On Monday, October 16, President Bush spoke to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Indian side was expecting reassurances about the fate of the nuclear deal, still stuck in the mire of the American legislative system. But, apart from a perfunctory reassurance on the matter, President Bush chose to concentrate on another issue -- the United Nations Security Council.
No, it was not about India's presence or absence at the high table, but the identity of the next representative from Latin America. Very briefly, there are ten non-permanent and five permanent members of the Security Council.
The non-permanent members are elected by the General Assembly, but they have always represented specific regional blocs -- Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, Western Europe and others, Africa, and Eastern Europe. (In case you were wondering, Canada, Australia, Israel, and the like are classified under 'Western Europe and others'.) In practice, the General Assembly always ratifies a choice made by a specific group.
Latin America is currently represented by Argentina and Peru, but Argentina's two-year term expires this year. Venezuela is bidding to¬†be the replacement. And that nation has taken on a stridently anti-American tone thanks to its belligerent president, Hugo Chavez.
Most recently, President Chavez denounced President Bush to the General Assembly as 'the Devil', a 'liar', and a 'tyrant'. To put it mildly, the United States would find Venezuela a discomfiting partner in the Security Council.
Ordinarily, the United States -- especially in the Bush era -- wouldn't care a hoot who said what in the Security Council. But there is a looming confrontation with North Korea, and quite possibly another with Iran. The United States is not necessarily chastened by its adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, but its military forces have certainly been stretched by those efforts. It would, therefore, prefer to proceed against the North Koreans and Iranians through the Security Council.
President Chavez cannot be bribed or bullied into silence. Venezuela is a founding member of OPEC (the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries), and, like the rest of the cartel, has raked in huge profits thanks to the current high price of crude oil. It is the fourth largest oil supplier to the United States, accounting for over one million barrels per day. Thus, ironically, America's thirst for oil fuels one of the United States' most outspoken foes. (There is a lesson in this for our own policy makers; India too will be hostage to the whims of outsiders if we don't combine conservation with a hunt for alternate energy sources.)
President Chavez has repeatedly accused the United States of backing various aborted coups against him. Whether or not this is correct, he is believed to be right -- thanks to the unhappy history of American interference in Latin America.
It is certainly true that the American evangelist Pat Robertson, a founder of the Christian Coalition in the United States, called for the assassination of President Chavez; 'We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability,' he said in a television interview. This idiocy from a man so close to President Bush certainly did nothing to improve relations with Venezuela!
The Bush administration has decided that Venezuela cannot be permitted to enter the Security Council. Since it cannot be forced to withdraw, the only option is to set up another candidate for the Latin American seat. The chosen nominee is Guatemala.
This has led to a fascinating game between President Bush and President Chavez. The Venezuelan leader has been flying around the planet, promising the moon to several poor nations, including $260 million to build roads in Jamaica and $5 million for a tyre factory in Uruguay.
The Americans have reciprocated with carrots and sticks of their own. It was reported, for instance, that the United States sold F-16 planes to Chile, but is refusing to train Chilean pilots until the Chilean government votes against Venezuela.
There is no dearth of nations where public exhibitions of anti-Americanism translate into solid political gains. (Anti-Americanism certainly played its part in the Kerala assembly polls earlier this year.) But realistic governments know that it is unwise to tweak the most powerful nation on this planet without sufficient cause. The result has been a split, with neither Guatemala nor Venezuela gaining sufficient votes.
Guatemala -- strictly speaking, the United States -- seems to have tied up just over 100 votes. But it needs 128 nations behind it, two-thirds of the 192-member General Assembly, to enter the Security Council.
This leaves Dr Manmohan Singh in a precarious position. His own instincts might lead him to abstain timidly. But he needs the nuclear deal with President Bush, both to ensure India's energy security through infusion of nuclear technology and because that pact is the only foreign relations success his government can boast about.
On the other hand, the Left Front, which is all that is propping up his government, is opposed to backing the United States. (Does everyone remember that the CPI-M is so allergic to the United States that its leaders threatened to reconsider its support to the Manmohan Singh ministry if India didn't back Iran against the Americans?)
Both the Communists and the Americans have made their views known to Dr Singh. Which of them shall he choose to offend when Venezuela and Guatemala face off yet again? And what will be the long-term consequences of that decision?