As India enters the United Nations Security Council for the third time since the end of the Cold War, India finds a very different dynamic than the one it encountered during the earlier stints in 1991-92 and 2011-12.
India, too, has changed over the last decade. The range of Indian interests has expanded and so has the circle of India’s international partners.
India’s attitudes have also shifted from the reactive to the proactive. That, in turn, should make India’s new stint at the UNSC more purposeful and pragmatic.
Purposefulness is about tightly integrating its UNSC engagement with India’s broader national goals.
Pragmatism demands adapting to the changed conditions at the UNSC and avoiding overly ambitious goals.
Brief Background after Cold war times:
- During 1991-92, India saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the new Russia’s turn to the US and the West.
- The People’s Republic of China was focused on getting its house in order, opening its economy and keeping a low profile in the unipolar moment. India, too, had good reasons to keep its head down.
- India had to fix its broken economy, put out political bushfires across the country and rejig its foreign policy to cope with the post-Soviet world.
- The West could not resist the temptations for geopolitical overreach at the UN.
- Liberals across the Atlantic sought to transform the “inter-national” forum into a “supra-national” institution that would actively reshape the domestic structures of different societies.
- For India, it was a moment to hunker down and resist external imposition of solutions to its manifold problems especially on the Kashmir question and the nuclear issue.
- Fast forward to 2011-12. A revived Russia and a rising China began to demur against the sweeping Western agenda at the UN.
- India’s own relative position improved in the first decade of the 21st century, thanks to rapid economic growth.
- India was certainly less defensive than in the 1990s, but struggled to turn its new strengths into practical outcomes.
- A decade later, India has walked into a far more contentious UNSC. Differences between the US, China and Russia have become intractable.
- China has risen to be a great power and is making expansive claims and trying to redeem them.
- Meanwhile, USA and Russia have drifted apart and Russia has moved closer to China.
Relevance of UNSC in contemporary time:
The UN Security Council remains the supreme decision-making body in the area of international security.
It is a forum where political understanding can be hammered out among major powers and then, if their national perspectives can be reconciled, codified in decisions that are published, affording a degree of transparency.
Security Council decisions remain the most appropriate way to ratify and codify the appropriate major power responses.
UNSC reforms will take certain time, till then flexible ways need to be found to sustain a continuous engagement with the new major powers, both regarding what constitutes a threat to international peace and security and in crafting a response.
UNSC Reforms Agenda:
UN reform is a long-drawn process which encompasses five key issues: categories of membership, the question of the veto held by the five permanent members, regional representation, the size of an enlarged Council and its working methods, and the Security Council-General Assembly relationship.
Inclusion of new members is part of this reform process. Any reform of the Security Council would require the agreement of at least two-thirds of UN member states, and that of all the permanent members of the UNSC enjoying the veto right.
India’s claim for permanent membership is a genuine demand in the changed geo politics of 21st century.
India is possibly the most obvious and least controversial option to add as a permanent member, and probably long overdue for a seat.
Way Forward: For making the UNSC “effective”:
As India looks for a productive tenure at the UNSC, five objectives present themselves.
One is about making the UNSC “effective”.
- India, however, might be sensible to pare down that ambition. The UNSC is becoming less effective today thanks to the deep divisions among the major powers.
- The UNSC system was designed to function as a concert of five powers. Unanimity among the five permanent members with veto powers was rare during the Cold War decades.
- After a brief moment of great power cooperation in the 1990s, we are now back in an era of contestation. But there will be enough room for India to carve out a larger role for itself amid renewed great power rivalry.
- The UNSC offers room for sustained diplomatic interaction between the major powers, who could minimise tensions and create new opportunities for cooperation.
- Much like the US and USSR that cooperated on issues relating to nuclear proliferation at the height of the Cold War, the US and China could explore potential common ground even amidst their broad-based confrontation.
- All other powers, including India, will, of course, want to be sure that the US-China cooperation is not at the expense of others.
Two, making the UNSC more “representative” has been one of India’s demands since the end of the Cold War.
- Pessimists would urge India to curb its enthusiasm. China has no interest in letting two other Asian powers India and Japan join the UNSC as permanent members.
- Optimists would suggest Delhi’s campaign, in partnership with Brazil, Germany and Japan, to expand the UNSC must continue.
- For the campaign is about an important principle and revealing the nature of political resistance to it.
Three, India has no choice but to deal with China’s growing hostility to India.
- At the end of the Cold War, India had bet that cooperation with China on the multilateral front was valuable in its own right, and would also help generate the conditions for resolving the boundary dispute and expand the areas of bilateral cooperation.
- India, which was eager to build a multipolar world with Beijing, now finds itself in a unipolar Asia that is centred around China.
- Meanwhile, the boundary dispute has worsened over the last decade. India now joins the UNSC amid a continuing military standoff between the two armies in the high Himalayas following the Chinese aggression in the Ladakh region.
- China has repeatedly tried to get the UNSC to focus on India’s constitutional changes in Kashmir.
- On the question of cross-border terrorism, Beijing protects Pakistan from the international pressures that India has sought to mobilise at various fora.
- On the nuclear front, China continues to block India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Four, the engagement with peace and security issues at the UNSC
- Peace and security issues at the UNSC will allow India to strengthen its new coalitions such as the QUAD which brings together Australia, India, Japan and the US.
- India could also use the UNSC tenure to deepen collaboration with its European partners like France and Germany in the security arena, and find common ground with “Global Britain” that is carving out a new international path for itself after breaking away from the European Union.
- India must also sustain an intensive dialogue with Russia on all international issues, notwithstanding Russia’s worsening problems with the West and closer ties to China.
Fifth, India needs to revitalise its engagement with its traditional partners in the “global south” by articulating their peace and security concerns in the UNSC.
- Two sub-groups of the global south should be of special interest.
- The numerous small island states around the world face existential challenges from global warming and rising sea levels.
- They also struggle to exercise control over their large maritime estates.
- Supporting the sovereignty and survivability of the island states is a crucial political task for India.
- Africa is the other priority. Nearly half of UNSC meetings, 60 per cent of its documents, and 70 per cent of its resolutions are about peace and security in Africa.
- The continent has three seats in the UNSC (Kenya, Niger and Tunisia) and there is regular consultation between the UNSC and the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union (AU).
India has been actively pursuing its quest to be included in the reformed United Nations Security Council for many years.
The argument of including new members is that UNSC has to acknowledge the current geopolitical realities which are very different from the time when UNSC was formed.
The current permanent members of the Security Council are the five nations that were made permanent members in the charter when the United Nations was founded.
The UNSC tenure is a good moment for India to intensify India’s engagement on peace and security issues in Africa at bilateral, regional and global levels.