India on the Security Council? Not Likely

You may have heard that President Obama is in India. You may have also heard he explicitly stated his support for India’s ascension to a permanant Security Council seat.

A few thoughts:

1) It’s probably important to keep in mind that India will not become a permanent member of the Security Council anytime soon–if ever.  There have been efforts to reform the Council nearly as long as the Council has been created.  But the fact is, any effort to reform the Security Council would require the consent of its permanent member states. And, as of today, there is little reason to believe that China would let a regional rival into the exclusive club.  This is not to say that Security Council reform should not be pursued, just that reform is not very likely.

2) So if U.S. support for India ascension to permanent security council status is not about the Security Council itself, what is it about?  A realist might surmise that the United States is seeking an alliance to balance against China.  By signaling support for India on the Security Council, the United States is hoping that India might draw a closer alliance with the United States.

3) Down in the policy weeds of today’s announcement, that certainly seems to be the case.  India is one of three countries in the world that is a nuclear power, but not a member of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. (Pakistan and Israel are the others).  From the mid 1970s to 2008,  the United States sought to block nuclear fuel from being exported to India, as punishment for India’s testing a nuclear bomb in 1974.  In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed a law that allowed for the sale of U.S. civilian nuclear technology to India. That was approved overwhelmingly (and with support from then-Senator Obama).

Arms control advocates worried that this deal undermined the NPT by rewarding bad behavior.  Proponents countered that India was a responsible end user of nuclear technology–and anyway, the technology transfer was limited to civilian applications.

But tucked into the Security Council announcement was this little nugget, from the Washington Post: “Obama said the United States will take Indian defense organizations off a list of companies prohibited from receiving dual-use high technology exports.”

It would seem that the United States is shifting to a policy of more actively supporting India’s military nuclear programs.   This will surely cause alarm in Pakistan. And, of course, be well noted in Beijing.

4) This announcement is less about the future make up of the Security Council and more about firming up India as a reliable American ally.   One way that we will see whether or not India responds in kind are by its votes on the Security Council, to which India was elected to a two year stint as a non-permanent member last month.  The next time a tough vote comes up on, say Iran or North Korea, it will be interesting to see which way India turns.