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India's global aspirations

Print edition : Jul 15, 2005 T+T-
At a session of the United Nations Security Council.-MARY ALTAFFER/AP

At a session of the United Nations Security Council.-MARY ALTAFFER/AP

India's bid for a permanent Security Council seat may well succeed, but it is unclear that this will contribute to democratising the U.N. and making the world a better place.

INDIA's protracted and energetic effort to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council has entered the final lap. In July, India, along with the rest of the Group of Four (Brazil, Germany and Japan), will introduce a "framework resolution" in the General Assembly for expansion of the Council and other reforms. That was decided by the four states' Foreign Ministers in Brussels on June 23. The move will be made any time after July 6, the date by which two important regional summits - of the African Union in Libya and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in St Lucia - would conclude.

The G-4 strategy is to take on board the 53 African countries by demanding that two of them be made permanent members of the Council, and Africa should also have one non-permanent [rotating] seat on it. They hope that the Caricom meeting will further boost their chances at the General Assembly vote on the "framework resolution". To pass, this will need the support of 128 of the Assembly's 191 member-states.

That is not the end of the process. Since the resolution seeks to amend the U.N. Charter, which is itself an international treaty, the amendment must be ratified by the signatories. If just 64 states fail or refuse to ratify, the expansion will fall through.

The stakes in the process are high. Various powers are doing their best to lobby for the most desirable outcomes. The United States can be expected to use a fair amount of diplomatic muscle to limit the expansion of the Council's permanent seats by "two or so". It has said that it will back Japan and one other (as-yet-unnamed) country, hinting that the choice might be from the developing world. And U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bluntly told the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer that it will not support Germany's bid for the Council. China is lobbying hard against Japan's entry.

The "Coffee Club", comprising numerous states, including Italy, Spain, South Korea, Pakistan, Mexico and Argentina - which oppose their respective regional rivals' bids is trying hard to subvert the G-4's effort. And new conflicts are arising within Africa between different competitors - from Nigeria to Senegal in the West, through South Africa, Egypt and Libya in the North, to Kenya in the East. Meanwhile, India has approached even Pakistan for support - despite its active membership of the "Coffee Club" - and similarly requested Bangladesh despite strained relations. This speaks of the zeal of India's effort as it reaches a crescendo after a decade of wooing every conceivable government.

Some major powers (for example, the U.S. and China) are trying to break up the G-4 or bolster it (as France is doing by agreeing to co-sponsor its resolution). Whether the G-4 expands into G-6 by inducting two African states, or disintegrates with individual states making expedient alliances, is an open question. It is also unclear if and when China will take a stand on India and Brazil's membership. In mid-May, it accused the G-4 of acting "hastily" in framing a draft resolution for the General Assembly. Recently it said: "It is not the time yet to make a stance on the relevant countries' bids... ", these being India and Brazil.

On present reckoning, some 85 states, including Bangladesh and China, are yet to clarify where they stand on India's bid. The largest number among them belong to Africa. So, India is lobbying Africa with half-a-dozen emissaries and diplomats on high-powered missions.

It is hard to tell how this complex web of divergent forces will play itself out. But two things are clear. One, India stands a fairly good chance of making it to the Council as a permanent member without a veto; its main competitor here will be Brazil, a fellow state from the South. Two, the U.S. will exercise disproportionately large influence in determining the course of events and setting the terms on which it will support particular states' membership. Evidence of the U.S' overwhelming presence was writ large in the way the G-4 retracted their demand for being given the "same responsibilities and obligations" as the P-5, including the veto, after Washington signalled it would oppose this. The face-saving formula of offering not to use the veto for 15 years cannot obscure that fact.

Indian officials are pleased that India fits better than Brazil, the U.S.-specified "criteria" for the "second" permanent member. As Washington puts it: "We advocate a criteria-based approach under which potential members must be supremely well-qualified, based on factors such as economic size, population, military capacity, commitment to democracy and human rights, financial contributions to the U.N., contributions to U.N. peacekeeping, and record on counter-terrorism and non-proliferation. We have to look, of course, at the overall geographic balance... "

India certainly has greater military capacity than Brazil and has contributed more U.N. peacekeeping forces (itself a remunerative operation). Although India's non-proliferation record is poorer - Brazil, with Argentina, dismantled its nuclear capability, while India weaponised its own - the U.S. has reconciled itself to India's nuclear-weapons status coupled with its relatively strict nuclear export-controls. Besides, India is a "strategic partner", whom Washington wants to "help become a world power". That gives India's bid an edge.

However, the catch should be obvious. India is agreeing to be judged by Washington's criteria, not an independent yardstick. As The Hindu reported (June 18), New Delhi "approved the criteria laid down" by U.S. Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns. This is in the public domain. What is not in the public domain is the issue of what assurances the U.S. wants from India, and whether it has extracted these. This belongs to the secret world of state-to-state relations, with all their intrigues, shady deals and questionable trade-offs, which most governments hide from their citizens. But it is reasonable to assume that at the centre of whatever "understanding" Washington and New Delhi have reached is a desperate urge to win U.S. approbation, evident among Indian policy-makers especially since President Clinton's visit of 2000.

We do have some indications of what the U.S. demanded of India, during a visit in May of Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Condoleezza Rice's senior adviser on U.N. reforms. The Times of India (May 28) reported that Washington wants India to agree to amend the U.N. Charter to provide for the "right" of states to use military force in "anticipatory self-defence", presumably, including both pre-emptive and preventive war.

