Stephen M. Walt

Something for nothing

With one caveat, I’ll give Obama’s team credit for the deft endorsement of India becoming a permanent member (with veto powers) of the U.N. Security Council. It was a smart move because it appealed to India’s sense of national pride, and because it didn’t cost the United States much. Washington’s opinion on this issue matters ...

JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images

With one caveat, I’ll give Obama’s team credit for the deft endorsement of India becoming a permanent member (with veto powers) of the U.N. Security Council. It was a smart move because it appealed to India’s sense of national pride, and because it didn’t cost the United States much. Washington’s opinion on this issue matters somewhat, but it doesn’t get to determine the composition of the SC by itself and so Obama’s endorsement of Indian membership was a bit of cheap talk that nonetheless managed to delight his Indian hosts. If it helped convince the Indian government to back the U.S. position at the upcoming G20 summit in Seoul, then that’s a pretty smart deal.

In fact, reforming the U.N. Security Council would be a major undertaking, and it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Other P-5 members will be wary of having their own influence and status diluted by the addition of new members, and China wouldn’t be thrilled either. There are also plenty of other aspirants — Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, etc. — who would be more than a little irritated if India got in and they didn’t. 

So the only real objection to Obama’s endorsement is that it might annoy these countries (and Pakistan, of course, which has already expressed its opposition to the idea). My caveat, therefore, is to wonder whether the good will won in India is outweighed by irritation in other quarters. I’d bet not, if only because SC reform is not exactly a burning issue on anybody’s agenda.

The other issue that is becoming clearer, however, is the fundamental strategic contradiction in America’s South Asia policy. On the one hand, because we are deeply mired in a war in Afghanistan, and because the Taliban and other extremist groups operate in and out of Pakistan, we have to try to work with the Pakistani government despite its many problems and our growing unpopularity in that country. At the same time, there are larger strategic imperatives pushing the United States to move closer to India. Indeed, Obama even referred to U.S.-Indian strategic partnership as an "indispensable" feature of the 21st century. But a deeper U.S. partnership with India drives Pakistan crazy, encourages some parts of the Pakistani government to hedge bets by backing the Taliban, complicating the U.S. effort to make progress in Afghanistan. One can even imagine some Pakistanis wanting to prolong the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, precisely because our military presence there makes us more dependent on them and thus gives Islamabad some degree of influence and leverage over us.

Notice, however, that this problem would diminish significantly if the United States were not stuck in a costly counter-insurgency and nation-building exercise in Central Asia. If we weren’t trying to build a effective centralized state in Afghanistan, while simultaneously attacking militants in Pakistan’s fronteir provinces, then we would be free to move closer to India without facing potential blowback elsewhere. And if we weren’t constantly interfering in Pakistan too, we might actually discover that they resented us less. In other words, if we were acting more like an offshore balancer, and less like an post-colonial nation-builder, it would be a lot easier to design a less tortured South Asia strategy. Add that to your list of reasons to find a new way forward in our Afghan misadventure.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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