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Divergence and convergence of the USA and India over UN involvement

Flags of US and India in Washington DC, marking the visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the White House, same time when a 'Tamil Awareness Rally' was taking nearby-Nov 2009

by Austin Fernando

There had been large scale local criticism of India and the USA, after the adoption of the UNHRC resolution in Geneva.

It was after reading a very recent article (in which the Sri Lankan episode is also minutely stated) by two former US diplomats, discussing the divergence and convergence experienced by the USA and India regarding UN involvements, I thought sharing some ideas in it could initiate revisiting our issues, created in the UN by the USA and India.

To what extent my interpretations, as emanating from a “Zero-Diplomat” would be tolerated are an issue!

Perhaps, our External Affairs Ministry and the Ambassador in Washington who are much knowledgeable and seasoned may have already seen it and shared with the Presidential Secretariat. Therefore, this short essay will minimise duplication and extract only relevant considerations. It is to learn from these “think tanks.”

There are positive and negative relationships between the USA and India, evolved during the last decade or so. Sometimes the deterioration of political relationships between the USA and Pakistan could be suspected, among other reasons, to be even minutely consequential to these developments. The convergences and divergences have to be considered in that light to understand their diplomatic and political behavioural importance, which have affected us at present

Let me quote a few of them to understand these intricacies, which may help to approach the thorny terrain under the grass we trudge.

The whole world is aware of India’s keen interest to be in the Security Council, especially heightened after China’s entry to it. In this regard President Barack Obama announced in New Delhi (November 2010) that “the US supported India as an eventual permanent member of the Security Council,” though much has not happened since then.

Such promise would invariably attract India to sustain closer ties with the USA, in anticipation of active operationalising of such promise. Hence, the recently observed positive dialogue and enhanced ties in trade, economics, investments etc could be steps to deep root future relationships.

It is revealed that the voting patterns of the two countries in the UN are: “In 2010 and 2011, India voted similarly to the US on about 25 and 33 percent of all recorded votes in the General Assembly, respectively.”

If “common consensus votes” are included, the US and India are together 85% of the time.” I wonder the local critics know this trend. No wonder there is increasing level of convergence of thinking.

Referring to voting specifics the article says that the Indian vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHCR “also demonstrated that India is willing to take the heat of voting independently from its G-77 partners.”

Further, it said similarly in crucial Iran votes in the International Atomic Energy Agency, India has voted against Iran (India’s oil supplier and neighbour) to demonstrate its commitment to keeping Iran off from a nuclear weapons programme. But, argued that India will honour Security Council sanctions, but not necessarily those imposed by the US and Europe. This was again proved during the last UNHCR session when India did not vote with the USA on the Israel issue.

Hence, unlike what some scream here, India does not behave like a puppet of the USA at the UN, but guided by what Sri Jawaharlal Nehru has said: “Our instructions to our delegates have always been to consider each question first in terms of India’s interest, and secondly on its merits.” Even Chief Minister Jeyalalitha’s intervention would have been considered by PM Manmohan Singh as a matter of national interest of India, while political survival also would have been in his mind

The authors point out that during India’s current tenure as a rotating, nonpermanent member of the Security Council (since January 2011), the two countries’ differing perspectives have sometimes been in sharp focus. They said “From a U.S. perspective, India identified itself more with two other contenders for permanent membership—Brazil and South Africa—and, even more troublesome for the United States, seemed to vote with Russia and China over the U.S./Britain/France bloc on contentious issues” and quoted India, like Russia and China, agreeing to abstain, rather than oppose the March 2010 resolution authorising a no-fly zone over Libya, and, like them, believed that NATO exceeded the council’s mandate in the following months. This is bold strategic thinking

The article quoted that on Syria the record has been mixed. When the Council in January 2012 sought to condemn the Syrian regime’s attack on its domestic opposition, India pursued the middle ground of abstention and watched Russia and China veto the effort. India then worked to find a compromise, supporting a resolution in early February that, while ruling out foreign military intervention, aligned itself with the West and the Arab League. Even that fell to Chinese and Russian vetoes. Balancing tricks?

