Ever since I got interested in foreign policy issues during my high school days, there has been one strident demand by India’s Ministry of External Affairs: to get a permanent membership in the Security Council of United Nations. Today, India re-entered the Security Council by being elected as a non-permanent member, a post it will hold for the next two years. This has been greeted with euphoria in the country, and some are hoping that the clout of this position can help India to bargain for a permanent seat in the Security Council with its veto power.
India has consistently criticised the nondemocratic structure of the United Nations with just five countries having disproportionately high say in world affairs. While expanding the Security Council to accommodate more members will make the body a little more inclusive it will not change the nondemocratic nature of the United Nations.
What will India do with its influence?
There is then the question of what we will do with this influence. Some argue that India will be a voice of the developing nations in the Security Council. I feel that India with its distinctive social / political / geographic location will bring a different set of considerations to the table that would enrich discussions. This could have positive consequences on some issues. But, I have no pretensions that India will represent the interests of other nations. After all, foreign-policy is a preserve of cynicism like no other area of policy-making is in this deeply nationalistic world.
Various Indian governments have posed a moral high ground in world affairs in the past, and as a youngster I had subscribed to it. But then, I had not learnt about India’s foreign policy with its less mighty neighbours. We stridently decried the use of food (or more accurately, starving common people) as a foreign policy tool; but we have used such a tool against Nepal. We cried hoarse about neighbours supporting militancy in India, but have provided military assistance to the LTTE. We condemn efforts by other nations to influence our foreign policy, but do not hesitate to dominate Bhutan or Nepal. In fact, I’m not sure how often India has held the moral high ground at the cost. Worst of all, such actions of the Indian governments against its neighbours is rarely questioned by the media and by the public in India today, so much so that even well educated youngsters are often not aware of the darker side of India’s foreign policy.
I do not think that India’s representation at the Security Council would change the moral character of the Council for better. The question then is, would it have pragmatic benefits for the country? From this perspective, I feel that the influence that the position brings will be a double edged sword. On one hand, it could give the government the clout to push through some of the agenda it seeks to implement. But no bargaining power comes without its costs. For example, India was under tremendous pressure from the United States before and after the invasion of Iraq to provide military assistance. A seat in the Security Council would only expose India to day-to-day bargaining on these questions.
India’s role in military adventurism
Suppose India becomes a permanent member of the Security Council with its veto power, we will be dragged into discussing all major conflicts around the world. This cannot happen without concomitant pressure on India to offer military assistance. In a world where they have been many unnecessary and destructive wars, and in a world where military misadventures with great human costs are actively being pondered, the pressure on India to join such misadventures will be incredibly costly for us.
The reaction of the Indian media to the Navy’s demonstration of power against the Pirates of Somalia is just one indication of the wide public support that may be available to military adventures. After all, the demonstration of military might is an integral part of being a superpower, which is the burning desire of many in India today. The pressure from the Security Council and the political gains that may be available domestically can push India towards militarism in unprecedented ways. I believe such a quest can only come at great human cost to those in India and abroad, and there is a strong pragmatic reason to stay away from the Security Council. But then, the quest for permanent membership is so deeply ingrained in the government and the public at large that reviewing it may just be impossible today.