Mr. Modi: UN Permanent Membership is not a Big Deal Anymore

In 1998 when Germany attempted to push the United Nations General Assembly for a vote…

In 1998 when Germany attempted to push the United Nations General Assembly for a vote on new permanent members, Italy’s ambassador Francesco Fulci managed to scuttle the move, saying his country had an equal right to such a position because “after all Italy too had lost World War II”.

Fulci’s sarcasm is a pointer to the global rivalries that are checkmating attempts at expanding the UN Security Council’s permanent membership from the current five or P5 – China, France, Russia, the UK and US.

Reports in the Indian media that Russia betrayed India are the result of the imagination of misinformed journalists who also lack a basic grasp of geopolitics.

Russia – like most large nations – has few friends in its neighbourhood. If Germany and Japan – both American allies – become permanent members at the Security Council, they are likely to create more headaches for Moscow.

Russia is only protecting its interests as any self-respecting country is entitled to. Those expecting India to be a shoo-in to the UN’s inner sanctum are only delusional. If anyone has betrayed India, it is its own elites, which we will come to in a moment.

On its own, India had a remote chance at permanent membership, but it was lost when it formed the Group of Four or G4 with Japan, Germany and Brazil. These three countries face much stronger opposition around the world than India.

China, for instance, is paranoid about any proposal that allows permanent membership for Japan. Even if it settles its old disputes with India, Beijing cannot overcome the fear of its ancient enemy.

Japan also faces Russian opposition. Again, France, Russia and the US don’t share Germany’s enthusiasm for inclusion. The US continues to be spooked by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour.

And the US, UK and France are certainly not keen to see European strength diluted by more Asian, African and South American members.

It gets more complicated at the regional level. In a paper titled ‘The Reform of the Security Council of the United Nations: Why Still an Open Question’ for the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies,(https://www.um.edu.mt/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/194234/Amb._Francesco_Paolo_Fulci_MedAgenda.pdf) ambassador Fulci writes: “In Asia, countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and South Korea are adamantly opposed to a virtual hegemony of India and Japan. In Latin America, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia harbour similar feelings toward Brazil. In Europe, and more broadly in the western group, countries such as Italy, Spain, Canada and Turkey strongly reject the idea of being ‘downgraded’ and marginalised not only vis-à-vis France and the UK, as already happens, but also with respect to Germany.

Beggars Can’t be Choosers

It’s demeaning that economic powerhouses like Germany, Japan and India need to beg for permanent membership. Such shameful supplication is taking place even as these countries are playing prominent roles in bodies such as the G-20, APEC and BRICS, which are more effective at shaping the world’s future.

Any self-respecting Indian would cringe at news that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought support for India’s permanent membership from such geopolitical heavyweights as Ireland and the UAE. Apart from the fact that India has repeatedly fallen short of the required numbers at the UN, don’t Indian diplomats realise both Ireland and the UAE are close allies of the US? Will Modi beseech Somalia next?

Ramesh Thakur

Ramesh Thakur, former UN Assistant Secretary-General, writes (http://thewire.in/2015/09/25/those-who-beg-do-not-deserve-permanent-membership-of-the-security-council-11554/) about India’s amateurish foreign policy in The Wire: “It happens with distressing frequency: the Indian political and foreign service elite loves to get a sound-bite on the matter from every single visiting dignitary, no matter how irrelevant – for this purpose – his or her country may be. And the mainstream media dutifully reports it as an indicator of India’s global standing. In reality, it just confirms to all serious observers of global affairs that at heart India retains a supplicant mentality, except that the begging bowl has changed from requests for financial aid to affirmations of status.

According to Thakur, a distinctive pathology of Indian foreign policy is that “it is typically aspirational without being programmatic”.

Thakur offers a solution to this geopolitical Gordian Knot: “To begin with, the G4 should refuse to take part in the elections to the non-permanent seats. By participating in the process and taking two-year turns as elected members, they effectively legitimise the Security Council as currently structured. Conversely, the likes of all four of them not serving on the Council for a decade or more would thoroughly delegitimize it.

The G-4 should then refuse to contribute troops, civilian personnel or funds for UN operations. “They should let others provide the necessary personnel and, since peacekeeping operations are funded by voluntary contributions, they should refuse to volunteer any funds. Where the US has led in showing the effectiveness of purse diplomacy, they should follow,” Thakur says.

Since India has been one of the largest contributors – 180,000 troops since 1950 – and has lost more soldiers (157) in UN operations than any other country, India’s absence will be felt.

According to Thakur, such steps will “throw a monkey wrench in the UN system”, forcing the UN’s five permanent members or P5 to “tackle the thorny issue instead of the preferred posture of permanent procrastination”.

Is it Worth It?

The moot question is should India aspire for permanent membership in an organisation where – to use the words of George Orwell in Animal Farm – “all animals are equals but some animals are more equal”?

