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Obama in India: Testing a New World Order, Starting with the Security Council

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November 8, 2010

The future of American global influence will be decided in Asia, and India's success could be a prerequisite for America's long-term position in the region. So President Obama just made a substantial step towards securing U.S. interests in Asia by endorsing India's aspiration to greater global and regional influence. He declared today in New Delhi, "I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member." Indians have been waiting for this for a long time.

Successive U.S. administrations have avoided taking a position on India's Security Council aspirations. Diplomatic non-answers denied New Delhi a clear path to U.S. backing, a source of exasperation for many Indians. And the U.S. approach also obscured legitimate American concerns about the limits of U.S.-Indian cooperation on some foreign policy issues of great importance to the United States.

The only problem is that when Obama endorsed India's membership "look[ing] forward," he actually ignored these legitimate concerns, too.

At issue is the reality that--despite the democratic values the United States and India share--India often takes sides against the United States on major global issues from trade and climate to sanctions and human rights. Take Iran as an example: the United States is alarmed by Iran's nuclear program and seeks to use almost any possible means to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but India sees things differently. "Don't squeeze us too hard on Iran," a former Indian official urged earlier this year, citing India's interest in regional stability and the energy needed for economic development.

UN General Assembly votes on contested resolutions are another striking indication of differences between the United States and India. In 2007 and 2008, India and China voted the same way 122 times out of 154 votes, while India and the United States voted the same way just 17 times.

Meanwhile, even when the United States and India share interests, Indian domestic politics can limit the ability of the Indian government to align itself publicly with America. This is one reason U.S. nuclear energy companies now face a nuclear liability bill they consider to be unworkable, despite years of efforts that went into the bill.

The time is now ripe for an honest conversation between the United States and India on the UN Security Council. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans believe India should become a permanent member of the Council. And last month, India was elected overwhelmingly by the members of the United Nations for a two-year rotating Council seat. Beginning in January 2011, an impressive lineup of global rising powers, including Brazil, China, India, and South Africa, will be seated together--a preview of what a newly-ordered Security Council could look like. Americans should watch closely to see how well the U.S. and Indian delegations work together.

The path forward should be relatively clear in areas where Washington and New Delhi are already beginning to work together or in parallel, such as securing the global commons, including freedom of navigation in the seas; countering global Islamic fundamentalism; improving the regional balance of power; and developing clean energy solutions. But for the U.S. and India to cooperate effectively more generally, each will need to consider carefully how to calibrate expectations and policies to allow both governments to turn to each other in support of important national interests in and out of the Security Council.

India will now have the backing of the United States as it seeks more formal positions of global leadership, including on the Security Council. The United States can also be a key part of solutions to major Indian ambitions, beginning with granting India access to high technology products through revised export controls. At the same time, the United States should be able to turn to India for support on major security and economic issues--issues over which India will gain increasing sway, whether or not it is in the UN Security Council. How India votes on Iran over the next two years will be one important signal.

Americans want India in the UN Security Council. They recognize that the institution's very effectiveness depends on whether it unites the great powers of the present day--not only the great powers of 1945. (The 2011 Security Council, though temporary, will finally reflect a new composition of world power.) In Washington this June, former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh posed the question, "Why can't the United States say 'yes, we think India is worthy of becoming a [permanent] member of the Security Council?' " In New Delhi, President Obama didn't fully address the question.

India now has a path forward--beginning with a two-year trial run--and we should all watch closely.

Daniel Michaeli is a research associate in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at www.asiaruminations.com.