India’s singular objective as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in 2021-22 should be to help build a stable and secure external environment. In doing so, India will promote its own people’s prosperity, regional and global security and growth, and a rule-based world order. It could emerge a partner of choice for developing and developed countries alike.
India’s representation in the UNSC has become rarer. It is to re-enter the Council after a gap of 10 years. The previous time, in 2011-12, followed a gap of 20 years. In total, India has been in the UNSC for 14 years, representing roughly a fifth of the time the United Nations (UN) has existed. India must leverage this latest opportunity to project itself as a responsible nation.
Changing state of world
India finds itself in a troubled region between West and East Asia, a region bristling with insurgencies, terrorism, human and narcotics trafficking, and great power rivalries. There has been cataclysmic dislocation in West Asia. The Gulf is in turmoil. Though the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh) has been defeated, Iraq and Syria are not going to be the same as before. Surviving and dispersed Daesh foot soldiers are likely preparing new adventures, many in their countries of origin. The turbulence in West Asia is echoed in North and South Asia, a consequence of the nuclear and missile tests by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Afghanistan’s slow but unmistakable unravelling from the support, sustenance and sanctuary provided in its contiguity to groups such as the Haqqani network, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda. Other problems in Asia include strategic mistrust or misperception, unresolved borders and territorial disputes, the absence of a pan-Asia security architecture, and competition over energy and strategic minerals.
Alongside, the western world is consumed by primordial, almost tribal instincts, turning its back on the universal values it once espoused as western values. Pundits and political scientists, who had spoken of the end of the nation state and the end of history itself, are grappling with the rise of new nationalism.
The benign and supportive international system that followed the Cold War has all but disappeared. At the beginning of this century, the words ‘national interest’ had acquired almost a pejorative connotation. They are now back in currency. Fear, populism, polarisation, and ultra-nationalism have become the basis of politics in many countries. No wonder that five years ago, when Henry Kissinger completed his latest work, World Order , he found the world to be in a greater state of disorder than at any time since the end of World War II.
Even so, the world is in a better place today than when the UN was first established. The record on maintaining international peace and security, one of the prime functions of the UNSC, has been positive, with or without the UN. The world has been distracted from its other shared goals, especially international social and economic cooperation. Although coordination between 193 sovereign member nations will be difficult, it is well worth trying. To this end, the permanent members (P-5) as also other UN members must consider it worth their while to reform the Council.
A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, “World in 2050”, predicts that by 2050, China will be the world’s number one economic power, followed by India. In China’s case, this is subject to its success in avoiding the middle-income trap. And in India’s, to more consistent economic performance than the experience of recent years. That said, one of the challenges of the international system today, and for India in the UNSC, is that this profound impending change is largely unrecognised by the great powers and other countries.
What should India aim to do?
There is no need for India to fritter away diplomatic goodwill in seeking an elusive permanent seat in the UNSC — it will come India’s way more by invitation and less by self-canvassing. India will have to increase its financial contribution, as the apportionment of UN expenses for each of the P-5 countries is significantly larger than that for India. Even Germany and Japan today contribute many times more than India. Although India has been a leading provider of peacekeepers, its assessed contribution to UN peacekeeping operations is minuscule.
At a time when there is a deficit of international leadership on global issues, especially on security, migrant movement, poverty, and climate change, India has an opportunity to promote well-balanced, common solutions.
First, as a member of the UNSC, India must help guide the Council away from the perils of invoking the principles of humanitarian interventionism or ‘Responsibility to Protect’. The world has seen mayhem result from this. And yet, there are regimes in undemocratic and repressive nations where this yardstick will never be applied. Given the fragile and complex international system, which can become even more unpredictable and conflictual, India should work towards a rules-based global order. Sustainable development and promoting peoples’ welfare should become its new drivers.
Second, India should push to ensure that the UNSC Sanctions Committee targets all those individuals and entities warranting sanctions. Multilateral action by the UNSC has not been possible because of narrowly defined national interest. As on May 21, 2019, 260 individuals and 84 entities are subject to UN sanctions, pursuant to Council resolutions 1267, 1989, and 2253. The U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control maintains a larger list of individuals and entities subject to U.S. sanctions. The European Union maintains its own sanctions list.
Third, having good relations with all the great powers, India must lead the way by pursuing inclusion, the rule of law, constitutionalism, and rational internationalism. India should once again become a consensus-builder, instead of the outlier it has progressively become. A harmonised response is the sine qua non for dealing with global problems of climate change, disarmament, terrorism, trade, and development. India could take on larger burdens to maintain global public goods and build new regional public goods. For example, India should take the lead in activating the UNSC’s Military Staff Committee, which was never set into motion following the UN’s inception. Without it, the UNSC’s collective security and conflict-resolution roles will continue to remain limited.
Looking at polycentrism
A rules-based international order helps rather than hinders India, and embracing the multilateral ethic is the best way forward. India will be a rich country in the future and will acquire greater military muscle, but its people will remain relatively poor. India is a great nation, but not a great power. Apolarity, unipolarity, a duopoly of powers or contending super-powers — none of these suit India. India has a strong motive to embrace polycentrism, which is anathema to hegemonic powers intent on carving out their exclusive spheres of influence.
Finally, India cannot stride the global stage with confidence in the absence of stable relations with its neighbours. Besides whatever else is done within the UN and the UNSC, India must lift its game in South Asia and its larger neighbourhood. Exclusive reliance on India’s brilliant team of officers at its New York mission is not going to be enough.
Jayant Prasad has served as Ambassador in several stations and is a former Director General of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses