Curing India’s UNSC hangover

Curing India’s UNSC hangover

Many Indians are ecstatic about US President Barack Obama’s support for India as a permanent member of an expanded United Nations Security Council (UNSC). 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 elite with the UN. Even as the multilateral body’s failures have become self-evident over the years, India has continued to view it as an almost indispensable actor in global politics. 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, the 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 UNSC. More astonishingly, it even decided to contest the elections for the post of UN secretary general.

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 As Nehruvian idealism has gradually been replaced by a more confident assertion of national interests, it is time for India to make a more forceful dissociation from the perfunctory modalities of the UN.

Indian interests today are global and expanding. The 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 government is the only constitutional authority that can legitimately decide when and how to use the country’s instruments of power. And there is only one criterion that it should use: preservation of vital Indian interests.

The UN was established in the aftermath of World War II and reflects the distribution of power of that era. The Security Council, where the real power lies, has five permanent members with veto powers, which use the organization to further their own interests. The General Assembly, for all its pretensions, remains a mere talking shop. Apart from some of its technical bodies, the rest of the organization is a farce. The UN Human Rights Council has members such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, China and Saudi Arabia: all with stellar human rights credentials. No wonder former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel, in a 2009 New York Times article, called it “A Table for Tyrants".

Why should India take such an organization seriously and make it “a platform for establishing India’s place in the world?" More importantly, why should it give the UN veto power 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 policymakers have been playing safe by making foreign deployments of Indian military contingents part of UN missions. This was tenable when Indian interests were limited in scope. Today, such a policy does not hold water -- it just gives the government a shield from allegations of abdicating its primary responsibility of protecting Indian interests.

When India decided to send its naval warships to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, one hoped that the political and military leadership would 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 civilian and military leadership has been disappointing in its lack of a vision for the use of military assets. If some suggestions have been made, they verge on being facile. For example, ruling out sending troops to Afghanistan, then Indian Army chief had suggested: “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."

India’s leadership continues to give the impression that the role it sees for the country in global security is not shaped by its own assessment of its interests and values, but by the judgements of global institutions such as the UN. No major power takes the UN peacekeeping operations seriously. Yet India continues to be one of the largest contributors to these contingents. Indian forces working for the UN have suffered more casualties than any other nation’s contingents. Yet policymakers 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 the Indian government, a government that has continued to fail miserably in establishing domestic order and security?

There has been a belief in policymaking circles that being a leader in UN peacekeeping would help India in its drive towards the permanent membership of UNSC. But what has India really achieved? Despite its involvement in numerous peacekeeping operations in Africa, African states have refused to support India’s candidature. Given China’s growing economic and military hold over that continent, these states were merely pursuing their own interests. India’s candidature will be taken seriously only when the country 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.

Harsh V Pant teaches at King’s College, London

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