Barack Obama's endorsement of a permanent seat for India in a reformed U.N. Security Council represents a significant evolution of American policy towards both India and the world body.

“[In] the years ahead,” the American President told Parliament on Monday, “I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”

Led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the members of Parliament burst into thunderous applause when they heard those magic words. And yet, the absence of a timeline, Mr. Obama's use of passive voice and his caveat on India's “increased responsibility” all suggest that the U.S. expects India to bat for pet American causes in order to fully earn a seat at the global high table.

In July, senior American officials accompanying General Jim Jones, who was Mr. Obama's National Security Adviser at the time, told members of the Indian strategic community at an informal interaction that any decision to endorse India as a permanent member of the UNSC would depend on “our assessment of the extent to which India is likely to play a responsible role [there].”

Among the areas where President Obama expects India to demonstrate responsibility are sanctions on Iran and democracy and human rights promotion in places like Myanmar. If his exhortations left MPs unimpressed, this was not because anyone in the House supports a nuclear-armed Iran or the generals in Nay Pyi Taw. Rather, it was because of the double standards involved in the formulation of this checklist.

And yet, it would be churlish to deny the step forward that Mr. Obama has taken in signalling his support for an Indian permanent seat. Even if he has essentially handed the Indians a cheque that cannot easily be cashed, the U.S. President's words will strengthen India's hand as it seeks to press for reform of the U.N.

Until now, Washington had spoken only of a “criteria-based approach” to the selection of potential members of a reformed and expanded Security Council. In 2005, the U.S. said it “unambiguously supports a permanent seat for Japan” in the UNSC but the furthest it was prepared to go on India was this vague promise made by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns earlier this year: “We're open to expansion of permanent membership of the Council and we believe India's going to have a central part to play in the consideration that's going to come.”

This endorsement is less fulsome than what the U.S. has given the Japanese but the political impact of Mr. Obama's statement in other capitals around the world will be enormous. Russia, which has slowly backed away from its earlier unqualified support for India, will now come under pressure to abandon its insistence on “consensus” as a precondition for UNSC reform. That will leave the Chinese — who have not gone beyond stating their “understanding” of India's desire to play a greater role in world affairs, including at the U.N. — as the last among the five current permanent members to fully reveal their hand.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often noted that the P-5 will not give up the powers they currently enjoy. Even a dilution of power would be unpalatable to them. The U.S. knows the P-5 will never lose their veto power and that any new permanent member will have to come in without the veto. What Mr. Obama is proposing, therefore, is not the dilution of power but its diffusion, that too over an unspecified time frame and with the unstated advisory that India would be on probation till the as-yet undefined process of expansion is complete.

Challenge to leadership

Dr. Singh is right in welcoming Mr. Obama's long-term affirmation of India's place in a reformed UNSC. But the challenge to the Indian leadership is in reconciling the political price Washington will demand for supporting its candidature with the expectation most U.N. members have from India's independent line in foreign policy and global security matters. If that independence flags, the world may see little merit in giving India a seat around the horseshoe table at Turtle Bay. But if that independence is asserted, a future American President may quietly drop Mr. Obama's less-than-ringing endorsement.

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