Obama's Impossible Support for India U.N. Security Council Seat

With all the geographical groups bickering, expanding the U.N. Security Council to allow a permanent seat for India, which President Obama supports, is unlikely. And that’s not to mention an ascendant U.N.-hostile Republican Congress and pushback from China.

President Obama’s backing of India for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council sounds eminently sensible. However, expansion of the council is an impossible task, and if the president wants to deliver on his support, he will need to push long and hard.

Of the many complex issues I dealt with in my oversight role of U.N. matters during my tenure at the National Security Council and the Department of State in the George W. Bush administration, none was more difficult than U.N. Security Council expansion. While the current format of five permanent members is clearly outmoded, fashioning a more equitable replacement quickly gets mired in the very essence of geographical groupings that members insist forms the cornerstone of the United Nations. Past U.S. presidents have endorsed the idea of Japan as a permanent member based on its contributions to the U.N. system, where it stands second only to the U.S. Yet the system of expansion breaks down quickly once one goes beyond Japan.

Looking beyond the five permanent members—the U.S., Russia, China, France, and the U.K.—one would assume that additional members from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America need to be added. There are serious aspirants from all regions: Germany and Italy from Europe, Japan and India from Asia, Brazil and Argentina from Latin America, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa from Africa. In 2005-07, a number of models were offered by a combination of these countries, validating their own credentials for permanent Security Council membership.

The U.S. then had the choice of either supporting an expanded Security Council that was so large that no decisions would get made, or defer all expansion to a time when the geographical groups sort out their one candidate, or possibly two, to add to the expansion. Then began the bickering. All groups complained that Europe already had two representatives, and perhaps the U.K. or France should give up a seat in order to bring in Germany, which already paid 2 percent more of the U.N. budget than did either France or the U.K. Within the Asia group, there was support for Japan, but India became an issue because of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and others who fought to make the point that India carried the least weight in terms of contributions and had resolutions against it in the Security Council that had been long unfulfilled. African group arguments quickly got mired in the politics of who represents Africa, and none of the three aspirants, Egypt, South Africa, or Nigeria, would back away from their claim.

In addition to its five permanent members, the Security Council now has 10 non-permanent members voted in by the General Assembly for a two-year tenure. India has just been elected to one of these non-permanent seats, a good place to lobby for the ultimate prize of a permanent seat. However, New Delhi is not likely to accept the models for council expansion that others might be willing to accept, particularly a permanent seat without the veto-wielding authority. India chafes at any discriminatory treatment and has said in the past that it will wait until the international system is clearly reflective of its own clout rather than accept second-class membership. That argument is unlikely to change in the current atmosphere, in which India has fast-tracked toward international authority with American acknowledgement of its nuclear credentials and responsible behavior along with its economic prowess. Even before Obama’s announcement of support on Monday, senior Indians noted that “chasing after membership in every club is a legacy of colonialism.”

Apart from the politics of U.N. reform lies the swamp of domestic problems for Obama. The right wing of the Republican Party, newly energized after the recent election, has never been fond of the United Nations. Sarah Palin’s foreign-policy guru has proudly proclaimed that the world would be better off without the top 10 stories of the U.N. building, where its leadership resides. The U.N. is seen by this group as a distraction for American power, and an enlarged Security Council would be anathema to conservatives. They will not likely want an Egyptian veto to thwart the American agenda.

India chafes at any discriminatory treatment and has said it will wait until the international system is clearly reflective of its own clout rather than accept second-class membership.

And then there is China’s support for Security Council expansion. With problems brewing with Japan and India’s challenge for Asian power, China is less than likely to willingly give up its exclusive hold on the Asian seat as a permanent member. Obama’s careful tour of key democracies circling China is hardly likely to help make the case for Chinese cooperation on India’s inclusion for a permanent seat.

The U.N. remains one of the few, if not the only, institutions in which each nation, no matter how small, can be a participant. That means 192 member countries have to be organized along geographical lines in order to make their case. However, under such groupings, Obama’s call for a permanent seat for India in an effective expanded Security Council will require a sustained presidential push.

Shirin Tahir-Kheli served at the White House as special assistant to the president and senior director for democracy, human rights, and international operations during 2003-05 and as senior adviser to the secretary of state for U.N. reform from April 2005 to August 2006, when U.N. reform was under discussion. She was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs during 1990-93.