India's Security Council Seat: Don't Hold Your Breath

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Charles Dharapak / AP

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a state dinner hosted by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, right, in Jakarta, Nov. 9, 2010

A day after President Barack Obama publicly endorsed India's claim to a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley poured cold water on any expectation of New Delhi's elevation anytime soon. "It is inconceivable that you could contemplate U.N. Security Council reform without considering a country like India," Crowley said Tuesday. "But we have to recognize ... this is a process that has been going on for some time, and it is a process through which we must consult with others within the U.N. and within the Security Council." In other words, India, don't hold your breath.

The five permanent members, or P5, of the Security Council — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — not only get to stay on when the other 10 members are rotated out every two years for replacements elected from their region, they hold the coveted veto power that allows them to nix any decisions on questions of war, peace and security that are not to their liking. That veto power has certainly helped sustain the illusion of superpower relevance for Britain and France, which have long since fallen by the wayside by measure of military strength — indeed, they had better hope nobody noticed their agreement last week to pool much of their defense capability, lest it be suggested that their two permanent Security Council seats be consolidated into one. It has also proven useful to a country like Israel, on whose behalf the U.S. has regularly intervened to block critical U.N. resolutions. Given the power that attaches to a permanent seat on the Security Council, then, it's not hard to see why some of the incumbents are not exactly enthusiastic about sharing their status with anyone but their closest allies.

The P5 attained their status at the U.N.'s creation a half-century ago, on the basis of having been ostensibly the five key nations allied against the Axis powers in World War II. But Britain and France were drastically diminished colonial powers holding desperately to the last remnants of empire in Africa and Asia. Still, within two decades, each of the permanent five had all burnished their veto power in the real world by building nuclear weapons, becoming the original nuclear club years before India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea followed suit.

It's plain to see, though, that the makeup of the permanent five no longer accurately reflects the global balance of power, and the 21st century distribution of responsibility for keeping the peace — which, after all, is the primary function of the U.N. Countries such as India, Brazil and Turkey are emerging as major economic powerhouses with the capacity to play a far larger strategic role in their regions than some of those currently in the P5, while Germany and Japan have long claimed the same status. It has also long been suggested that one of Africa's more powerful countries, such as Nigeria or South Africa, will do the same on the mother continent. So talk of enlarging the P5 has been around for years.

President Obama's nomination of India underscores precisely why Security Council reform may be years away. Washington is making no secret of the fact that it is promoting a greater strategic role for India, a democratic ally, in response to China's growing regional ambitions. China may beg to differ — it is the only permanent member that has not publicly backed India's claim — and it will certainly be encouraged to do so by its long-standing ally, Pakistan, which cites what it says are India's continued violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions over Kashmir as grounds for exclusion. China has also opposed any move to elevate its old enemy, Japan, into permanent membership. Although Brazil's efforts to join the permanent five were thought to have suffered in the U.S. and France as a result of its opposition, along with Turkey's, to sanctions against Iran, Britain on Tuesday reiterated its support for Brazilian membership, expressly talking of strengthening its own ties with Latin America. And France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, for similar reasons, is pressing for an African seat.

Those powers currently holding permanent seats certainly want help in policing the world, but each will be looking to safeguard their own strategic interests in the course of any expansion of the P5. And in a world where geopolitical rivalry is intensifying, that's a recipe for deadlock. Everybody supports reforming the Security Council to expand the P5, but agreeing on a list of new veto wielders will take many years — and a lot of big-ticket horse-trading.

— With reporting by Rania Abouzeid / Islamabad, Hannah Beech / Shanghai and Andrew Downie / Brazil