On Nov. 8, on the final day of his visit to India, President Obama gave an address to a joint session of the Indian parliament that included this gem: “In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”
The idea of reforming the UNSC has been around for quite some time. One of the more popular modern variants includes expanding the number of permanent Security Council positions. Frequently discussed candidates for the new spots include India, Brazil, Japan, Germany, an African country (likely South Africa or Egypt), and a Muslim state (maybe Turkey or Indonesia).
There is a very reasonable motivation for reforming the Security Council: international institutions that do not reflect the distribution of power are fated to be irrelevant. For decisions to be binding, a critical mass of key players and power must be sitting down at the negotiating table; otherwise, whatever agreement that is reached is likely to be nothing more than pretty words.
In the more flexible world of international finance, change has come relatively easily — already we see the Group of Eight being replaced by the Group of Twenty as the de-facto organizing body on monetary policy and rule-setting. The UNSC, with its veto-holding permanent members, will be a tougher makeover.
And yet, for the United States, it would be better to reform the United Nations sooner rather than later. Time is to the advantage of rising powers. Putting off reform only means that status quo powers will be relatively weaker — and thus in a worse bargaining position — when a deal is eventually struck.
Perhaps Obama’s speech to the Indian parliament was only intended to tell Indians what they wanted to hear and nothing more. After all, securing India a permanent seat on the council is a herculean task, particularly if a nervous China decides to stonewall the bid.
However, the task is not so difficult as to make it hopeless, nor is its objective counter to U.S. interests. For the U.S, placing stable, powerful democracies in positions of power within a new international order is good long-term strategy — if they share many of the geopolitical worries of the U.S. (as India does), so much the better. And while China may wield a veto, the U.S. is still the world’s superpower, with unparalleled diplomatic clout — Beijing will find it hard to deny India admittance and still bill itself as the champion of a developing world if the U.S. maneuvers it into an up-or-down vote on whether to add a string of developing countries to the Security Council’s roster.
Therefore, Obama should take seriously his own proposal, and make concrete steps in the near future to see it realized. Of course, as a matter of smart politics, he should also demand something in return from India — namely that they make a serious effort to establish a lasting peace with Pakistan.
The greatest downside to a U.S-India relationship is its effects on Pakistan. Under the current state of affairs, each step the U.S. makes toward a partnership with India is a step away from its partnership with Pakistan — the two countries’ polar rivalry makes simultaneous cooperation with both nearly impossible. On the balance, India makes the better prospect, but its value as an ally is greatly diminished by what we would give up to obtain it: losing our bond with Pakistan would not just jeopardize the interests we pursue together (namely counter-terrorism), but it might provoke Pakistan to intensify the desperate tactics it has traditionally used to try and maintain parity with its Hindu neighbor — supporting insurgents in Kashmir, backing fundamentalists in Afghanistan, and pursuing nuclear arms with rogue countries.
A divided Central Asia is not conducive to our aim of hedging Chinese power or denying terrorist organizations access to failed states. Nor is it in India’s interests — despite the enmity India shares with Pakistan, it must recognize that living next to a desperate basket-case is more dangerous than burying the hatchet and that continuing a policy of unremitting opposition will yield less fruit than one of (even limited) cooperation.
Obama’s vision for India is not a pipe dream; there is great potential here to expand U.S. influence and craft a more stable world order. The president should do everything he can to ensure that his hope for the Security Council does not become a throwaway line on a forgotten speech.