Obama in India: Why his Security Council overtures ring hollow

President Obama endorsed India for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council as part of a push to modernize the body. But as Japan knows, the road to permanent membership is full of obstacles.

Jim Young/Reuters
President Obama greets parliamentarians after delivering a speech at New Delhi's Parliament House on Monday.

President Obama on Monday wowed the Indian Parliament with a strong US endorsement of India’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

But Mr. Obama’s flattering justification for India to join one of the world’s most exclusive and powerful clubs – he said India is no longer an “emerging” nation, but rather has “already emerged” – does not mean the booming South Asian democracy should expect to see its name engraved on a Security Council seat in New York any time soon.

Just ask Japan.

Japan has had its hopes set on a permanent Security Council seat since at least the early 1990s. President Clinton endorsed the idea of Japan and Germany joining the Council’s five permanent and veto-endowed members: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France. A decade later, in 2005, the Bush administration made supporting Japan’s accession to a permanent Council seat US policy – (Germany ... not so much).

But time and again Japan has seen its hopes dashed, as a global security body that largely retains a configuration dating from its post-World War II creation finds reform bids stymied by regional suspicions, geopolitical calculations, and plain old power-mongering.

Virtually everyone seems to agree, at least publicly, that the Security Council needs to change to reflect a 21st century of diffused power and new global players. It last saw reform in 1965, when the number of nonpermanent, non-veto-wielding seats was expanded to reflect the UN’s expanding membership in the postcolonial era.

But getting from consensus to actual reform is not going to be easy, for both practical and political reasons, says Michael Doyle, a former UN official now specializing in international relations at Columbia University in New York.

First, there are the “extensive and demanding processes of reforming the UN club,” Mr. Doyle says, noting that it takes not only avoiding any veto by one of the Council’s permanent members, but a two-thirds vote by the full Council and approval of the General Assembly.

“That alone is a considerable bar to clear,” he says.

But perhaps even more daunting are the political hurdles, Doyle says. “Many countries, in particular some of the original permanent members, don’t want to dilute their power in this way,” he says. “And then any time you propose a new member or new countries for the Council, you have others immediately objecting. If it’s India,” for example, “then what does Pakistan think? If it’s Japan, right away China is there questioning the idea, not to mention South Korea. And Mexico and Argentina have their own questions if anyone proposes a permanent seat for Brazil,” he adds.

China has also been leery of any reform that boosts the global status of countries to its south and to its east – India and Japan – in one fell swoop.

Doyle worked with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on two options he proposed in 2005 for reforming the Council – one that called for adding six new permanent members, and a “Plan B” that proposed adding “semipermanent” members that would face reelection. Neither proposal gained much traction.

Another plan was put forward by the so-called Group of Four – Japan, Germany, India, and Brazil – who called for permanent membership for themselves, with the prickly veto issue to be put off for consideration only after the four had been on the Council for 15 years.

In endorsing India’s bid for a Council seat, Obama certainly stroked a few feathers, but he also hinted at a realism about prospects for reform, saying “[I]n the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”

After Obama’s speech, the State Department’s top career diplomat, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, said in New Delhi that the road to Council reform would be arduous. “This is bound to be a very difficult process and it’s bound to take a significant amount of time,” he said.

In the meantime, Doyle notes, Obama doesn’t risk much – OK, maybe a few questions from an injured Pakistan – in making India feel good with a gift that delivers on its promise in years at best. “The reality is that it doesn’t cost the president very much to say, ‘I’m going to India, I can say India should have increased status in this way,’ because it’s probably something for way, way down the road.”

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