Should we be so much DESPO for the UNSC permanent membership

India's peaceful rise deserves more focus and attention currently than gaining UNSC power, writes N.V.Subramanian.

London, 17 November 2010:

Somewhere, India gives the impression that it has subsumed its great-power ambitions to its quest for permanent membership in the UN Security Council (UNSC). It is a dangerous case of misplaced priorities. The order should be reversed. Or else India will suffer setbacks on both great-power and UNSC permanent membership ambitions. The reasoning is as follows. UNSC permanent membership since it came into being has been a benchmark for state power. De-colonization, the end of the Cold War and globalization have degraded the power status of all the permanent members bar China. 

In small or big or irreversible ways, the US, Russia, France and the UK are declining. Only China or more accurately the Peoples' Republic (PRC) has risen in this duration. 

PRC replaced Taiwan as a veto power in the early seventies reflecting Cold War realities. The veto powers are also NPT-designated nuclear weapons' states. India was offered Taiwan's permanent membership but reportedly Jawaharlal Nehru declined it in favour of PRC possibly to win its friendship. China reciprocated by aggressing against India in nineteen sixty-two. 

Relations between India and China have remained hostile since despite growing trade relations. To aid its rise and fuel its Middle-Kingdom ambitions, China has protected allied pariah states and regimes, including Burma, North Korea, Sudan and Pakistan, by abusing its UNSC power. Seeing the China example, India has invested new virtue and espies vast opportunities in a UNSC permanent membership. 

There are mutterings against Nehru for spurning the fifties' offer of veto power. Surely, there are huge advantages of permanent membership. This is why India ardently has been pressing for it since the previous US president, George W.Bush, offered both the nuclear deal and to make India a great power. 

During his recent visit, president Barack Obama finally supported India's UNSC ambitions with the rider to move on Burma  and to shoulder other international "responsibilities". Even if the tenor of Obama's qualified support was shrill, the substance of it was not off-the-mark. With power comes responsibility. Is India ready to take positions internationally that may conflict with its national interests? This question would never arise if India had reversed its priorities, that is, putting its great-power ambitions ahead of its quest for UNSC permanent membership, making that quest open-ended and hardly a life-and-death matter as it appears to have become today. The fact is that all the veto powers have pulled their weight and/ or made sacrifices in one or another phase of history to justify their gained positions. Because they have come to the UN Security Council from a position of strength, either separately or in an alliance, they have been able to set the agenda. The agenda often hasn't been very agreeable and frequently disastrously discordant. This is why there is so much clamour for reforms. But even a reformed United Nations and UNSC will set agendas not uniformly acceptable, and India will be involved in agenda-making if it becomes a veto power. Now does it make sense for India to be like the older powers that set their own agendas or to succumb to an agenda-making process where its own interests are compromised?

Naturally, it makes sense to be like the older powers, which means, India has to pull its own weight to become a UNSC permanent member. What does "pulling weight" mean? Simply this. India must have all-round economic, political, military and cultural heft to become an influential, transformative and unstoppable world power. 

The fact that Obama endorsed India's UNSC ambitions means India has got the game so far right. But there is a long way to go. The stark reality is that India is rising while the older powers are in decline. But the rise is still not powerful enough to make India an "influential, transformative, unstoppable world power". Short of that, India will lose more by getting permanently into the UN Security Council than by remaining outside it. Indeed, it may be argued that India will decline if it prematurely becomes a UNSC power. To this writer at least, the road map is clear. India's energies largely must be directed to becoming an "influential, transformative, unstoppable world power". 

India should be able to impose its peace  without formal membership in the league of great powers. The membership will come by invitation in short course. This is not to suggest India should abandon diplomacy to win UNSC power soon. But any show of desperation will backfire, particularly with a staunch foe as China. (Its recently expressed willingness to "increase consultations and communications with India" on the UNSC issue should be taken with a pinch of salt.) India should lower the UNSC stakes and more fully focus on its "peaceful rise". 

As with individuals, so with states: It is mostly about influencing and all about winning. 

N.V.Subramanian is Editor,, and writes internationally on strategic affairs. He has authored two novels, University of Love (Writers Workshop, Calcutta) and Courtesan of Storms (Har-Anand, Delhi). Email:

Source- The Public Affairs Magazine 

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