India’s Potential at the UN Security Council

UN Security Council

Wiki Commons

September 23, 2015 15:14 EDT

What would happen if India joined the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member?

Reform of the increasingly irrelevant United Nations (UN) is once again at the forefront. India enjoys enormous support as a contender for the expansion of the UN Security Council (UNSC) among the G4 nations—India, Japan, Brazil and Germany.

Should it attain a permanent seat on the UNSC, the question is whether India would positively influence the ethos of the council, or if it would simply behave like the permanent members have historically done.

The presence of more states, while rendering the Security Council more internationally representative, would not alter the fundamental structure and dysfunctional mechanism of the UNSC. The veto power thwarts the UN from tackling major international issues, while granting the permanent members disproportionate sway over its workings.

Examining India’s two-year presidency at the UNSC, which culminated at the end of 2012, reveals that Delhi has confidently amplified some pressing issues.

On reforms, India’s cooperation and outreach with African states reeks of pragmatic considerations to gain traction at the UN General Assembly for its permanent seat bid. A major victim of international terrorism itself, India persuaded the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee to adopt a document that emphasizes “zero tolerance” to terrorism. Furthermore, India has also pushed for efforts toward peacekeeping and anti-piracy, all of which augment the country’s interests.

Yet through its unassertive stance in 2011-12 over the Syrian crisis, India lost an opportunity to underscore its democratic credentials and use its two-year term at the UNSC positively, preferring to first and foremost maintain its autonomous decision-making.

India’s abstentions on the issue of Gaza—which the country has historically been supportive of—took place during a real peaking of Indo-Israeli ties, especially in the defense and military sectors. India’s abstentions on human rights violations in several countries, including Sri Lanka, Ukraine and North Korea, are indicative of a selective approach to peace.

Let us also consider India’s behavior in the global nuclear regime. Historically, India has been vociferously critical of the international nuclear order, even famously coining the term “nuclear apartheid,” and it has ardently proposed for global disarmament. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has encountered the most persistent resistance from India. The country refuses to sign on the grounds that it is an inherently “discriminatory” treaty, perpetuating the nuclear status of old powers while serving to inhibit new ones from emerging and preventing them from enhancing their security.

However, since India conducted its nuclear tests in 1998—and the 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal, through which America bypassed the NPT to accommodate India in nuclear commerce—a major transformation has occurred in Delhi’s attitude.

As C. Raja Mohan states, India’s traditional and powerful stance on nuclear disarmament has moved to the less ambitious goal of nuclear restraint and arms control measures preventing the spread of nuclear technology. India’s normative opposition to the international nuclear order and the “discriminatory” regime argument were suggestive of its relative power position in the international system and only lasted till Delhi developed nuclear weapons itself.

Once this was achieved, India’s attitude altered from its traditional defiance of nuclear order to supporting it in countering states like Iran, which Delhi voted against in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011 vis-à-vis its nuclear program. India, in consistency with the behavior of other powers on being part of the nuclear system, is now inhibiting other states from becoming a part of it.

Not Much to Change

The nature of international relations, or IR, determines that India’s behavior will be consistent with the traditional behavior of the Security Council’s permanent members, with strategic interests trumping institutional imperatives. While during the Cold War era, India attempted to make its presence relevant in the international realm by pragmatically resorting to normative vocabulary, these were typical of the instruments employed by a weak state to secure its interests in the global hierarchy.

India is no longer attempting to set fresh criteria and establish alternative universalities in reshaping the world. Instead, in tandem with altering global realities and its emergence as a major player, it is focusing on playing the game of realpolitik.

Institutions are not a mitigating factor where the interests of great powers are threatened, and they are only pertinent when there is no conflict between these. Like the permanent members, India is satisfying its political interests first, while refusing to act in the face of massive brutality.

As Baldev Raj Nayar and T.V. Paul assert, there is a “behavioral requirement of great power status: a great power is and becomes what a great power does.”

In the words of former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “We are living in a world of unequal power, and we have to use the available international system to promote our interests.” While Singh stated this in the context of widening India’s development options, there is no reason why the country would not do exactly that if it gains a permanent seat on the UNSC. This would allow India to more substantially articulate and pursue its foreign policy choices and interests.

In accordance with its rise in the international community, India is increasingly being expected to take a stance on global issues. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s enthusiastic and innovative emphasis on foreign policy, the likelihood is that India will do so—but only to secure and preserve its national interests, rather than any noble cause of maintaining world peace.

India, or any other UNSC contender, cannot alter the fundamental interest and power that is based IR. It is unlikely that India will add some great “value” to the effectiveness of the Security Council. Ultimately, IR is dominated by securing a country’s self-interest, and India being a rational actor in the international system will predictably behave and operate no differently than other great powers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Pete Souza

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