Obama and India: New Alliance or Friendship of Convenience?

Teresita C. Schaffer looks at the practical consequences of Obama's endorsing India for the UN Security Council. (1 min., 8 sec.)

NEW YORK, November 10, 2010 – US President Barack Obama made headlines from India earlier this week when he endorsed India's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. An Asia Society panel of experts, convened to discuss the overall significance of Obama's trip to India, devoted most of its discussion to the Security Council announcement, placing it in the larger timeline of US-India relations and seeing it, in general, as a net positive for the Indian government.

Present for the discussion were Atul Kohli, David K.E. Bruce Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University; Arvind Panagariya, Professor of Economics and Jagdish Bhagwati Professor of Indian Political Economy at Columbia University and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Teresita C. Schaffer, Director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, joined moderator Philip Oldenburg, Adjunct Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

"Endorsing India's ambitions for a permanent UN Security Council seat—not the two-year term to which it has already been elected—is frankly an act of faith on the part of President Obama," argued Schaffer. "I think the president's decision was really a statement that if you look far enough ahead, we're going to have to work together and ... the only way to learn how is to actually do it."

Schafer further noted that even with American backing, India's bid for a permanent seat nonetheless faces significant hurdles, beginning with producing a proposal on exactly what powers new permanent seat-holders like India would hold. In order to become law, such a proposal would require the assent of the Security Council, including the non-veto of all five current permanent Security Council members, as well as that of two thirds of the General Assembly.

Focusing too heavily on India's chances of obtaining a permanent seat misses the significance of Obama's pronouncement itself, argued Kohli. "The endorsement from the United States, which is clearly the world's most important power—and the United States would not do it without devoting a huge amount of thought to it—suggests that the United States believes that India has arrived in certain very important ways. And that in and of itself is significant, irrespective of how the process unfolds in the future."

There was no disagreement as to whether Obama's visit had bolstered relations between the two powers, at least in the short-term.

"On all fronts, this has been pretty much a clean sweep," Panagariya declared. Obama endorsed all three of what Panagariya identified as India's "big ticket items": Security Council membership, membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and being dropped from the "Entities List," thereby ensuring that Indian companies are able to obtain high-tech trade and technologies from the United States.

In spite of this, how far America's relationship with India will go, and how long this newfound friendship will last, remain unknown. "On balance," Kohli said, "my judgment is that US and Indian interests as well as values will converge in many areas, but not all," adding, "Relations are likely to remain warm, even quite warm, but will probably fall well short of a real alliance."

Reported by Ben Linden