The Elusive Horseshoe Table

Each time an Indian dignitary goes abroad or a foreign dignitary visits India, both sides scramble for a formulation on India’s candidature for permanent membership of the Security Council which pleases India, without moving it any closer to its diplomatic Holy Grail. If China or the US is involved, the excitement is even higher, but new formulations are crafted like old wine in new bottle. The substance is the same, but the presentation is appealing and open to different interpretations. The tantalizing horseshoe table of the Security Council at the UN remains elusive for India except for an occasional rendezvous for two years. The net result of our 35-year campaign is that we are elected less often these days than before, despite the increased geopolitical and economic importance of India.


President Obama thought that he was giving the next best thing to India after the nuclear deal when he declared in the Indian Parliament in 2010, “In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.” But it had no substance, except for the fact that the US had not said anything similar ever before. The futuristic and conditional formulation had no practical meaning. What was worse, news leaked that the US intelligence agencies were keeping a watch on India’s activities in the UN with regard to Security Council reform. Unless the US makes a proposal to build a consensus in favour of a particular package for expansion, no kind of verbal support has any meaning. The reality is that there is no particular package, including the latest proposal by Kofi Annan and Gro Brundtland, which can enjoy the support of the two third majority of the General Assembly, including the support of the permanent members.


Barack Obama did not raise the quality of his support for India as a permanent member during his visit this year, in spite of the bonhomie between him and Narendra Modi. He used the 2010 formulation in different ways and the message was loud and clear that the US was not ready for Security Council reform as yet. “I reiterated -- and reiterate to the Indian people today -- that we support a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.  At the same time, we see India playing a greater role in ensuring international security and peace and meeting shared challenges,” he said. 


The Chinese position also stood still during Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Beijing, though a section of the Indian media made it out as though there was a change for the better in the Chinese position and that it might be crystallized during Narendra Modi’s visit. The Chinese position has been that they favour involvement of developing countries in the Security Council and that China respects the willingness of India to play a bigger role in the UN body. This is precisely what the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in answer to a question. The added statement that China would not support Japan and that a broad consensus was necessary to make reform possible has detracted from the alleged “respect” for India. Pakistan promptly informed Barack Obama that India was not qualified to be a permanent member as long as Kashmir issue was not resolved. This appeared to be orchestrated to counter whatever was positive in the US and Chinese statements on India.

The latest in the series of proposals, put forward by the “Elders”, Kofi Annan and Gro Brundtland, made on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the UN has no greater chance of acceptance than the other proposals made by others at the time of the 50th and 60th anniversaries. In fact, it is a modified version of one of the Plans contained in Kofi Annan’s report on “In Larger Freedom”.  The Elders drive clear of the quagmire of permanent membership and advocate periodical elections of non-permanent members, appointed for longer terms. “Instead of new permanent members, let us have a new category of members, serving a much longer term than the nonpermanent ones and eligible for immediate re-election. In other words they would be permanent, provided they retained the confidence of other member states. Surely that is more democratic,” they said. Would any of the permanent members get reelected if the same formula is applied to them? The self-discipline being imposed on the permanent members is hazy and not likely to be accepted. A large majority of members will rather have the veto abolished.
Contrary to the general impression, it is not the just permanent members, who are unenthusiastic about new permanent members. Most members, other than the candidates and aspirants, have nothing to gain by having more permanent members. They would rather have an expansion of the non-permanent membership so that they also have a chance of serving on the Security Council. Even those countries, which have pledged support for India or the other candidates may not support any move to expand the permanent membership. They are hoping that the permanent members will block such moves. There is, of course the “Coffee Club”, promoted by Pakistan, Italy etc, which openly oppose any expansion. They will enthusiastically support the proposal of Annan and Brundtland that the Council should closely consult the members, who are likely to be affected by the decisions of the Security Council.
While it is widely acknowledged that the present composition of the Council is outdated and that more developing countries should be represented, there is no support at all for new permanent members with veto. The possibility is only for permanent members without veto or non-permanent members with longer terms and provision for immediate reelection. Intensive efforts will be made during the 70th Anniversary of the UN to find a formula. The UK and France are reportedly keen to resolve this issue soon, because they are afraid that the longer it takes for reform, the greater will be the pressure on them to step down in favour of a EU representative. For India, the horseshoe table of the Security Council may still prove elusive