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UN permanent seat: An unnecessary obsession

November 30, 2010 20:15 IST
India's candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council will be taken seriously only when it can protect and enhance its interests, argues Harsh V Pant.

Indian elites are ecstatic about Barack Obama's support for India as a permanent member of an expanded UN Security Council. It is indeed a significant endorsement of India's growing economic power and global aspirations. But what does it mean in real terms, beyond the rhetoric of a leader trying to please his audience by saying what they most wanted to hear?

The euphoria in India today is symptomatic of the obsession of the Indian political elites with the United Nations. Even as the UN's failures have become self-evident over the years, India has continued to view it as an almost indispensable actor in global politics that needs substantial Indian diplomatic investment.

While this fascination with a moribund institution may not have had any cost in the past when India was on the periphery of global politics, a rising India of today cannot afford to cling on to that same old worldview. Yet India continues to expend its precious diplomatic capital on pursuing the permanent membership of the Security Council and more astonishingly deciding to contest the elections for the post of the UN secretary general.

India's experience with the UN has historically been underwhelming, to put it mildly. Indian national interests have suffered whenever the nation has looked to the UN for support. As the Nehruvian idealism has gradually been replaced by a more confident assertion of Indian national interests, it is time for India to make a more forceful dissociation from the perfunctory modalities of the UN.

Too much of a UN-fixation is not good for the health of any nation, much less for a rising power like India. Indian interests today are global and ever-expanding. And the Indian government should have the self-confidence to declare that these interests will be protected and enhanced, irrespective of the priorities of other external actors.

The Indian government is the only legitimate Constitutional authority to decide when and how to use its instruments of power. And by and large there is only one criterion that it should use: preservation of vital Indian interests.

The UN is an international organisation that was established in the aftermath of the Second World War and so reflects the distribution of power of that era. The Security Council where the real power lies has five permanent members with veto powers who use the organisation to further their own interests. The General Assembly for all its pretensions remains a mere talking shop.

The state of affairs in the UN is so pathetic that apart from some of its technical bodies, the rest of the organisation is a farce. The UN Human Rights Council has members like Sudan, Zimbabwe, China and Saudi Arabia: all with stellar human rights credentials! No wonder Vaclav Havel calls it 'A table for tyrants'!

Why should India take such an organisation seriously and make it 'a platform for establishing India's place in the world?' More importantly why should it give the UN veto over its vital national interests? The most important issue in this context involves decisions on where and when to deploy its military assets.

So far Indian policy-makers have been playing safe by making foreign deployments of Indian military contingent on being part of a UN mission. This was perhaps tenable when Indian interests were limited in scope. Today such a policy does not hold water and more significantly it gives the government a shield from allegations of abdication of its primary responsibility of protecting Indian interests.

When India finally decided to send its naval warships to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, one had hoped that Indian political and military leadership will finally be forced to evolve a coherent policy towards the use of force in securing Indian economic and strategic interests. But it continues to remain unclear under what conditions India would be willing to use force in defending its interests.

This question needs immediate answers and the nation's civilian and military leaderships have let the nation down by not articulating a vision for the use of Indian military assets. If some suggestions have been made, they verge on being facile. For example, ruling out sending troops to Afghanistan, the then Indian army chief had suggested that 'India takes part only in UN approved/sanctioned military operations and the UN has not mandated this action in Afghanistan so there is no question of India participating in it.'

Indian leadership continues to give the impression that the role it sees for India in global security is not shaped by its own assessment of its interests and values but by the judgements of global institutions like the UN. No major power takes UN peacekeeping operations seriously. Yet India continues to be one of the largest contributors to these peacekeeping contingents.

Indian forces working for the UN have suffered more casualties than any other nation. Indian policy-makers argue that this is being done not for any strategic gain but in the service of global ideals -- 'strengthening the world body, and international peace and security.'

Why should global peace and security be a priority for Indian government, a government that has continued to fail miserably in establishing domestic order and internal security?

There was always a calculation that being a leader in UN peacekeeping would help India in its drive towards the permanent membership of the Security Council. But what has India achieved in reality? Despite its involvement in numerous peacekeeping operations in Africa for decades, the African States have refused to support India's candidature. Given China's growing economic and military hold over Africa, the States in the region were merely pursuing their own interests.

India's candidature for the Permanent Member of the Security Council will be taken seriously only when India becomes an economic and military power of global reckoning, able to protect and enhance its interests unilaterally. Until then, Obama's recent announcement in New Delhi will have little meaning.

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Harsh V Pant