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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

On the UNSC Seat (Written for MeLawnge 2011)


            As a cynic­­, one finds it highly amusing to see various arguments taken to support India's claim to a permanent seat on the Security Council. (Of course, as a cynic, one finds most things amusing). What is funny about these many, many propositions is their remarkably self-delusional nature, and consequently their tendency to miss the mark completely.

            The most common thread of reasoning speaks about the growing influence of India on world affairs; another popular angle to take is the non-representative nature of the UN SC as it stands today. This writer does not mean to suggest that neither of these propositions has substance - they do, if not to the extent that patriotism would dispose us to believe. What these - and most other arguments - lack, however, is an understanding of realpolitik.

            It is typical of the pious Indian mindset to suggest that our request is somehow intended to right a greater wrong, and that though we do not especially desire it we will take up this task if it is offered, in the greater interests of humanity, etc. The bare fact, though, is that our demand is one for power, and we ought to own up to it. For those who disagree, please consider: the UN SC could be expanded and made more representative by giving India and some other countries a permanent seat, but without the veto. Do we still want the seat?

            The crux of the debate is not ‘permanent representation’, but the power to block multilateral action against oneself or one's allies (which is really all that the veto ever was or will be). When one frames the question that forms the topic of this article - does India deserve a permanent seat, that is, a veto – it is hard to think of a reason why.

            The rationale behind the Veto, considering that it is a highly discriminatory and unequal power, must be understood in the backdrop of the formation of the UN itself. The year was 1945, the Second Great War had just come to an end, and even as FDR & Churchill (amongst others) struggled to create a structure that could guard against the recurrence of such global conflicts, the changed reality of the post-WWII world had to be acknowledged. To the victor go the spoils - and in 1945, a veto power on the UN SC was very much part of the spoils.

            That is, of course, the cynical interpretation. A more charitable statesman, say, for instance Woodrow Wilson – having experienced the collapse of the League of Nations, and the horrors of the Great War that followed that failure - would not think of it thus. To his mind, it would be essential to make the UN SC was both effective and credible. What the SC mandated must happen. What the SC forbade must not. This state of affairs could never be established if even one of the 'P-5' defied the council - so it was better to simply make no statement that they would not follow. Equally, it was true that a statement made with the backing of those 5 nations could not be resisted by any country. The veto thus ensured the credibility of the UN SC, by making sure its words were understood to carry the conjoint authority of every great power in the world.

            If we apply Wilson's logic today, the veto has lost much of its purpose. For starters, there are no Great Powers anymore - even USA & The People's Republic of China, with the best claim to that title - find themselves challenged and even held accountable in various situations and fora. Nonetheless, one could still say that - if only for financial reasons - it is immensely difficult for the UN to implement something when USA or PRC oppose it. They are, broadly, still entitled to the veto-to-ensure-credibility.

            The other 3 'P-5' nations have no such claim. The co-operation of the USSR meant the difference between success and failure in the Cold War era, but the co-operation of the Russian Federation means little to the world at large (just to Georgia & Ukraine). The Russian government is reduced to haggling over the price of obsolete equipment with India – a far cry from pre-1991 Soviet power. The United Kingdom's opinion is hardly respected even in Europe, perhaps because of their persistent cribbing over the Euro and economic integration. (Although given the fallout from the EuroZone debt crisis, who is to say theirs was not the wiser choice?) France - in any case historically the least likely to invoke the veto - is almost stereotypically moderate on practically every issue (excluding Algeria, and the consequences of having a large Algerian Muslim population). Their co-operation is practically taken for granted, and they rarely even bargain for benefits for extending it – perhaps because if they tried, other nations would simply move on without them, and their understanding of realpolitik has been almost thoroughly flawless (again, with the exception of Algeria). President Bush, for all his flaws, demonstrated conclusively the limits of the French ability to impact world affairs.

            Although this would seem to create 3 'slots' for new 'veto powers', it is rather difficult to see how any of the nations pitching for the place deserve it. Remember, the test is that their co-operation is indispensible for the UN SC to take effective action. Brazil, India, Germany, South Africa, Japan - the front runners for these new seats - do not, in isolation, command substantially more power than the UK, France or Russia today.

            What, then, is the solution? This writer would like to suggest that it is to remain true to the concept of the veto, and grant it only to nations whose involvement is indispensible. The third candidate after the US & PRC is the EU, and it is high time we saw a single EU seat on the UN SC. It could be held by rotation by UK, France & Germany, and each would have to consult the others prior to a vote. Differences would mean an abstention. Along the same lines, one would expect a pan-Asian seat held between India, Russia & Japan and a 'global South' seat held by Brazil & South Africa.

The reason this system remains true to the veto is that a concerted refusal by the leading nations of any continent - Europe, Asia or South America & Africa - will indeed make implementation of any measure very difficult, even if only on financial grounds. This is not unlike the 'group-veto' compromise solution that was suggested as a condition for permanent membership for India, Japan, Brazil & South Africa, but has the twin advantages of not creating an additional tier of power, and of maintaining the SC at its current size. (Both of these are important factors - an executive body cannot afford to be too large, or it loses efficiency. Three levels of member countries would be confusing, with much the same effect.) It is also the only proposed solution which reconfigures the Council to be truly representative of the realities of today's world.

            Needless to say, it is unpopular with every single stakeholder. If proposed, it will undoubtedly get vetoed.

Good thing we cynics can find our amusement anywhere.

Note: This article appeared in the 2011 edition of the Government Law College Annual Magazine, MeLawnge. Word limits prevented factoring in of military / strategic power - a suggestion from my father (an ex-Navy man) that I otherwise intended to incorporate.

Nonetheless, I believe that if one takes into account not merely military strength but also projection capacity (to say nothing of proclivity), the trend in the analysis above will still be supported. If India actually managed to mobilise a 'Blue Water' Navy, that could change, but in an environment where every defense acquisition - already prone to delay & cost overruns - is treated with extreme suspicion, prompting even more delay, this remains a remote (though by no means implausible) prospect.

It would, however, require a realignment of policy & finances to that end. Which in turn would need our government to remember Nehru's dictum to the Navy (in one of his rare moments of realism) - "To be secure on land, we must be supreme at sea."

One could as easily have said, to be secure in the world.

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