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Obama presses India to become global 'champion' of democracy

Obama says India should have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but needs to use its growing global clout to boost democratic institutions.

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“Autonomy is for weak powers who are trying to insulate themselves for the regimen defined for them by the great powers,” said strategist C. Raja Mohan in a widely noted talk this summer in New Delhi. India’s rise now means that “Delhi’s task will be to contribute to the management of the international order and not seeking autonomy from it.”

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Some Indian positions still rankle the US, says Dr. Ganguly, including India’s resistance to agricultural trade liberalization in the Doha Round and its arguments that developed nations should shoulder most of the restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions.

What about nuclear proliferation and human rights?

While Obama did not highlight those disputes in the speech, he did lay out in broad terms some of the “responsibilities” – what US strategist Thomas Barnett calls “rule sets” – of powerful nations. These included nuclear nonproliferation, trade liberalization, counterterrorism, and human rights advocacy.

It was, to some surprise, the last responsibility – human rights – that Obama homed in on to chide India over its soft approach to the neighboring dictatorship of Burma (Myanmar).

“When peaceful democratic movements are suppressed as they have been in Burma, for example, then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent,” Obama said.

“If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often shied away from some of these issues. But speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries … it’s giving meaning to the human rights that we say are universal,” he added.

Ganguly calls the Burma criticism a “cheap shot,” noting the US subsumes human rights for strategic considerations with China and Saudi Arabia. India’s Burma policy reflects fears of Chinese encirclement and Burma’s wealth of untapped natural resources.

A permanent Security Council seat for India is not imminent despite Obama’s encouragement. It is tied up in a decades-long debate on United Nations reform. Such changes will require full support of the Security Council and two-thirds support of the General Assembly.

“To get a two-thirds majority would be a hard job, [and] we expect that China would be totally against it,” says T.P. Sreenivasan, a former Indian ambassador to the UN.

The most serious discussions about adding seats envisions a second-tier of permanent members who do not have a veto. Ambassador Sreenivasan says that creates some debate in India as to whether a non-veto seat is worth it, as India would have to wade into all the world’s disputes without getting the benefit of self-protection from a veto.

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