Issue BriefsPublished on Oct 12, 2021 PDF Download
ballistic missiles,Defense,Doctrine,North Korea,Nuclear,PLA,SLBM,Submarines

Strengthening Global Rule-Making: India’s Inclusion in the UN Security Council

India’s August 2021 presidency of the United Nations Security Council allowed New Delhi to exhibit clout, creativity, and diplomacy, as it pushed for its inclusion in the Council permanently. Such a push reignites the “responsible stakeholder” debate in Washington and other Western capitals, particularly to gauge India’s rise against the interests of the US and its allies. This brief argues that the West needs to reassess India in a renewed light. It also suggests that the debate in India, currently focused on reforms, should include discussions about the responsibilities that come with a position of power.


Harsh V Pant and Chirayu Thakkar, “Strengthening Global Rule-Making: India’s Inclusion in the UN Security Council,” ORF Issue Brief No. 499, October 2021, Observer Research Foundation.


In August 2021 India had its moment at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) when it took over the one-month presidency while serving its two-year term as the elected member for 2021-2022. Over the past decades, the permanent members of the UNSC have sought to erode the powers of non-permanent elected members, such as India, reducing their ability to utilise the forum in a meaningful way. For New Delhi, sitting in the Security Council pulpit—however briefly—allowed it to demonstrate to the world that it can deftly navigate the uncertainties of global governance. The presidency gave New Delhi the opportunity to exhibit clout, creativity, and diplomacy, while targeting its adversary China without directly naming it in presidential statements. Seizing the opportunity, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi elected to preside over the UNSC meeting on maritime security on 9 August, becoming the first Indian premier to act in this capacity.[1]

By expanding its footprint in multilateral organisations, India is gearing up to become a global rule-maker. This desire to play a larger role in international affairs coincides with a heightening of the US’s expectations from its democratic partners to play a greater role in upholding the global rules-based order, especially with the rise of a revisionist China, aided by an equally disaffected Russia. Western intelligentsia and policymakers feel that democracies such as India, which have maintained an arm’s length from western security architecture, should now join the West in upholding the order whether for collective reasons or their narrow self-interests.

Yet, even as the call for the world’s largest democracy—operating under the rule of law with free markets—to carry a heavier burden is an apposite and timely recommendation, it is riddled with a paradox. India cannot play a significant role without having a permanent seat at the institution that was built to uphold global peace, security, and order. The old order, therefore, cannot ensure continuity without first necessarily going through the process of accommodation. The point of institutional reform, particularly at the UNSC, brings to fore the old debate about juxtaposing India’s past non-alignment principles, or today’s multi-alignment policy, against core Western interests. Another debate which should occur in India is about the responsibilities that come with a position of power.

This brief argues that it is time for the United States (US) and its Western allies to reassess India’s behaviour in multilateral platforms. For its part, India needs to engage in internal conversations about responsibilities while working for both a permanent UNSC seat, and larger institutional reforms. These debates are mutually reinforcing: without the possibility of reforms in sight, there would not be enough conversations in New Delhi about the ways and means in which it can share a heavier burden with the global powers. Similarly, clearer signs of India’s willingness will allay fears about the country’s capabilities as a responsible stakeholder. This brief is appended by key highlights of India’s UNSC presidency in August.

India-US Interests: Current Convergence

New Delhi’s push for a permanent seat at the UNSC has reignited debates in Washington regarding India’s future behaviour vis-à-vis the US’s interests. Will India be a responsible stakeholder? To what extent should the United States invest in India’s rise within the international arena? Can the United States and India cooperate in the multilateral system? These are only some of the questions sparked by India’s recent attempts to break into the highest rungs of multilateral governance.

To be sure, US-India partnership has improved markedly in the last two decades. However, at the UN, India toes the US’s line with less frequency than do other US allies.[2] This has caused consternation amongst US policymakers. Given India’s frequent multilateral alignment with Russia and China, some believe that India is part of a counterhegemonic bloc that can jeopardise Western interests. Some of these fears are misplaced, however, and India-US convergence on many issues remains possible through dialogue. To demonstrate this possibility, this brief outlines five propositions that should help solidify India’s status as a potential US ally in global governance.

First, as Xenia Dormandy, former South Asia director at the US National Security Council (NSC), says, “India’s interests will be parallel to those of the United States, but they would not be identical.”[3] India has shown that it will back democratically elected governments, albeit without military support, as in the case of Afghanistan or Myanmar. At the same time, India has been unwilling to sign off on coercive or military measures to install democratic governments in other countries. Similarly, India would want to stand with the United States in curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme—but not if it means risking its own geopolitical and energy interests. Indeed, India begrudgingly terminated oil imports from Iran[4] and has occasionally voted against Tehran as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency;[5] yet it also did not treat Iran as a pariah simply because the Trump administration wanted to inflict maximum pressure on Tehran.[6]

Second, India’s divergent behaviour does not harm US core interests; except perhaps for its relations with Russia. India’s current positions may not be enthusiastically aligned with those of the US, but they are not entirely opposed: containing China, preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, enhancing maritime security, emphasising a rules-based world order, combating climate change, and promoting free-market democracies. However, some points of friction do exist, such as India’s request for a higher vote share in multilateral financial institutions and its various protectionist tendencies. Additionally, India is not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (or NPT). Nevertheless, Washington has either made peace with some of these issues (e.g., India’s nuclear status) or reduced the friction by accommodating New Delhi (e.g., India’s request for a quota increase in the International Monetary Fund).[7]

