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India’s Entry into UNSC: A Brighter Prospect of World Peace or a Dream Half-Realised

At the outset, let us feel happy that once again India is going to be elected on June 17th, 2020 by the General Assembly to one its main organs, the Security Council and she will working as a non-permanent member of this very prestigious body. While saying so, we are not basking in the feel of complacency but rather it signifies more responsibility and sense of maturity that this new role might bring to bear upon India’s performance and negotiating style. As Aparna Pande aptly commented ‘India could emerge stronger but for that, Indians will have to shed the complacency that comes from believing that the nation’s long history makes its rise inevitable’ (The Print/8thJune 2020). Obviously, our immediate reference point at the present juncture is the COVID-19 pandemic which has brought a sea change in the conceptualization of security as sophisticated defence mechanisms across national borders have become docile apparatus, thus virtually rendering us defenceless. It is worth noting that notable American linguist Noam Chomsky has been championing the cause of a world free from the looming threat of nuclear devastation. Going a step further the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres via an online press conference organised around mid-May 2020 made it amply clear that the novel coronavirus pandemic is now the world’s top priority to deal with urgency and utmost solidarity. Even after the pale of the gloom will recede the long-term challenge before our policy-makers would be to work for reviving the economy and strengthening our institutions without catchy populist postures. Yes, India has a huge potential with an advanced civil society, a robust scientific and technological community, a burgeoning professional middle class offering an all-weather market and also a great altruistic mind that reaches out to far-off shores of corona-infected countries with humanitarian and disaster relief operations, some of which we have seen during the ongoing pandemic.

However, the point is where do we stand and what geopolitical challenges are emanating from the ground realities because on one hand, China has become more predatory with intermittent land boundary transgressions and on the other hand, the American moves are equally provocative and the Russians are steadily expanding their military influence in the middle east and north Africa by taking advantage of the crisis situation which as a whole serves to sharpen the alarm signal with a premonition that such escalation of tension at different geopolitical spots might cause a serious diversion from united universal fight necessitated by the lethal COVID-19 virus.  Given such a challenging scenario we are not naïve to understand the importance of the global role such body could help us to foist because the global scene demands pro-active intervention not by any single state which would simply be beyond its capacity to put things in proper shape but what we need more than that is a series of measures on the basis of collective consensus. But how far it will be possible to arrive at a consensus approach is a matter of tricky conjecture because of the ongoing war of words between the US, the World Health Organization (WHO) and China as to the origin of the virus which the US President Donald Trump was harping till some days ago. The intent of this malicious propaganda was to virtually ostracize Beijing in the international realm while China almost undeterred by any such campaign was increasingly becoming over-ambitious as if projecting itself as synonymous with Asia itself. So the future dynamics of unfolding world politics, it seems, might not undergo any fundamental course-correction or radical shift, rather the challenges to security might increase and intensify with continuous mud-slinging power game in which military power will remain “the ultima ratio of international politics”. In this context, the credibility of India’s cautious role-playing would depend upon how she manages to stick around a sort of benign balancing approach. Similarly, it is also important to see how she engages candidly to restore the primacy of multilateral institutions like the UNSC.

With these preliminary observations in mind let us shed some light on the context of the emergence of the unparalleled organization of the UNO and its pivotal organ Security Council. After World War I, people around the world felt the necessity of a world organization charged with the task of maintaining peace between the warring nations and the League of Nations was the outcome of that realization. Surprisingly it was noticed that nations were not willing to give up the Hobbesian law of the jungle. That was why, whenever there was opposition to the expansionist designs of any nation it either ignored the mandate of the League or ostentatiously walked out of it. In the past, Germany, Japan and Italy behaved in that vainglorious fashion. On the other hand, England and France thought that a resurgent Germany and a powerful Japan would be an effective check on ambitious Soviet Russia. But the result of this selfish policy was World War II. At the closing of this second catastrophe the minds of the statesmen again turned towards evolving a more resilient world organization that would be able to avoid the defects of the League and establish peace on the basis of mutual understanding and harmonization of interests. Thus UNO was created and it was inaugurated on 24th October 1945. One of the remarkable features of the UNO is its tremendous ability to revert back with a fresh start in the post-Cold War era and gradual expansion of its membership and proliferation of responsibilities which encompass its functions today in multiple domains inter alia from peace and security to providing electoral assistance, democracy promotion, poverty reduction, rendering humanitarian assistance, refugee rehabilitation, helping local capacity building, climate negotiations to ‘emphasizing investment for sustainable development’. All these actually make us little optimistic about a more constructive and vibrant world body willing to fulfill its mission in a satisfactory manner.  