The Permanent Five have behaved and continue to behave in ways that suggest that they see the power that they hold as rightful and free, to be exercised by them in whatever manner they choose,” writes Richard Butler of the Penn State University School of International Affairs in a paper titled ‘Reform of the United Nations Security Council’. (http://elibrary.law.psu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=jlia)

The notion that this power was given to them, over strenuous objections, but for the reason of the good that it might do in preserving the peace, has been substantially replaced by the idea that they have a power that they can use to protect and extend their own individual national interests. This selfish outlook is often not consistent with the purposes and principles of the (UN) Charter.”

While India has got its priorities wrong, it is nevertheless true it has a better claim to permanent membership than either the UK or France.According to Butler, “There is no longer a reason for the UK and France to have permanent membership in their own right, unless of course membership in the UN is based on the continuation of the Battle of Agincourt of 1452.”

Neither France nor the UK deserves to be in the P5. French influence is down to a last few pockets in Africa. As for the UK, it can’t fight a war without big brother America providing protection.

India: Lost Opportunities

But does India deserve permanent membership? The country’s political leadership must realise that their primary – and only – duty is to place India’s interests foremost. But they suck at this simple task.

Nehru with Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin

In 1955,India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declined an offer by Russian Premier Nikolai Bulganin to accept a permanent seat in the Security Council. Nehru had suggested that the seat, till then held by Taiwan, be offered to China instead.

S. Gopal writes in ‘Jawaharlal Nehru – Vol II’: “He rejected the Soviet offer to propose India as the sixth permanent member of the Security Council and insisted that priority be given to China’s admission to the UN.

In a paper titled ‘Not at the Cost of China’, (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/not-the-cost-china-india-and-the-united-nations-security-council-1950#sthash.d9psQcIG.dpuf) Anton Harder of the Wilson Center writes that Nehru lied in Parliament about the offer of a permanent seat. “Despite Nehru’s denial then, and online debates now, the 1955 offer from the Soviets is in fact well-documented, although perhaps not widely known.”

Before Bulganin’s offer, the US had in 1950 suggested that India take China’s place in the P5. But Nehru rejected the offer, saying, “It would be a clear affront to China and it would mean some kind of a break between us and China. I suppose the State Department would not like that, but we have no intention of following that course. We shall go on pressing for China’s admission in the UN and the Security Council…. India because of many factors is certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the Security Council. But we are not going in at the cost of China.

Nehru’s misplaced magnanimity is haunting India to this day.What Modi is campaigning for now is what Nehru and his acolytes lost six decades ago. Clearly, India has been betrayed by its own elites and no one else.

Instead of angling for a permanent seat, Modi should concentrate on his vision of making India a $20 trillion economy. That matters more than rubbing shoulders with spent powers like the UK and France in a comatose UN.

Rakesh is a journalist at New Zealand’s leading media house. He mostly writes on defence and foreign affairs.
His articles have been quoted extensively by universities and in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south; and by international defence journals.
Rakesh’s work has been cited by leading think tanks and organisations that include the Naval Postgraduate School, California; US Army War College, Pennsylvania; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; State University of New Jersey; Institute of International and Strategic Relations, Paris; BBC Vietnam; Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk; Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; Institute for Defense Analyses, Virginia; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Washington DC; Stimson Centre, Washington DC; Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia; and Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy, Berlin.
His articles have been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, Warsaw; and the Research Institute for European and American Studies, Greece, among others.
  • m.v.goray

    All these years we wanted a permanent seat in the U.N.But now when a BJP Prime Minister tries for it……!!

  • N.Paramasivam

    Injustice done by
    Nehru to India, are endless. Heart burning.

  • gk

    Very good article. UN is losing relevance, how the world powers would behave in the new geopolitical scenario is not clear yet. So we must not discount any alternatives.

  • Dr. MS

    Well written and to the point Simha.

    UN itself has become a behemoth without a teeth or a muscle. It was set up as “a League of Nations” to stop conflicts from escalating and becoming a regional war, or Word Wars. The number of regional conflicts, and civil wars, have continued, and have even increased in some parts of the world. All the effort to improve economies, so “wars do not become employment, though expendable, for the poor, and exploitative profits for the rich”, have also not been that successful.

    For the number of meetings, conferences and shoddy research that UN does, on socio-economic issues, the number of problems it has successfully solved are quite low. And the PM of UN (Permanent Members of the United Nations) have played more geo-politics than solving economic, social and political problems to help improve economies and/or to decrease disputes across regions.

    Do we need, like BRICS, an alternative to the UN? Is it even possible?

    And Indians need to stop treating UAE as anything important or meaningful in international affairs. It is a region with petrodollars with high rises.

    And UK and France may do well to actually vacate its seat from the Security Council as former imperial powers that have not been very “democratic or egalitarian”, and have not adequately compensated their victims around the world.

    PM Nehru was being gentlemanly when he gave the seat to China, though it was short sighted in hindsight. In this case, I beg to differ with Mr. Simha, Nehru was not being an elitist as much as a naive man of honor.

    Let UK do the gentlemanly thing and suggest India take its place. That would indeed be most appropriate, and most honorable thing to do for a former imperial power.

