President Barack Obama arrived in India this week with a large gift in hand.  After just a few short hours, Obama announced to the world that America would support India as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.  The support from Obama was a huge coup for the Indians but took diplomats at the UN by surprise.  India, after all, was being rewarded despite the fact that it has done very little to help reform the UN.  

Ironically, it has been India that has stood in the way of the very sweeping reforms that will now be needed to ensure its ascension to a permanent Security Council seat.  India has refused to support UN budget reforms that would remove outdated mandates and programs, refused to support tough new standards for the human rights council and has consistently worked to keep intact the outdated way dues are assessed on member nations.  India, too, has paid just $11.2 million in regular 2010 UN dues but receives millions more in UN assistance due to its status as a developing nation.  Rewarding India without first demanding support for basic U.S. reform efforts at the UN seems naïve at best.  And agitating Pakistan while at the same time dissing Japan, which is also in the running for a permanent Security Council seat, seems to increase American security concerns in Afghanistan and North Korea. 

Obama’s announcement was another blow to the real UN reform he has never sought.  The Indians, after all, have led the resistance to it and Obama has validated their behavior.  The Bush Administration worked hard to reform the UN and its budget process but received only scant support from other countries.  While India worked hard with other developing nations to thwart most reforms proposed by the Bush Administration, Japan worked hard to implement many of the reforms the U.S. was pushing.  Obama just rewarded the country working against us and dismissed the country working with us.  President Bush ended up announcing the U.S.’ support for Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council only after it supported UN reform and other good governance policies.  Bush’s support for Japan was a reward for good work.  Obama’s support for India’s bid signals his desire to keep the UN as is.  Japan pays 12.5% of the UN’s regular budget while India pays 0.5% (only a few years ago Japan was paying 19.5% signaling their growing frustration with the world body).  That means India pays $11.2 million in regular UN dues compared to Japan’s $264.9 million.  Further, India is a net beneficiary of the UN and its programs in that it receives more than $200 million a year from just peacekeeping payments and the UN’s World Food Program to help feed its people.  A full tally of UNDP, UNHCR, UNEP and other UN programs will surely show that India’s participation in the UN is a financial boon.

Supporting India for a permanent seat on the Security Council comes at an even greater cost to the war on terror by unnecessarily upsetting Pakistan at a time when controlling the borders and mountainous regions of Pakistan is key to rooting out al-Qaida.  Almost instantly after Obama’s announcement on India, government spokesmen in Pakistan issued statements pointing out that India has not lived up to its responsibility in the disputed territory of Kashmir and that it wasn’t qualified to be a global leader sitting on the UN’s most prestigious body.  Pakistan’s political class has roundly criticized Obama for his decision to support India at a time when the U.S. needs Pakistan’s stalwart support.  And Japan, the second most generous funder of the UN behind only the United States and one of our closest allies at the UN, was left wondering if it would get the same endorsement from Obama when the president visits Tokyo.

The Obama team’s short-sightedness in dealing with difficult international issues in exchange for quick bursts of popularity while traveling abroad has made it more difficult to make progress on U.S. priorities at the UN.  Obama has shown that he is all too willing to sacrifice American security for his personal popularity as was the case with Obama’s announcement that the U.S. would no longer seek to put a missile shield in Eastern Europe while negotiating with the Russians and his flip-flop on promising to remove troops from Iraq as a candidate and telling military leaders to continue the course as President.

When President Obama arrives in Japan he should tell the Japanese taxpayers that they deserve to have a permanent seat at the UN table.  President Obama should also be unambiguous that reforming the UN is the first condition for U.S. support for any nation seeking a permanent Security Council seat – even though it won’t be a popular position.  He should also make clear that India hasn’t earned its seat yet.

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