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Security Council Won’t Make Room For India Yet

While President Obama endorsed the idea of India taking a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, that doesn't mean it's likely to happen anytime soon.

President Obama delivers a speech to India's parliament on Monday. Obama backed India's quest for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat, inviting the world's largest democracy to take its "rightful" place at the summit of global power.
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Above: President Obama delivers a speech to India's parliament on Monday. Obama backed India's quest for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat, inviting the world's largest democracy to take its "rightful" place at the summit of global power.

The idea of expanding the Security Council beyond its five permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — has been a topic of perennial discussion at least since the end of the Cold War.

Although India is a rising power — one that Obama was careful to celebrate as such in his speech Monday to the Indian parliament — there are other rising powers in the world.

Germany, Japan and Brazil among others want permanent seats, too. Expanding the roster to include any or all of them would have to take into account regional rivalries that make the task of expansion enormously difficult.

And the current members of the club would have to be willing to share power, too.

"The president's strong support is more symbolic than real because there's no chance of U.N. Security Council reform in the near term," says Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Welcoming India's Power

Obama's support for an enhanced role for India at the U.N. was in keeping with the tenor of his three-day visit there.

"The United States not only welcomes India as a rising global power, we fervently support it and we have worked to help make it a reality," Obama said in his speech to the Indian parliament. "We welcome India as it prepares to take its seat on the United Nations Security Council."

It could be preparing for a while. The Security Council's permanent membership has never been altered since the founding of the U.N. in 1945.

Changing its makeup is a discussion topic that has gotten nowhere.

"This is the longest conversation in which the most diplomatic energy has been spent to go absolutely nowhere," says Thomas G. Weiss, co-director of the U.N. Intellectual History Project at the City University of New York.

"It will make good headlines — it will make us seem like India's best friends. But the administration can assure Islamabad no movement will occur," say Weiss, referring to India's arch-rival Pakistan.

The World's Toughest Ticket

The Security Council matters because it's the venue in which the U.N. makes decisions, as opposed to recommendations, including the imposition of economic sanctions and even the use of force. In addition to the five permanent members, 10 other countries are elected to two-year terms.

Because of its importance, many nations aspire to permanent membership — and the incumbent members are wary of diluting their power by sharing it.

Each of the permanent members wields veto power over resolutions.

That veto authority serves to limit the range of issues before the Security Council, says Daniel S. Hamilton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It's only on clear consensus issues that you'll get unanimity and no vetoes, which is what you'd need."

Bringing on board more permanent members is far from a consensus issue. Each of the leading aspirants has regional rivals loath to see them assume a place of such prominence and importance. At the same time, each region of the world will fight jealously to have its own representation on the Security Council before allowing newcomers from elsewhere to hold a permanent seat.

"This has been going on literally since the U.N. was founded," says Stephen C. Schlesinger, author of Acts of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. "Even then, the biggest split among nations was over the Security Council and who could sit on it."

One Nearly Huge Thing

The only other nation whose membership the U.S. has endorsed in the past is Japan. Obama's language about India left plenty of wiggle room. The president phrased his endorsement in such a way that made it clear the Security Council as a whole would also have to embrace India.

"There would have to be major reform and a whole lot of horse-trading before India would have a seat," says Mira Kamdar, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.

Still, endorsing India's ambitions at the U.N. was a way for Obama not only to salute that nation as a rising power, Kamdar says, but to answer criticism in the Indian media that his visit lacked "any one huge thing" that could rival the importance of President George W. Bush's nuclear trade deal with the country.

But if Obama's speech won applause in New Delhi, it's unlikely to have much impact in New York. The same internal dynamics at the U.N. that have prevented change of the Security Council's makeup will keep its membership from soon reflecting the world as it stands in 2010 or 2020, as opposed to 1945, Clemons says.

"This formulation of power is anachronistic," Clemons says, "and doesn't reflect real power in the world today."

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