Great power dance at the United Nations


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Coupled with the re-engagement of existing and emerging powers with the proceedings, the UNGA is becoming an important venue for a great power dance

Time was when the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) jamboree in New York was an entertaining but worthless talkfest used by leaders such as Hugo Chavez, Muammar Gaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—desperate for their 15 minutes of international fame—to deliver sonorous, rambling grandiose or boorish speeches. More recently, however, the UNGA meeting and related special sessions around it have made the occasion a smidgen more relevant. Coupled with the re-engagement of existing and emerging powers with the proceedings, the UNGA is becoming an important venue for a great power dance.

Both these trends were evident at the recently concluded 70th UNGA session. The former was apparent in the special sessions to adopt the exhaustively negotiated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the special session on the future of UN peacekeeping. The latter was manifested in the rare appearance of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the grandstanding of US President Barack Obama, the radical declarations of China’s Xi Jinping and the earnest, though passé, efforts of India’s Narendra Modi.

President Putin’s efforts to use the UN to justify Russia’s military actions in Syria were deftly blocked by the US, which did not allow Moscow to table a thinly veiled Security Council presidential statement on West Asia. Similarly, President Obama’s call to enhance UN peacekeeping rang hollow given Washington’s inconsistent and self-serving support, especially in terms of troops and equipment, as well as the caveat that US troops do not come under UN command.

If the tried and tired approaches of the old order revealed the limits of their diplomatic prowess, then it was the bold initiatives of the emerging powers that caught the attention and imagination of the global gathering. Xi’s announcement that China would provide 8,000 troops to the UN for peacekeeping—more than the total number of troops provided by all other Security Council permanent members—was dramatic enough; but China’s additional offer of $1 billion for a UN “peace and development fund” was even more striking. In doing so, China appears to have signalled efforts to bridge the so-called “gold versus blood” divide (between those countries that fund peace operations and those who provide troops). While it remains to be seen whether China delivers on its promise, Xi’s offer is nonetheless a breath of fresh air in a stale room.

In contrast, Prime Minister Modi’s standard and traditional assertion of India’s peacekeeping role as a troop-contributing country did nothing either to enhance UN peacekeeping or provide political leverage for India’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council.

However, India did make two noteworthy contributions to the proceedings. First, with its unabashed embrace of the SDGs, India acknowledged that it was taking responsibility for making these goals a national and, hence, global success.

The other significant breakthrough was in the realm of climate change where India, especially in the G-4 (with Brazil, Germany and Japan) ministerial in New York, agreed to Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), which were announced a few days later. While the INDC did not go as far as many existing powers had hoped, it went much further than was comfortable for those opposed to any change in India’s traditional policy. The appreciation of India’s INDC announcement was evident in the $1 billion assistance offered by Germany to support India’s ambitious renewable energy goals. India’s INDC will contribute significantly to progress at the Paris climate change meet later this year.

Clearly, the UN is an important arena for existing and emerging powers to strut their stuff and India’s first tentative steps have shown that it is preparing to dance its way to great power status.

This column first appeared in Mint, on October 12, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.