India has thus maintained its independent stance on these issues and it has not been a free ride even for the US. In summary, the authors explain why this differing is from the Indian point of view, knowing the US stances are sometimes different. They ar basically structural inadequacies in the UN; India’s consistent opposition to interfere in other country’s domestic affairs (though violated in our vote in Geneva); and, the belief that the Council has exceeded its mandate and intruded on the turf of the General Assembly in recent years, irrespective of India’s desire for a permanent seat on the same Council.

The authors suggest that the US and India need to find a way to work together at the UN, befitting the “strategic partnership” the two countries are forging. They said “This should be achievable, but it will require some creative thinking by both sides and an increased willingness to take each other’s views into account. The United States needs to acknowledge the importance to India of its “strategic autonomy.”

They further recommended “The United States and India need to communicate early and often in New York. “No surprises” should be the rule.”

While recommending dialogue on multilateral topics when their leaders meet in New Delhi and Washington the authors recommended the continuance of bilateral dialogue on UN matters. The authors predicted this June’s third meeting of the U.S.-India “Strategic Dialogue,” led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna would offer an early opportunity to take this one big step further.

Under these circumstances it is important that Sri Lanka should understand these positive and negative relationships between the USA and India to act profitably. The positive suggestion is that “some creative thinking by both sides and an increased willingness to take each other’s views into account” are important. Are we ready or are we grumbling?

The Indians have proved that while being supportive of common consensus votes it succeeded in countering the USA on its own principles. For them convergence was not subordination to the USA. By voting with the USA on the Sri Lankan issue India proved that G-77 partnership was not its priority. India blew hot and cold on Iran and even joined with China at BRICS (late March) to safeguard Iran on restraints made by the USA and EU, while concurrently opposing Iran’s nuclear program. This proved that we are in a world which has no permanent friends or foes in international politics. Can we learn to adjust according to the emerging situations?

Of course, we should be mindful of the offers that are on the table for India in comparison to ours. The two countries vastly differ and India can dictate much more than us. The large Indian market and specialties it possesses for instance make political issues welcoming economic realities. These ease the Indians to behave more independently. This is the negative field in which we have to trudge (e.g. conflicting alliance political attitudes). Nevertheless, the lesson from Indians is that diplomatic balancing is possible, even on such terrain

Another lesson is that harping on existing principles need not be continued if the benefits weigh more. It is a matter of checking the assets and liabilities as in a Balance Sheet! How India has in our case overlooked the non- interference in other country’s domestic affairs principle is an example on how it works. However, to what extent we could dictate must be cautiously reviewed.

India’s desire to sit on the Security Council will not change and could be an issue on which India will have to expect international support and this could be one issue in which Sri Lanka could genuinely be with India and the USA. We should be also mindful of the economic imperatives of this decision. Contradictorily, China may have different stances on this.

This fits in to what the authors suggest as working together “befitting the “strategic partnership.” Can we incorporate our strategising with creative thinking by an “increased willingness to take each other’s views into account” keeping international partners intact?

We may learn from India on how she dealt with Iran or Libya or Syria, opposing the USA.

The article recommended the need to communicate often in New York and suggested the rule to be “No surprises.” For us the venues will be different. The relationships between us and these two countries had been full of surprises and the communications had sometimes bordered on abrasiveness, which should be avoided. From the way Indians reacted to us in Geneva, it seems that pre- May 2009 approaches, where Minister Basil Rajapaksa, President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa successfully coordinated with the Indians, are totally lost.

In fact, the proposition of the forthcoming meeting (in June) of the U.S.-India “Strategic Dialogue” could be another opportunity on our tables because Minister GL Peiris meets with Secretary Clinton (in May) in the USA, before Minster Krishna. Will Minister Peiris make Minister Krishna a Lilliputian by his presentations to Secretary Clinton?

There will be some commentators who may complain that these lessons are “lessons for stooging” and subjugate Sri Lanka. Let the comments be. As time is running out let us live in international political realities rather than being so rhetoric.

(The writer is a retired secretary of Defence)

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