india's UNSC moment

India’s UNSC moment

Delhi must contribute its bit to shape the rules of a “reformed multilateralism”

This month saw India commencing its two year stint as a non-permanent member of the 15-nation United Nations Security Council (UNSC) along with Norway, Mexico, Ireland and Kenya. It is the eighth time that India is part of this powerful platform, and New Delhi seems more willing than ever before to contribute to its share for global governance via the UNSC.

It promptly made it clear that it intends to use its time at this much sought after table “to bring human-centric and inclusive solutions to matters of international peace and security” and being “a voice for the developing world.” Reiterating its commitment to raise its “voice against the common enemies of humanity like terrorism,” India underscored the need for “reformed multilateralism,” a theme which has reverberated through India’s multiple interventions on the issue. India won its eighth UNSC term last June when it secured 184 of the 192 votes cast, signaling a broad acceptance of India’s global role. At a time when multilateralism and global governance is facing one of the most serious challenges in the post-Second World War phase, it is important for a nation like India to step up and contribute its bit. A traditional votary of multilateralism, New Delhi is keen to project its image of a responsible global stakeholder and it won’t find a better platform for it than the UNSC.

However, the world of today is evolving rapidly. Structurally, we are witnessing a re-emergence of great power contestation unlike any we have seen since the end of the Cold War. A rising China is challenging the fundamentals of the liberal global order and domestic support for an expansive American global engagement is at its lowest. Institutionally and normatively, therefore, a fragmented world order is emerging which is redefining the ways in which we have got used to interpreting the strategic environment.

From globalization we are now entering the phase of economic decoupling. Trade and technological cooperation were supposed to bring adversaries together; now we are talking of trading only with friends. Credibility of global multilateral institutions is at its lowest ebb, leading to the emergence of ‘coalitions of the willing.’ Covid-19 and its impact has accentuated these trends.

India, too, is seeking to redefine its global role in a significant way as rule shaper in the global order. As a consequence, its approach to multilateralism and what it wants from being part of the UNSC has also evolved. Its critique of the UN has become more pointed, as was reflected in external affairs minister S Jaishankar’s suggestion that the UNSC required better representation and a “refresh button.” He said, “For obvious reasons, we tend to equate multilateralism with the United Nations… Problem we have today at the narrow level of the leadership of the United Nations is a challenge to its credibility and to its effectiveness.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has challenged the UN to introspect as a “crisis of confidence” haunts the institution and called for a new template of multilateralism that “reflects today’s reality, gives voice to all stakeholders, addresses contemporary challenges, and focuses on human welfare.” And he has questioned the viability of the present state of affairs as the leader of a country “which, in the course of maintaining peace, has lost the maximum number of its brave soldiers” and where “the faith and respect that the UN enjoys among the 1.3 billion people in India is unparalleled.”

This led him to ask: “For how long will India be kept out of the decision making structures of the United Nations?”, underlining growing impatience in India about the pace of reforms in the UN. To many in India, it is not readily evident if the global multilateral order will be able to reform itself and cope with rising geopolitical tensions and new security challenges.

Modi’s remarks were a veiled warning to the UN that despite New Delhi’s inherent faith in the global multilateral order, India’s absence from the decision making structures and lack of genuine reforms might force India to look for alternatives.

India will get an opportunity as part of the UNSC to put some of its core concerns on the global agenda. In line with a shift towards greater pragmatism in its foreign policy outlook, New Delhi should jettison the idea of changing the world and instead should have laser like focus on how its UNSC membership can possibly advance its vital strategic interests.

From leveraging its role to target issues like terrorism and maritime security to building bridges with Africa, India can do much during its term. There should be a realistic appreciation that the divisions among major powers on the UNSC today are perhaps at their sharpest ever since the end of the Cold War, which will preclude anything significant from happening in the realm of global governance.

New Delhi should certainly continue to demand that the UNSC becomes more representative of the changing world, but it would be wiser to spend its limited diplomatic capital on issues that have a direct bearing on Indian interests. Indian diplomacy should be geared towards making India powerful – in terms of capabilities, institutions and ideational underpinnings. That alone will ensure making India the critical node of global governance architecture.