India, the US and a permanent seat
In a recent interaction with a group of American foreign policy wonks who were seeking to understand where India-US relations could go, the inevitable question of why didn’t Washington endorse India’s candidacy for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.
The ensuing debate was interesting because it threw up a dissident school on both the Indian and American sides.
The Indian dissidents asked why India was even asking for a seat. Their argument: get the economy to keep growing and in time the world would inevitably invite you to take such a seat. If your economy bombed, you shouldn’t be trying for a seat in the first place. Why did India want to place itself in a position where it would have to make difficult and tricky decisions?
More interesting was the divide in the American ranks.
Some argued, “Let’s endorse them. What do we have to lose?” Their argument was that UN reform was such a hairy and tangled ball that it was pretty much impossible to bring into play. Washington could win some brownie points with India (isolate China as onenoted) and not be blamed if nothing happened afterwards. Too many players had to be on board for the US to be blamed.
But another school of thought said no – and I noticed they were largely ex-diplomats. They argued BECAUSE there was little of chance of India or anyone else getting a permanent seat, the US needed to avoid an endorsement. If the US supported India’s bid and then didn’t succeed in delivering, the repercussions for Indo-US relations would terrible. There was an argument that Indians would understand this was mission impossible and just see it as an act of goodwill from the US.
A further argument was that even a rhetorical flush by the US would be seized by India and pushed to come through on its word. India does this regularly they said, getting a molehill of language and making it into a mountain of commitment.
After some thought – and I contemplated both dissident schools – I concluded they were not off the mark. India would secure this prize on the back of its economy, not its lobbying. The second was that it was probably better to be honest in the relationship rather than raise false expectations. Obama will probably say something fuzzily supportive of India’s bid forthe seat. Just enough for a headline or two. But nothing more.