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India in the Security Council: Time to Step Up

To be perceived as a major power, India must articulate a clear vision of a world order, something that it has not so far done.

By Bidisha Biswas and Anish Goel for
India in the Security Council: Time to Step Up

Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-fourth session.

Credit: UN Photo

On January 1, 2021, India will start its eighth term as a non-permanent, voting member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This two-year term presents a unique opportunity for the country to demonstrate global power and responsibility, thereby strengthening its claim to a permanent seat on the Council, which it has sought for decades. Indeed, the UNSC is overdue for some structural reforms and India has vocally and rightfully asserted that it deserves to be taken more seriously on the international stage.

At the same time, while the Indian government talks a lot about deserving global power status, what exactly does it want to do with this power? That’s a question that nobody, including the Indians, has an answer to yet. To be perceived as a major power, India must articulate a clear vision of a world order, something that it has not so far done. Seventy years after attaining independence, at a time of monumental global shifts, India cannot continue to seek refuge in vacuous statements about strategic autonomy and sovereignty, and expect that the world will see it as a worthy leader. It must demonstrate its capacity to lead by example, through changes in both its foreign and domestic policy environments.

India’s Foreign Policy Track Record

The twin devastations of the pandemic and climate change have starkly underscored the importance of global cooperation. The world has a pressing need for countries to stand up for a rules-based international order – one which is committed to protecting human security around the world. As the world’s largest democracy and the only country in Asia that may match China’s economic and military prowess, India is in a unique position to be the leader that will champion such cooperation.

In the UNSC, the Indian government will have the opportunity to shape the debate on some of the most pressing global peace and security challenges of our times, including the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, the Iran nuclear deal, the COVID-19 pandemic, and threats posed by climate change. Unfortunately, in the past, India has been a passive voice in the international community. For example, in 2011, during its last rotation on the Security Council, India abstained on one of the most important resolutions that came for a vote that term – Resolution 1973, which among other things authorized international intervention in Libya. Further, while India claims to respect the sovereignty of other nations, it has not stood up for countries that have been the victim of aggression. In 2014, India was the first major country to legitimize the Russian annexation of Crimea and abstained from a U.N. resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. These are not impressive models of global leadership.

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Another particularly glaring example of Indian inaction has been Myanmar’s treatment of the ethnic Muslim Rohingya. In Myanmar, state-sanctioned violence has forced out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, sending close to a million refugees streaming into neighboring Bangladesh. International observers, including a U.N. fact-finding mission, believe that the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar continue to face the threat of genocide. Bangladesh is now under untenable pressure, as it continues to indefinitely house large numbers of Rohingya refugees. This regional and global humanitarian crisis is occurring in India’s backyard and is directly impacting Bangladesh, its immediate neighbor. Yet, notwithstanding a few mild statements and tepid offers of assistance to Bangladesh, India’s response has been marked by shocking indifference and passivity. If India wants to be seen as an effective countering force to China, which is enabling the Myanmar government’s attacks on its own citizens, it should stand up for human rights and extend a firm and steadfast helping hand to the Rohingya and to Bangladesh. If it cannot even be bothered to respond to a massive crisis unfolding in its own region, how can India claim a position of global leadership, much less moral authority?

Making the Case for a Permanent Seat on the Security Council

As a thought experiment, let us compare India to two other countries that have also sought permanent UNSC seats: Japan and Germany.  Germany is a leading member of the European Union, is the fourth largest contributor to the U.N., and, because of its humanitarian efforts, enjoys considerable global soft power. Japan is the third largest contributor to the U.N. and plays a particularly large role in supporting the organization’s peacekeeping efforts.

If India wants to make the case that it is similarly deserving of a permanent seat, it must find a way to match the soft power displayed by Japan and Germany. Of course, India can ill afford to match the financial largess of these wealthy countries, but it is uniquely placed to lead by example. The world has long seen India as an extraordinary, and largely successful, experiment in crafting democracy in a poor and deeply divided country. It is this – the appeal of its democratic values and processes – that has earned it global respect. And this is where India needs to show it can be a global leader. But, for this to happen, changes to its domestic political trajectory are necessary.

Foreign Policy Begins at Home

At a recent Global Technology Summit, Dr. S. Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, said that “how I behave at home is how I am going to behave largely abroad” and that “trust is shaped by behavior.” We wholeheartedly agree with Jaishankar. Lamentably, India’s soft power – the trust that its domestic behavior has engendered in the past – is under serious threat. India’s well-wishers, including the European Union, the United States, and its allies in the Gulf, have expressed unease and dismay at rising repression and intolerance in the country. Notable international outlets, such as The Economist, have also expressed concern about the declining democratic practices in the country. India cannot realistically claim global authority if it cannot maintain its own status as a democracy.

Defenders of the current illiberal trajectory that India is pursuing might disagree, and say “So what?” They might point out that China’s illiberalism has not deterred it from being seen as a world leader. But India is not China, and cannot and should not strive to be. China’s power relies heavily on economic coercion, large-scale investment in countries around the world, and aggressive military maneuvers in Asia. Simply put, India has neither the capital nor the firepower to match China’s material prowess. What it does have is the enduring appeal of its robust political space and vibrant civil society. The country’s ability to be seen as a desirable global leader is inextricably tied to its domestic behavior.

India’s Choice

India takes its temporary place in the UNSC at a moment that is filled with both peril and opportunity. The international system is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, rising illiberalism, deepening income inequality, and the feckless actions of the Trump administration. The world needs leaders who can provide a compelling, countervailing narrative to these malign forces. The incoming Biden administration is committed to trying to rebuild the international order. For this, the United States will need partners who can help articulate and implement a global vision predicated on human dignity and rule of law. India has a clear choice. It can continue on its current trajectory – domestic bluster and international passivity – and cede this opportunity to others. Or, by speaking up on international crises and by recommitting itself to the remarkable vision of inclusivity and openness articulated in India’s Constitution, it can emerge as the leader the world needs. Now is the time for India to stop simply saying it deserves to be a global power, and start acting like one.

Bidisha Biswas is a professor of political science at Western Washington University. She previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. She recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Portugal.

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Anish Goel is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at New America. He previously served in the White House’s National Security Council as senior director for South Asia. He is currently an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. The views expressed here are strictly personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.