Of the six main organs of the UNO Security Council is regarded as the most important organ for its powers pertaining to security and peace, hence it is one of the most talked-about highest-powered bodies in the world. The working of the Council is recorded in 10 Articles (23 – 32). The Council may meet at any time. The size of the Council as a quick decision making authority and most efficient institution is very small. The Council initially made up of representatives of 11 States is headed by five permanent members viz. America, Britain, France, Soviet Union, (presently Russia), and China. Other temporary members are elected from the general meeting for a term of two years. Later the number of non-permanent members was increased to 10. The position of the Chairperson of the UNSC is rotated among the members in alphabetical order of the names of states every month. Important decisions are made in the UNSC based on the consensus of the five great powers. Punishment for breach of peace requires the consent of the five great powers. Obviously, no great power has been punished so far for such deviant behavior.

But the point is what the definition of great power is. By quoting Kenneth Waltz Nuno P. Monteiro of Yale University says that “a great power must possess ample capabilities in all dimensions of power including territory, population, resources, economic robustness, political stability, political and technological competence, and military strength”(Monteiro  2014). However, according to Monteiro, since “military power is the ultima ratio of international politics, great powers must, in addition to having robust capabilities in all other elements of power, possess military capabilities on a par with the most powerful state(s) in the system. A state whose military power is grossly outmatched by others should not be called a great power”. In this respect, India, of course, is not a great power relative to China. This is despite the 6 percent hike in India’s defence budget from Rs 3.18 lakh crore in the year 2019 to Rs 3.37 lakh crore in 2020. Why China because India, according to J N Nair, a senior fellow (Defence and Military Analysis) at CPPR, perceives China as the main adversary in defence preparedness. He draws a parallel with the Chinese side and opines that increasing the “outlay of India’s defence is not enough to catch up with China which spends on defence more than triple the amount being spent by India. Beijing’s defence budget was US$ 249.9 bn in 2019, while India was at US$ 62 bn”.  

On the other hand, Manjeet Pardesi provides some key qualifications for earning the recognition of great power. These include “security-related and economic interests outside a home region, requisite capabilities and demand for the status to be accepted by other great powers and regional states.” Pardesi believes that India is already a great power since ‘it meets these requirements in South and Southeast Asia’. However, this claim has been plainly negated by Bharat Karnad in his book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power Yet? (OUP  2015) He has posited some of the prerequisites to earn great power status including driving vision, a sense of national destiny, clearly defined national interests, the willingness of the country to employ coercion and force as the means to achieve its interests, and the use of hard as well as soft power. He surmises that although all of these accord India global recognition, still if it is worthy to elevate India to the level of major power status. Rather he opines that India is ‘a middling power of little real consequence’.

However, coming back to the point of the main criterion to be qualified as a major power in the UNSC is the power of ‘Veto’ which is the prerogative of the Big Five. In the case of voting, the value of the vote is the same, but the UNSC’s decision may be overturned by the opposition of any of the Big Five, which may be against the two types of decision-making processes – procedural & substantive. Therefore, any proposal – procedural or substantive – can be hindered in this way. If raised later in the substantive form, it may be obstructed again, which is called ‘double veto’. However, due to differences in power in the international system, the application of this ‘veto’ is undermining the apparent balance of members and the effectiveness of the UNSC. Obviously, the UNSC has not been able to fully fulfill its responsibility to maintain peace and security in the world, especially during the long-drawn-out Cold War years.  But there is reason to feel optimistic about the ultimate success of the Security Council in fostering peace and goodwill among nations. More than 70 years have now passed since the UNSC was founded, and nations are coming nearer to each other in the wake of globalization and are better able to face the problems before them deftly. Instead of deepening distrust and rancor, nations are developing a spirit of reasonableness that is an auspicious augury for the future.

