Voice

Obama's almost empty promise to India

President Obama sent hearts soaring in India today when he endorsed, before a special session of India's parliament, the country's bid for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council.

Indeed, the just and sustainable international order that America seeks includes a United Nations that is efficient, effective, credible and legitimate. That is why I can say today, in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.

"It was a powerful endorsement. It is very welcome. Very eloquently put," said the head of India's BJP party. The Indian government had clearly been hoping that Obama would take the step, and a number of prominent voices pushed the White House in that direction. John McCain called for it on the eve of Obama's visit. For its part, Pakistan opposed the move, warning that a permanent seat for India would complicate regional security.

The endorsement was a notable move for an administration that has been all but mute on the question of Security Council reform. Given the efforts Washington has expended on pushing the G-20 and revamping governance at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, administration officials have been surprisingly quiet on Council reform, confining themselves to boilerplate about the need for  an effective and legitimate Council. There's been no sign that Washington is actively pushing negotiations in New York. And in the wake of the unwelcome Iran diplomacy by Brazil and Turkey last year, the administration may be cooler to the idea of new permanent Council members than it had been initially. The Obama team will be carefully watching the Council's performance in 2011, when it will include many leading candidates as nonpermanent members, including India, Germany, Brazil, and South Africa. 

In discussing the India announcement, administration officials acknowledged the obvious: permanent membership for India (or anyone else) remains a long way off. "This is bound to be a very complicated and difficult process, given the range of issues that have to be discussed and it's bound to take a significant amount of time," said undersecretary of State William Burns. In the 1990s, the United States endorsed the candidacies of Germany and Japan, a move that did little to propel their candidacies. Before Obama's departure for India, Strobe Talbot warned correctly that "even if assurances are made that a permanent seat were available for India, it is a bit like a check that runs some risk of bouncing, or of not being cashable for some time to come."

Even if it were genuinely inclined to do so, the United States does not alone have the power to cash India's Council check. Security Council reform requires a U.N. Charter amendment, which in turn requires two-thirds backing by the U.N. General Assembly (as well as the support of all current permanent members). The obstacle for India, and all other leading candidates for permanent seats, is that the Assembly is dominated by small and mid-size countries skeptical of adding new permanent seats, at least without a major increase in rotating seats. Accordingly, Council reform has been stuck for almost two decades, with the Assembly unable to reach consensus on a plan. The four leading candidates -- India, Germany, Japan, and Brazil -- all have influential opponents (Pakistan, Italy, China, and Argentina, respectively) who are keen to muck up the works.

For all the goodwill the announcement has won Obama in India, it won't change that underlying reality. And, at the moment, Washington is not interested in expending the diplomatic capital that would be required to help turn India's Council dream into a reality.

Update: A reader writes, "Getting a permanent seat at the UNSC is a long term goal for India. We are pragmatic. We know we are not going to get it tomorrow. But, we have to start somewhere. An endorsement, even an empty one, from the world's most powerful man is welcome." 

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