President Obama concluded his bridge-building trip to India on Monday by throwing out a big symbolic plank, telling the Indian Parliament that the country should have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. It was a gesture heavy with diplomatic and political significance but light on practical impact. If nothing else, Obama has rightly put India on notice that if it wants to become the great power it aspires to be, it should start acting like one.
Obama failed to mention that adding a permanent member to the Security Council would require the approval of all five veto-wielding members, so it isn’t going to happen any time soon. Although Britain, France and Russia have expressed interest in expanding the council, it’s unlikely that China, the fifth member after the United States and an economic rival of India, would go along. The big five have kept their power undiluted since 1945, even though the council’s makeup has been a subject of worldwide controversy and frequent failed attempts at reform. But Obama’s gesture, aimed at improving ties with an important ally, does raise questions. Such as: If it were possible to fix the Security Council, would India really deserve a seat?
The answer, of course, depends on the criteria for membership. After World War II, the victors reserved permanent spots on the council — and veto power over U.N. actions — for themselves based primarily on their military strength. But what about economic power? Geopolitical influence? Regional fairness? India is indeed deserving under those criteria, and so are several others — Japan, Germany, Brazil and South Africa among them. We think, however, that another factor bears serious consideration in choosing new members.
India’s government has seldom acted in the interest of the world, and humanity, when doing so might clash with its own economic interests. Nowhere is this more apparent than on India’s border, where New Delhi is coddling a repressive military junta in Myanmar. India’s trade ties with this brutal regime, and its silence on human rights abuses there and elsewhere around the world, don’t recommend it for greater influence in the United Nations.
Obama alluded to that Monday by using what sounded suspiciously like a reference to “Spider-Man” (although a variation of the phrase can also be attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt). “With increased power comes increased responsibility,” he told the Indian Parliament. India aims to be a superpower, not a superhero, but the principle still applies. Last month, India was elected to fill one of 10 nonpermanent (and non-veto-wielding) seats on the Security Council. That will give it two years to show whether it’s willing to take on some bad guys.