Posted by: Jeff | November 9, 2010

Obama Pledges Support to U.N. Reform, India

Buried in the online edition of the Post is a fairly significant story coming back from President Obama’s historic trip to India.  Before leaving the country, Obama stated that he supports India’s hope to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.  On its face, this may seem to be simply a public statement of support to a country the United States is actively trying to woo as a strategic partner in the region.  And it may also seem fairly logical that the largest democratic country in the world perhaps deserves a seat in the deciding body of the world’s chief diplomatic forum.

But beyond its face, this statement is deeply important.  First, it shows that President Obama is willing to stand behind U.N. reform, a deeply contentious issue that has thus far shown little political traction among the five permanent members of the Security Council.  Since its inception in San Francisco at the end of World War II, the U.N. has carried only five permanent members with veto power – the victorious parties of World War II: Great Britain, France, The United States, The Soviet Union (now Russia), and China.  Reform of the Security Council – and a change in its membership – would represent a significant shift in how world power is represented in the U.N.

The United States is actively courting India as an ally in Asia, hoping to counterbalance significant threats to U.S. interests posed by China and Central Asia.  It is therefore clear that the Obama administration would view India as an ally on the Council as well.  However, it is unclear how the addition of India would play out for internal U.N. politics.  The addition of a veto on the Security Council could further impede U.N. action and increase inefficiency in the body.  However, if paired with significant reform – including reform of the all or nothing veto system – the addition of India, and perhaps several other countries (South Africa, Germany, Brazil, and Nigeria also have made claim to permanent membership) could go a long way toward creating a more democratic decision-making body.  The fact that President Obama has openly thrown his weight behind some reform – even if just the addition of India as a permanent member – is fairly significant.

Second, the announcement is significant to the region as a whole.  In a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Robert D. Kaplan argued that the emerging bipolar order in the Eastern hemisphere might not include the United States, but instead be the result of increased economic and defense competition between India and China.  He notes that China is already financing ports in eastern Africa and Pakistan, and that key trade routes are already being laid claim to by both countries.  The United States seeks to affirm itself as India’s ally in competition with China, a position that could tip the balance of power in this economic conflict toward the Indians, even as their economy continues to exhibit signs of growing pains that no longer grip China.

Of course, such open support is not likely to please China, which often views the United States as an obstacle to Chinese hegemony in Asia.  Or Pakistan, for whom India represents an existential threat.  Yes, in engaging India and solidifying a partnership, he may have simultaneously signaled a chilling of relations with China and Pakistan, a country that Obama acknowledged contains terrorist safe havens that helped spawn the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008.

The President has a tricky rope to walk in Asia, as continued operations in Afghanistan depend on Pakistani cooperation, and economic cooperation with China is a strategic goal for the whole region.  Yet if his trip to India represents a tell in long-term U.S. strategy, then it would seem that the U.S. is betting on its fellow democracy in India.

And in the end, if the effect Obama was hoping to achieve was a stronger partnership with India, it looks on first blush as if he’s achieved it:

On the eve of his arrival three days ago, many Indians believed Obama placed their interests behind those of its regional rivals. Few Indians hold the same opinion as he leaves.

With the geopolitical fallout left to be seen, it sounds like this is the promising beginning of a strategic alliance that could help shape an emerging world order.

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Responses

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