The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
The US-India Security Dialogue held in Washington in the beginning of this month has raised expectations in India of a forward movement, with US backing, on India’s so far stalled bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Apart from the heart-warming words on India’s emerging global role, US officials also made plenty of “forward-leaning” statements, to use Assistant Secretary Blake’s language, on India’s aspirations for a seat at the top table. At a media briefing, he mentioned in particular Under-secretary Burns’ statement on the eve of the dialogue that India’s expanding global role would naturally make it an important part of any future consideration of Security Council reform.
Hillary Clinton also made a similar statement at the opening of the plenary session. Later, at her press conference with Krishna, she reiterated that US was very committed to considering India, while also pointing out that the challenge was to find a consensus on the reform issue.
At his interaction with the media, Blake spoke also of an ongoing debate in the US government on how to expand the Security Council while at the same time maintaining its effectiveness. This, combined with Blake’s remark that Obama is looking forward to “ambitious results” from his visit to India in November, has triggered speculation in India that he might on this occasion announce US support for an Indian permanent seat. As is known, after getting the nuclear deal from Washington, Delhi has almost made the Security Council issue the litmus test of US’s declared goal of helping India’s global rise.
By coincidence, the India-US security dialogue took place at the same time as the UN General Assembly began discussion in New York on a controversial “negotiation text” on Security Council reform. The first step towards this highly divisive move was taken in September 2008, when the Assembly decided, after years of inconclusive discussions in a working group, to shift the matter to its “informal plenary” for intergovernmental negotiations, as demanded by India and other aspirants for a permanent seat. Their expectation was that the new format, which permits decision-making by vote in place of the consensus rule followed in the working group, would enable them to push through a resolution for creating new permanent members. The objections and reservations of a large number of influential countries which included not only those like Pakistan that oppose new permanent members but also three of the existing permanent members (US, China and Russia), who similarly favour a consensus-based outcome on the reform issue, were overruled.
It remains to be seen whether this move for “text-based negotiations” will bring India and its allies in the Group of Four (G-4) – Brazil, Germany and Japan – any nearer to their cherished goal of permanent membership. The last time they tried to put the matter to a vote was in 2005. They came close, but failed because of some last-minute lobbying by the United States and China, which for different reasons were opposed to the G-4 expansion plan, though not to the idea of creating a few more permanent seats.
There has been no significant change in the positions held by different countries and groups since then. The main divide is between G-4 and other aspirants for permanent seats on the one hand and the dozen or so “mid-tier” countries (including Pakistan) who oppose new permanent seats on the other.
Not surprisingly, the main concern of the five permanent members is to preserve their privileged position. Two of them (US and China) have nothing to fear. United States is the super-power of yesterday, today and tomorrow and while willing to add more members to the Security Council would like the expansion to be small so that it retains its “effectiveness.”
China, generally considered as the superpower of tomorrow, has supported Security Council expansion to give greater representation to the developing countries but it has strong reservations on giving a permanent seat to Japan. On India’s candidature, Beijing has maintained a studied ambivalence.
The two weakest members of the club of permanent members are France and Britain. These former great powers have come to realise that if Security Council reform is delayed for too long, the decline in their international influence might have gone so far that their status as permanent members may become untenable. Without their seats on the Security Council, their international clout would be about the same as that of Spain (no offence meant), another country with a glorious imperial past but hardly one of the movers and shakers on the world scene. Britain and France have therefore recently been pressing for an early increase in permanent membership in the hope of perpetuating their own permanent seats. They are now among the staunchest supporters of India’s claim to a permanent seat.
Among countries which have been nursing ambitions for permanent seats are not only the four members of G-4, but others like Indonesia, Mexico (formerly) and a few African countries. The main contenders for the two permanent seats envisaged for Africa under the G-4 proposal are South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt.
The main opposition to G-4 comes from a dozen large countries (Pakistan, Indonesia, South Korea, Iran, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Egypt, Algeria and Mexico) which are not prepared to be reduced to third-class status, along with the vast bulk of the UN membership, as would be the result if the G-4 manages to get permanent seats. For want of a better collective title, these countries (some of which are actually bigger than half the membership of G-4) are referred to as middle-sized or mid-tier states. They could also be described as “threshold countries” because they can all make plausible cases for becoming permanent members. Not all of these countries are members of the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) group which opposes G-4’s claim, because some of them, like Egypt and Indonesia, entertain the false hope that they could themselves become permanent members. Iran too has not joined the UfC for a mixture of motives.
The unending debate on Security Council enlargement has firmly pitched the aspirants for permanent seats against the threshold countries. The positions of the two sides have now become so deeply entrenched that a compromise is virtually impossible. If new permanent members are created, it is hardly conceivable that the threshold states (or most of them) will acquiesce in being reduced to a third-class status. There is already a precedent. In 1926, Brazil withdrew from the League of Nations when it was not given a permanent seat on the Council although Germany, which joined the League in the same year, got one. Spain also gave notice of withdrawal but later decided to remain a member.
The threshold countries may not have the numbers to match the G-4 in the General Assembly but collectively their collective political weight is enormous. It would greatly help clarify the stakes involved if they were to make it known how they would react if the demand of a handful of countries for permanent seats were accepted. One option would be to for these mid-tier countries to terminate their cooperation with the Security Council. But there are other possibilities as well. This is a matter they should be deliberating upon individually as well as collectively. A summit meeting of the threshold countries before the next General Assembly session should be considered to discuss this matter.
The argument that the current composition of the Security Council does not represent the present-day realities is right. But adding four, five or six new permanent members is not the answer. At the end of the Second World War, power was concentrated in hands of the Big Three. Today, it is diffused among two dozen or so countries. The restructured Security Council must reflect this reality and the new configuration must be based on consensus of the entire UN membership. If the G-4 is allowed to gate-crash into the club of permanent members, they would be putting the future of the world organisation in serious jeopardy.