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Multilateralism is a game the U.S. and India can play

The two countries need to work closely at the United Nations befitting the strategic partnership they are forging.

April 24, 2012 12:14 am | Updated 12:14 am IST

The promising U.S.-India partnership that New Delhi and Washington have fostered over more than a decade has sometimes seemed less apparent in the two nations' relationship at the United Nations. Rather, multilateral diplomacy has often highlighted the diverging, not the converging, world views of India and the United States. President Barack Obama's dramatic announcement in New Delhi in November 2010 that the U.S. supports India as an eventual permanent member of the Security Council was a crucial step, but did not of itself narrow the gap between the two in New York. However, there are recent encouraging signs of more convergence; these need to be built upon carefully by both sides to forge a more enduring partnership.

Voting record

The U.S. keeps statistics on coincidence of voting in the General Assembly, and India — like many other countries in the G-77 group — gets low marks on certain issues of high importance to the U.S., especially on Israel and the Middle East, human rights reports, and the embargo on Cuba. In 2010 and 2011, India voted similarly to the U.S. on about 25 and 33 per cent of all recorded votes in the General Assembly, respectively. When the more common consensus votes are included, the U.S. and India are together 85 per cent of the time. During India's current tenure as a rotating, non-permanent member of the Security Council (since January 2011), the two countries' differing perspectives have sometimes been in sharp focus. From a U.S. perspective, India identified itself more with two other contenders for permanent membership — Brazil and South Africa — and, even more troublesome for the U.S., seemed to vote with Russia and China over the U.S./Britain/France bloc on contentious votes. India, like Russia and China, abstained on the March 2010 resolution authorising a no-fly zone over Libya and, like them, believed that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) exceeded the Council's mandate in the following months.

On Syria, though, the record has been mixed. When members of the Council in January 2012 sought to condemn the Syrian regime's attack on its domestic opposition, India pursued the middle ground of abstention and watched Russia and China veto the effort. India then worked to find a compromise, supporting a resolution in early February that, while ruling out foreign military intervention, aligned itself with the West and the Arab League; even that fell to Chinese and Russian vetoes.

Four points of view

The U.S. and India need to work together intensively at the U.N., befitting the “strategic partnership” the two countries are forging. They are already doing so in the Security Council on issues ranging from counterterrorism to anti-piracy policy, to Afghanistan. Improving cooperation on other issues should be achievable, but it will require some creative thinking by both sides, and a willingness to take each other's views into account.

First, the U.S. needs to acknowledge the importance to India of its “strategic autonomy.” The U.S. and India will always have different interests reflecting their geographic, economic, and strategic realities. This will translate into different voting patterns. India wants to hear why it is in its own interest to vote with the Western “bloc.”

Second, the U.S. and India need to communicate regularly in New York. “No surprises” should be the rule. The practice of the Security Council's five permanent members to consult among themselves can mean decisions are made before an issue is discussed with other members of the Council.

Third, multilateral topics should be on the table when our leaders meet in New Delhi and Washington. This June's third meeting of the U.S.-India “Strategic Dialogue,” led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and India's External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, offers an early opportunity to do just that.

Finally, the U.S. and India need to consult more closely on Security Council reform — and not just because the U.S. now supports India's bid for permanent membership.

An expanded Council needs to be large enough to be more representative, but small enough to do business. India, the U.S. and the U.N. would all gain from this outcome.

That said, the U.S. and India both need to take a pragmatic view of Security Council reform. The odds are against this rising to the top of the U.N.'s agenda any time soon. This is no reflection on India. Rather, it is a realisation that Security Council expansion is a Pandora's box that many countries would prefer to keep closed for now. Among the many unresolved issues: China's opposition to Japan's entry as a permanent member, Africa's demand for two permanent seats, dramatic over-representation of Europe if Germany were to achieve its goal of permanent membership, and the role of the veto.

But delay for India certainly does not mean never. As the recently released Non-Alignment 2.0 study by eight Indian foreign policy analysts rightly points out: “India should recognise that time is on its side in this matter. As the structure of global power shifts, India's case inevitably becomes stronger. But India will also, in the interim, have to demonstrate a leadership capacity to propose solutions to and artfully handle some of the difficult challenges facing the world.”

( Karl F. Inderfurth holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S. -India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and is a former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs. Donald A. Camp is a CSIS Senior Associate and former State Department and National Security Council official focusing on South and Central Asia.)

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