A statement in President Barack Obama's address to the Lok Sabha that “in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member” has generated much euphoria in India and an equal amount of anger in Pakistan. India has seen it as an endorsement by the United States of its longstanding efforts to get into the elite club of the world's big powers. In Islamabad, the Cabinet met to “express serious concern and strong disappointment” over what it saw as an act of betrayal by Washington. Both reactions are way off the mark. True, this was the first time a President of the United States expressed such a sentiment. Successive administrations have preferred to talk around the subject. In this sense, Mr. Obama's words represent a symbolic shift in policy. Yet they were nowhere close to an explicit statement of support for India's bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council. Compared to the 2005 statement by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice that the “United States unambiguously supports a permanent seat for Japan on the United Nations Security Council,” President Obama's formulation sounds like a vague promise. Further, his reference to New Delhi's “increased responsibility” was a clear indication that India would first need to pass American tests of responsible conduct in international affairs.
With or without U.S. support, India has a long way to go in its quest for permanent membership of the Security Council. The U.N. has spent years discussing reforms and the comity of nations is far from reaching an agreement on them. President Obama's omission of a timeline in his assurance to India was telling. There is no consensus on any big-ticket item on the reforms agenda, including the expansion of the Security Council and veto powers for the new permanent members. Islamabad could not be unaware of this. Its denunciation of what it has described as India's “chequered” track record in adhering to U.N principles and resolutions suggests that the anger is directed at the larger symbolism of the Obama statement for India-U.S ties. New Delhi and Islamabad have always viewed with suspicion each other's relations with Washington, and the warmth that was apparent during the Obama visit, combined with the frenzied anti-Pakistan sentiments in the Indian broadcast media during the visit, have not gone down well in Pakistan. Since India's permanent membership of the UNSC looks today like a pie in the sky, it is best to treat the Pakistan Cabinet's statement as an over-the-top rant that does not deserve a serious response.