-going Syrian situation is emblematic of India’s confused and essentially defensive approach. At the UN, India has at various points voted in favour of resolutions that seem to support the Assad regime that rules in Damascus, voted against such resolutions, as well stayed as neutral and declined to offer an opinion. It has been a typical Indian solution to a pressing conundrum – a bit here, a bit there, a bit in the middle. Worse, at times India has awkwardly tried to disguise this as somehow representing meaningful and mature diplomacy.

When the American ambassador was killed in Benghazi (Libya), Indian diplomats at the UN actually briefed journalists arguing the US could have avoided this if it had borrowed from India’s book. Exactly what the US could have done was unclear, as the Arab Spring was largely an autonomous process that neither Washington, DC, nor New Delhi could have reversed (though the State Department and the Ministry of External Affairs would both have desperately wanted to).

The upshot of all this is India has wasted its two years at the Security Council and failed to leave its imprint on world affairs. It has convinced nobody (not even itself) that it is ready to pull its weight or contribute substantively to global security and strategic architecture – or has thought through what ideas and goals it seeks to bring to the UN high table. It remains in effect a spectator nation.

As such, anybody who says the period since January 2011 has helped India make a better case for full membership, or to convince the world community in this regard, is simply not being realistic. As a senior member of the Indian Foreign Service told this writer, “India must be the only country in the world that wants to become a permanent member of the Security Council only to abstain.” External stakeholders have begun to make a similar realisation. The consequences are going to be expensive.

Image courtesy: Shahar Evron