India’s inclusion in the UNSC as a non-permanent member seems to be a golden opportunity on the part of India to accelerate and showcase constructive multilateral negotiations at a time when great powers like the United States, Russia, China are all playing unilateralist ball-game and that too in a quite discordant fashion that has the potential to disrupt the “liberal international order” that America had induced and pursued so long to create. Of course, we don’t expect India to play a second fiddle to the American goal and put her diplomatic resources to fight against the depredations intentionally caused by Russia or China. But then Russian behavior “to revise the post-Cold War settlement in Europe by force and intimidation” and China’s sabre-rattling vis-à-vis South China Sea neighbours like Vietnam are clear signs of assault on the viability of the UNSC because unless checked such signals could open up the Pandora’s box of many destabilizing forces. So, India’s role might be very critical and crucial because she has to ponder over the point as suggested by Douglas W. Elmendorf, dean of the prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University that “the solution is not to throw out the liberal order”. The underlying suggestion is that the liberal model along with democracy and economic growth could benefit more people rather than the path of authoritarianism. So far so good but of late the problem is that now the shock comes from America itself because American behavior is replicating what is called “Thucydides’ trap”. In short, the rise of China is provoking the United States to react in panicky fashion. In these circumstances, India’s role should be one of a balancer and responsible power. And it would not be a difficult project for India because Indian diplomats are very seasoned and adroit as evident from the legacy of this elite service. Of course, some issues of immediate concern like Kashmir issue or the situation in Afghanistan might crop up to cause some unease to India but on the whole, we expect that India will play each ball with confident half-volley pose and overall, she would rally herself progressively towards broader issues like Palestine instead of irking China on the question of Taiwan.

India’s South block is recently undergoing a discernible shift in its external policy with regard to the articulation of self-identity, institutional overhaul, proper co-ordination with different domains, the outlook to both domestic and international scenario particularly as to big power holders like America, China and calibration with resource geopolitics and strategic vision into the future. The point to be noted is that amidst these changes India is going to join UNSC as a non-permanent member on the 17th instant. That news is extremely glorious, timely and significant. The 10 seats for non-permanent members at the UNSC are divided into various regional groups and “India is running for the seat from the Asia-Pacific group, which will be vacated by Indonesia”. It is to be noted that India’s victory is almost secured because the seat has not been contested by any of the other countries from the region and this is a big story indeed because under the UN election rules for principal organs it would need to get a minimum of 129 votes to be declared successful if all 193 UN members take part in the voting. However, due to the current pandemic, this election scheduled to take place under extraordinary conditions has already evoked worldwide attention.

If elected, it would be India’s eighth tenure at the Security Council as a non-permanent member, the latest term being 2011-12. So, it is after a long gap that India is coming back. According to some experts “India’s reluctance to go for a temporary seat when its real goal was a permanent one” can be inferred from this long gap. However, prima facie, India’s election could pose a serious challenge for Pakistan and moreover, it is likely to infuriate China. But without thinking much of probable obstructions India should leave no stone unturned to uphold a broad global perspective to demonstrate cogency of her vision because only then her credibility could be augmented and might be in near future her long-term aspiration to acquire the permanent membership fulfilled based on her persistent benign activism.

Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag
Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag
Author is Professor of Political Science at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, W.B & Coordinator of the Atish Dipankar Srij'nan Centre for South Asian Studies, S-K-B University, W.B, India.
Dr. Manas Mukul Bandyopadhay
Dr. Manas Mukul Bandyopadhay
Author is Associate Professor at PG Department of Political Science, Hooghly Mohsin College, W.B, India.

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