This is a terrible bargain. Some kind of qualified case can be made out for pre-empting an imminent attack. But "anticipatory self-defence" is a blanket term, involving preventive war. This is, morally, obnoxious, strategically irrational, and utterly repugnant to the spirit of the U.N. Charter. Resort to force on mere suspicion that you may be attacked, or because you want to permanently disable your adversary, is a recipe for brigandage, chaos, acute instability and unending disorder. It would be a disgrace if India were to back such an egregious doctrine in return for U.S. support for a Council seat. This doctrine would have rationalised America's illegal and unjust war on Iraq, based on lies and distortions.

HOWEVER, a much larger issue arises, which should introduce sobriety in the general mood of triumphalism that will prevail if India wins a Security Council seat. What sort of India is it that goes to the Council? What does it stand for in regard to reform of the present unequal world order? And will India merely promote its narrow and parochial national interest as perceived by the ruling elite, or will it contribute to making the world a better place, less conflict-ridden, less violent, less dominated by hegemonic powers and more equal?

It is all-important to ask this because the rationale of India's elevation to a high global position can only be premised upon universal values such as freedom, equality and justice. Power or authority must have a purpose larger than itself. Unless the purposes of power are inclusive, non-parochial, global and universal, they cannot temper power, or deter its abuse. Citizens, unlike Machiavellian states, have no use for power divorced from moral purpose.

Going by the recent record, today's India is poorly placed to make a consistently worthy contribution to the world. This is not the India of the 1950s or 1960s, which championed decolonisation, non-alignment, peace, nuclear disarmament and equity and balance in the world. It is not the India of the 1970s, which called for a New International Economic Order based on fair trade and correction of structural imbalances in the world economy. It is not even the India of the 1980s, which resisted Western pressure on intellectual property rights and which, despite having acquired a nuclear capability, still maintained restraint by not overtly crossing the nuclear threshold, a certain "discipline" as Amartya Sen called it.

Present-day India is altogether different, at least as its elite views it while distancing itself from its earlier moorings (Third World causes, non-alignment, right to choose one's own development trajectory, and hence, economic policy) and concerns (about hegemonism, neo-colonialism, use of force in international relations and environmental degradation).

Today's India is driven by chauvinist nationalism, of the muscular, militant and misanthropic kind, and possessed by an obsessive desire to join the dominant rather than fight them. It seeks recognition as a great power - but is callous towards its people, a majority of them poor and victims of centuries of injustice and discrimination based on descent and gender. India has given up on transforming the world to promote freedom and equity. Rather, it wants accommodation in the skewed global order as a Big Player.

For the past decade or more, India has not had progressive positions on a range of issues of great international import - from the defining moments represented by the genocide of Rwanda and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, to the issue of ending the unjust occupation of Iraq, with its terrible inequities against civilians, including insensate violence, torture and collective punishment. It is still trying to find some way of "assisting" Iraq's occupation regime - rather than demand the occupation's end.

For long an ardent campaigner for peace and nuclear weapons abolition, India has become an abject apologist for mass-destruction weapons and the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which it described as "obnoxious" only years ago. India, once a principled supporter of Palestinian nationhood, has turned an ally of Israel's repulsively right-wing government, and its biggest arms customer. In their hour of crisis, it, at best, pays lip-service to helping the Palestinians.

India once prided itself on having a broad-horizon multilateralist foreign policy, closely coordinated with domestic priorities like development with equity. Its present policy is unbalanced, excessively focussed on the U.S., and nearly always obsequious towards it. In May 2001, India became the first country to support the U.S' plans for Ballistic Missile Defence - even before its allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) did.

Despite recent, welcome, improvement in relations with Pakistan and China, the imbalance persists, as does the erosion of multilateralism. India has not responded to two major new documents which spell perspectives for U.N. reform: the U.N. High-Level Panel report on "Threats, Challenges and Change", and the Secretary-General's report, "In Larger Freedom". In specialised U.N. agencies such as the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and the World Commission on Environment and Development, India increasingly plays a conservative role. This is also true of the past decade's "social summits".

India has abandoned its emphasis on freedom of economic policy-making, reduction of North-South disparities and defence of people's interests against externally imposed policy agendas. India now sees itself as a collaborator of neo-liberal globalisation which will thrive on "free market" policies that have ruined scores of societies. It cannot be trusted to play a healthy pro-Southern role in WTO negotiations on services and non-agricultural market access.

In the neighbourhood too, India intervened militarily in Sri Lanka and Maldives. Now, it indulges despotic regimes like Myanmar's. It courts the junta there with offers to build gas pipelines and roads. While it claims to be "engaging" that regime, India has no programme for pro-democracy change. As for Nepal, India's U-turn on arms supply after the Royal putsch, the less said the better. The Nepalese people feel betrayed.

This description can, of course, be qualified. There are some redeeming factors like India's offer of aid during the tsunami crisis. But the general picture, with all the nuances, is not one of a government with progressive doctrines, which wishes to break with narrow considerations of self-interest. In the U.N., India is more likely to tail the U.S. than to resist it. Indeed, to appear "responsible", it is likely to break ranks with its Southern allies (as it did at the Geneva WTO ministerial meeting by cutting a deal with the U.S., the European Union and Australia) and adopt conservative stances.

We should be warned of another thing. Domestically, India's entry into the Security Council will be seen as a great triumph by an elite which has psychologically seceded from the people and looks westwards. The top one-tenth of the population will see it as vindication of its own hubris and a sign of India's "arrival" as a Great Power - no matter that it remains a cesspool of poverty and deprivation, in which rank casteism rules, the majority is condemned to economic bondage and social servitude and female foeticide is acquiring epidemic proportions. Worse, a Security Council seat will be seen as a licence to ignore these terrible realities. That should cause yet graver concern.