Conditional offer

President Barack Obama’s endorsement of a permanent membership status for India in the UN Security Council, in his address to parliament, is the most significant political message that came from his three-day visit of the country. The US has gone forward from its ambivalent, if not oppositional, stand on India’s aspiration for a permanent seat, but it is too early to take Obama’s words as an absolute commitment. The welcome that he offered to India in the UN Council is conditional to the country fulfiling ‘responsibilities’ that go with that position. The conditions were not spelt out in black and white, but were implied in the context of the speech and the words that followed the statement of support.

The President wanted India to be supportive of the global nuclear non-proliferation efforts, being led by the US, and especially of the actions being proposed or taken against Iran, which he specifically mentioned. It is also likely that the US might want India to soften its position on treaties like the NPT, in spite of the country’s special status deriving from the civil nuclear deal. Obama also mentioned commitment to human rights, which can be interpreted in various ways in different contexts in future. It will also not go unnoticed that he condemned the lack of democracy in Myanmar, with which India is seeking to improve its relations for strategic reasons. Any of these can be invoked to withhold the support that has been offered in principle for New Delhi’s membership of a restructured Council. The restructuring of the Council is also a long way off, and will take place only as a part of the reform of the entire United Nations system.

President Obama spoke of the congruence of interests between India and the US on many issues. He stated that the strategic ties between India and the US will be defining relationship of the 21st century. If the implication is that the support for India may also be influenced by India’s willingness to support US interests, that will certainly go against our independence and sovereignty. A seat in the UN council imposes responsibilities. But India will be its best judge and will not want other countries to define or explain them to it. However, in spite of the lack of clarity about the full intent of Obama’s statement, it conveys a very positive signal which will be welcomed in India.

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