  • RahulBhai

    Modi is absolutely correct. Think about it – Saudi Arabia is now the head of the UN Human Rights Commission.

    Saudi. Arabia.

    The same Saudi Arabia that is currently genociding the Shia Houthis of Yemen.

    The UN is an absolute joke. Expect it to go the way of the League of Nations. Modi has far more important things to think about – foreign and domestic – than the UN.

  • Subramaniam Narasimhan

    Dear Sir,

    It was a good commentary on the UNSC. As the Author and many correspondents have pointed out, India will serve itself well by focusing on matters of national interests rather than wasting its time on a goal that is being constantly shifted by countries inimical to our interests.

    At this time, it appears that UNSC is beyond our reach.

    On the domestic front, by all accounts, the villain happens to be J. Nehru who followed a very dubious pro-China policy till late in his life.

    After all these, it makes one wonder why we still call J. Nehru a patriot, statesman, sage, diplomat-par-excellence, visionary, father’s brother and everything that is dear to one.

    In any other country, including in his beloved USSR and PRC, such a leader would have faced sedition charges leading to disgrace and possible incarceration and certain removal from all public institutions even posthumously. The Indus Valley Treaty and the debacle of 1962 were fit and sufficient causes for his removal from political office and banishment from public life. His actions force one to come to the inevitable and vexing conclusion that he was indeed an ‘invader from inside’.

    It is also high time we assessed the honesty and intentions of the great soul and the leadership who imposed J.Nehru at the helm of the affairs of the State. Were they not with him for decades and were they not aware of his character and his proclivities? Why did they proceed with that unfortunate decision in 1947?

  • JK

    No other country on planet has more talent then India then why our PM has to go and ask for business from US?

    Anyhow for there survival they will have to come to India hunting for talent!

    We Indians want our country to be seen with proud and respect but our PM goes and hugging bugging with USwala’s!

    PM should maintain some dignity and it should not be lowered just by seeing Obama!

  • JK

    “Since India has been one of the largest contributors – 180,000 troops since 1950 – and has lost more soldiers (157) in UN operations than any other country, India’s absence will be felt.”

    Without getting permanent seat in UNSC India has sent 180000 troops since 1950 what if India gets UNSC membership?

    Do we want to see all Indians guarding different countries across world?

    When NDA-1 did Pokran test JAPAN was the very 1st country to impose sanction on India did China imposed any such thing that we need to hate them what non sense that we Indians and Political class LOVE JAPAN I don’t understand?

  • Fantastic post and very well explained, Modi should be focusing on making India a super power without boot licking any of these anti India powers

  • RajivChandran

    Though I immensely respect the author – I find it difficult to agree completely with the article – except the part about the ineptness about the country’s political leadership regarding its primary duties.
    Power once obtained is only reluctantly ceded by the wielder. This is what is happening in the UNSC too. Despite public professions about the need to dilute Europe’s strength by US, UK & France – the fact remains that these countries are the primary representatives of what is known as the ‘west’ in the UNSC. As the pre-eminent power of the world it is unlikely in the world of realpolitik that these countries would seek to cede power. In fact thier actions are representative of the absolute opposite – obfuscation and avoidance of debate and reluctance to bring about any meaningful change. The same is true for China and Russia as well.

    The article on one hand argues about the worthlessness of UNSC permanent membership – and then incomprehensibly goes ahead to argue how blackmail (through non-cooperation) could work for the P-4.

    Worthless or not UNSC continues to be a platform where ‘superpowers’ use thier influence to shape the world. In this context it is important that India too have a voice in the high table (and not be denied powers that accrue to lesser powers viz UK and France). In short UNSC is important for India to have parity (even though nominal) with leading powers of the world. Any and all means available should be employed in order to achieve that objective.

  • Sumathi Megavarnam

    Day in day out We hear the in efficiencies of Nehru…it is Very sad that having suffered so much at the hands of Invaders….We have been made to suffer further till date at the hands of another traitor(yes coz everything that he has done is against the interests of the nation)….UN relevant or not today , is a different question, Sitting on a High pedestal is very much important (as on date UN is regarded high despite its uselessness ) the clout is only important & needed for us, nothing else matters…..

  • Vivek

    Got to know many new things on UN Permanent Seat in a very simpler manner.

  • Krispy K

    Given the desperate need for completely overhauling the geopolitical status quo, with the objective of achieving global primacy of Indian values, ultimately I have long wanted to see India withdraw from the UN completely. There is little point in continuing to indulge a system that does little for us, but every reason to work towards replacing it with something better that is not largely hamstrung by the self-interest of the P5.

    But then perhaps the reasons that underpin India’s continued membership of the Commonwealth (which should have been discarded long ago) continue to have an influence here.

  • vamsi krishna

    Well written. The relevance of security council is only to bully small powers. India should keep itself off form spending significant diplomatic energy and concentrate on building economy and its concomitant military power.

    • Krispy K

      Absolutely. Our objective should be to regain top spot where the economy is concerned, and the military should be given everything they need to ensure that we can enforce our interests whenever and wherever we choose. But I think Modi has always understood this very well.