Voice

India’s Seat at the Table

The country has long been denied a permanent place on the U.N. Security Council, but it has itself to blame.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A U.N. police officer stands at an empty entrance at the United Nations Sept. 22, 2020.
A U.N. police officer stands at an empty entrance at the United Nations Sept. 22, 2020. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

It was over 10 years ago that, on his first state visit to India, U.S. President Barack Obama declared in front of the Indian parliament that he looked forward to the day India would become a permanent member of a reformed United Nations Security Council. It was the first time that an American president had publicly expressed any support for this long-standing Indian quest.

In the years since, countries ranging from Australia to France have also endorsed India’s bid. However, during the Trump administration there was no further discussion of the subject. New U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to tip his hand. And during Senate confirmation hearings this week, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, his pick for ambassador to the United Nations, was noncommittal. When asked about whether India, Germany, and Japan should have permanent seats, she affirmed that “there are some strong arguments for that.” But, she continued, “I also know that there are others who disagree within their regions that they should be the representative of their region.”

Indians may be frustrated with the lack of progress toward a permanent seat, but the irony is that they have only themselves to blame. Back in 1950, the United States quietly sounded India out about possibly replacing Taiwan on the Security Council, and India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru demurred. Instead, he suggested that the seat should properly be given to the People’s Republic of China. He rebuffed a similar proposal from the Soviet Union in 1955. Nehru believed that China—an ally of India—properly deserved a seat given its size and emerging role in Asia.

It was over 10 years ago that, on his first state visit to India, U.S. President Barack Obama declared in front of the Indian parliament that he looked forward to the day India would become a permanent member of a reformed United Nations Security Council. It was the first time that an American president had publicly expressed any support for this long-standing Indian quest.

In the years since, countries ranging from Australia to France have also endorsed India’s bid. However, during the Trump administration there was no further discussion of the subject. New U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to tip his hand. And during Senate confirmation hearings this week, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, his pick for ambassador to the United Nations, was noncommittal. When asked about whether India, Germany, and Japan should have permanent seats, she affirmed that “there are some strong arguments for that.” But, she continued, “I also know that there are others who disagree within their regions that they should be the representative of their region.”

Indians may be frustrated with the lack of progress toward a permanent seat, but the irony is that they have only themselves to blame. Back in 1950, the United States quietly sounded India out about possibly replacing Taiwan on the Security Council, and India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru demurred. Instead, he suggested that the seat should properly be given to the People’s Republic of China. He rebuffed a similar proposal from the Soviet Union in 1955. Nehru believed that China—an ally of India—properly deserved a seat given its size and emerging role in Asia.

India’s policymakers have long rued Nehru’s spurning of these offers. Over the course of the past several decades, especially as India has fitfully acquired economic and military power, it has campaigned vigorously for a permanent seat on the Security Council. And with India assuming a two-year term as a nonpermanent member last month, the issue will become a major talking point soon.

Over the years, the case has followed a similar script: The U.N. Security Council is outdated and needs reforming, and given India’s size and its growing global standing, it should be included in the new body. Neither assertion is entirely bereft of merit. Since the 1950s, India has witnessed a significant shift in its position in the international arena. Furthermore, the structure of the Security Council has indeed frozen the global distribution of power that existed at the end of World War II.

Yet India’s policymakers need to come up with far more compelling arguments to justify an expansion of the Security Council and India’s inclusion as a permanent member. Otherwise, the Permanent Five are likely to see India’s claims as a set of a tired, careworn refrains. To be seriously considered for a permanent seat, India needs to demonstrate that it can bring something new to the global table.

To that end, the country might highlight its extraordinary contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations. Since the onset of such missions in 1948, India has sent contingents on 49 occasions, contributed close to 200,000 troops, and in 2007 had the unique distinction of deploying the first all-women peacekeeping force to Liberia. These are no small accomplishments, and more than 160 of the country’s military personnel have died while serving as U.N. peacekeepers.

India can also underscore the exemplary role of particular Indian diplomats in helping defuse some of the postwar world’s worst international crises. In particular, India sent one of its most able diplomats, Rajeshwar Dayal, under U.N. auspices along with a peacekeeping contingent from the Indian Army in the tragic aftermath of the Belgian colonial withdrawal from the Congo.

But touting those accomplishments alone is unlikely to significantly bolster India’s case for a permanent Security Council seat, because the great powers would still like to see India bear more significant burdens in providing greater global public goods.

On that score, it has a few strategies. At the outset, given that the country has one of the world’s largest and most successful pharmaceutical industries, it has a real opportunity to step in during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Thus far, India has served as a global pharmacy producing drugs on a mass scale and making them available at bargain-basement prices, especially to the developing world. For example, India supplies the bulk of the world’s AIDS drugs. Yet it has played a limited, although useful, role in coordinating a global response to the crisis.

Meanwhile, India has mangled its domestic response to the pandemic—it failed to swiftly terminate flights from abroad, and its shutdown was hasty and draconian. Now it has veered into dangerous territory, releasing to the world a domestically produced vaccine that has not yet cleared the requisite phase three trials. As the world’s second-largest producer of vaccines, it should be able to step up and conduct such trials and then offer a safe and effective vaccine, whether developed at home or abroad, to a range of countries that have limited medical facilities and scientific expertise. Thus far, it has, to its credit, provided a substantial batch of vaccines but mostly limited to the countries of South Asia. Surely a beleaguered United Nations would gladly welcome a more expansive effort.

There are other issue areas where India can contribute, too. Perhaps the most compelling of these, beyond the immediate challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the looming, imminent threat of climate change. India’s traditional response to this global crisis centered on demanding that the developed world—the largest historical polluters—cut emissions first.

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when addressing the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, was emblematic of this approach. She suggested that India had to prioritize poverty alleviation over environmental protection, a position that India stood firm on until recently.

However, since the Paris accord of 2015, India has taken on a greater burden for alleviating climate change. Nevertheless, it continues to focus on its low per capita emissions instead of coming to terms with its aggregate contributions to global emissions, which indicate that it bears a substantial responsibility of its own. If it moves beyond its stale rhetoric and policy timidity and offer to lead the global south on tackling climate change, India may win the standing it so desperately seeks in its quest for a permanent perch on the Security Council.

Finally, India needs take back up the mantle of human rights. During most of the Cold War, the bulk of the Western world resorted to mealy mouthed pronouncements and dubious policies in dealing with the apartheid regime in South Africa. India, at some material cost to itself, on the other hand, was vocal in its criticism of the regime and ostracized it in every international forum. It was also an ardent foe of latter-day colonial powers such as Portugal, which stubbornly held on to its colonies.

Yet today, mostly because of its own domestic deficits, India steadfastly refuses to adopt a firm stance on global human rights. Instead, it fends off any criticism with a China-like commitment to the preservation of domestic sovereignty. There is little question that India faces significant internal shortcomings on the human rights score. However, such limitations have rarely, if ever, inhibited major Western powers, including the United States, from speaking out with vigor on the issue of global human rights. India, if it wishes to have a significant role in the premier global institution, has to find ways to overcome its own reticence as well.

All of this would come at some material or diplomatic costs to India. However, unless it is prepared to bear these burdens, its hopes of obtaining a permanent seat on the Security Council will remain little more than a mirage. Should India succeed in joining the council as a permanent member, it would have the ability to shape a range of global institutions and regimes including the International Monetary Fund, partnerships around fighting terrorism, and more—and those are worth paying a price for.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy as well as a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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