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.

Saurabh Das/AP
President Obama (l.) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, embrace following a joint statement and press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 8.

As his trip to India winds down this week, President Obama offered to welcome India as a permanent member of the United Nations but suggested India needed to use its power globally to champion democratic institutions, not sovereignty for poor nations.

“I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member,” Mr. Obama said to a joint session of India’s Parliament Monday, drawing applause from the MPs. But, “with increased power comes increased responsibility.”

The US has previously said it supports UN reform, but shied away from naming India as a candidate for permanent UN fixture. Part of that was due to the long line of American allies who are vying for permanent UN seats, including Germany and Japan. But it also reflected US wariness with the role India has traditionally played as a champion for Third World states that have felt hectored and exploited by international rules set up mostly by rich nations.

“For so long [Indians] have been knocking at the door of the great power club and finally they are on the threshold of the doorway, and now they don’t know what is involved,” says Sumit Ganguly, an Indian-American regional expert on sabbatical in New Delhi. “There are certain club rules and certain norms and expectations that that club has.”

India's changing aspirations

India’s past role as a champion for autonomy and a critic of the world order fit a country that was both large – and largely powerless. In recent years, however, its positions have evolved partially as its wealth and aspirations have grown.

The change can be seen in the rhetoric of India’s naval strategists. India used to favor extending the maritime perimeters of coastal states. Strategists here now speak of “freedom of the seas” and view ocean lanes as “global commons” that must be defended by large powers for the benefit of international trade.

“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.”

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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