Sadly, designations and duties at the United Nations (UN) are long on symbolism and short on substance. Nonetheless, India has now been a Security Council member, having completed its first month as president of the same without any incident and can even claim some sense of accomplishment.
A series of thorny topics, led by Libya and Syria, and a set of less controversial ones like the partition of Sudan and peacekeeping operations in the Horn of Africa have been handled with some élan.
Crude assessments of voting patterns and resolution language in the UN assume it is about big powers getting, or not getting, their way. The assumption then is that India’s own success must be measured in terms of the degree of defiance it shows. This is the policy of a nation on the fringes of global authority. But it is not that of an emerging power, one whose interest is in being part of international rules-making in a way that enhances its interests, influence and self-confidence.
The real measure of India’s role in the Security Council, especially when it holds the chair, is the degree to which it is able to hammer out compromises and bridging language over issues on which there is no consensus. That can be easy when it comes to creating South Sudan. But it is very difficult when it comes to international responses to the present, violent phase of the Arab spring. Different schools will have different views on the UN’s rulings on Syria, for example. What is crucial, as it is absurd to expect too much when even the Permanent Five powers are so bitterly divided over sanctions and intervention against Damascus, is that the UN should not be seen to be paralysed and incapacitated. This encourages governments to take unilateral action and generally delegitimise the United Nations and international law.
The UN’s role is both more difficult and more important at a time when the United States, the sole superpower, is experiencing a period of economic crisis and relative military decline. And a lack of coherent domestic leadership is evident in almost every major region of the world. The organisation’s expansion and reform is also on the backburner for now. That is to be expected. But it remains on the agenda and India needs to use the vacuum at the summit of global power to burnish its own credentials for a permanent seat — and learn how to be a constructive and responsible power on a level that it hasn’t had to do for most of its independent history.