Third, the aspirations of India’s strategic policymaking elites for a multipolar world recognise other powers’ interests, including those of Russia. What the US must realise, however, is that India draws the line regarding some of Russia’s methods. For example, although New Delhi found Moscow’s political interests in Crimea to be legitimate, it abstained from the vote on a UN General Assembly resolution on the matter.[8] India also declined to take Russia’s side at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on the issue of former military officer Sergei Skripal’s poisoning.[9] India’s engagement with Russia would remain a crucial bridge multilaterally for the West. Successive US presidents since Barack Obama have seen the need to engage Russia. Pushing Russia completely into China’s corner will not be in the West’s interests. However, domestic politics restricts much of Western engagement. By remaining present for the maritime debate at the UNSC against China’s extensive lobbying, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown certain de-hyphenation between India and China. It also demonstrates that India’s “strategic autonomy”— which is chided in the West—can be leveraged fruitfully.[10]

In part, Russia, India, and China’s voting convergence reflects their parallel efforts to court the Global South constituency. In contrast to Russia, India is highly unlikely to willingly align with China amidst the latter’s recent displays of aggression. Beijing’s belligerence has transformed it into a common adversary, forcing New Delhi to work multilaterally with Washington and Brussels to halt Beijing’s surging influence at the United Nations. Beijing’s recent surreptitious attempts at including the “Xi Jinping thought” into UN documents were thwarted by India, European, and American diplomats collectively.[11]

Fourth, India occupies a ‘grey zone’ between the developing and developed worlds;[12] it has one foot in the G77 and another partially in the G7,[13] sharing strategic and warm political relations with most G7 governments without diminishing its ability to voice the interests of developing countries. For example, although New Delhi actively works toward attaining climate goals for itself,[14] as an advocate for the developing world, it still presses its developed country counterparts to do more and pay more for climate adaptation and mitigation. Instead of being concerned about this,[15] US policymakers should make every effort to constructively utilise New Delhi’s goodwill with the Global South. Any gaps India leaves with this constituency could be seen as having been ceded to an evangelising China, which hews closely to the G77 without being a member.

Fifth, India does not have any militarised disputes and has not shown any revanchist policy beyond its standing disputes with neighbours China and Pakistan. India’s limited geography of conflicts not only reduces the likelihood that it would abuse its power, but also means that India has less geopolitical constraints and could therefore play a relatively neutral role globally as a permanent member of the Security Council. It is also worth noting that India resists global interference in its present disputes.

The dialogue with India can be much more productive and realistic if these propositions are included in the US’s assessment of India. It would also wean away unwarranted frustration that can emanate from imprecise expectations from India to behave like the core US allies.

Before this analysis proceeds to the next section, a reflection on the scope of the UNSC reforms debate in the global capitals is warranted. The call for reforms at the UNSC is often narrowly seen through the prism of representation, which, although important, is not the only factor that impedes the Council from becoming more effective. Two other crucial aspects—resourcing and realignment of priorities—should be considered simultaneously. Most global governance institutions today are grossly underfunded. The routine funding commitments are not met by the states to the extent that the UN Secretary General has had to implore states to clear their arrears in order for the UN to meet its basic operational requirements.[16] Many shared challenges are emerging across the globe—climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, mass migration and displacement, and conflicts. Member states cannot expect to benefit from the global governance system without contributing to its functioning. Second, bringing more members to the Council would not necessarily resolve all the challenges unless the new notion of “conflict”—expanded thematically and altered geographically—is realised by the Council. As the centre of economic gravity has moved to the Indo-Pacific, so have the challenges to global peace and security. Thematically, for example, the cyber realm poses as much risk as conventional conflict.

This, however, is not to undermine the representation debate. Some of these challenges cannot be met without involving emerging powers like India. The lack of efficacy of multilateral institutions is paving the way for “plurilateral and minilateral forums… [that] are viewed as more effective and efficient ways of dealing with not only traditional security issues but also nontraditional ones.”[17] If the UNSC does not adapt to these security realities and address the issues of representation, resourcing, and realignment of priorities, it is leaving a considerable void only to be filled by an assortment of coalitions of the willing.

Rights vs. Responsibilities

This brief has earlier suggested that conversations in Washington and other Western capitals about India’s role in global governance be reoriented. At the same time, conversations in New Delhi should include more points on the responsibilities that come with a permanent seat at the UNSC. India’s ambition has a tinge of entitlement: New Delhi believes that the country should sit at the Security Council table by virtue of having the world’s second-largest population, its historic contributions to peacekeeping, and, of late, its increasing economic heft. What is missing from this perspective is the focus on responsibilities—financial, material, and political—that are required for such an elevation. For instance, India contributes roughly $23.4 million to the UN’s vast $3-billion operational budget. Is New Delhi willing, and will it be able, to share more of the financial burden? Apart from regularly assessed contributions, permanent Security Council members provide massive voluntary contributions. India will need to bring its aspirations and obligations into closer alignment. From India’s perspective, the only hurdles to its ascent to permanent-member status are procedural and political, which it believes it can overcome by continually pressing for Security Council reforms and improving its international appeal.

Regarding multilateralism, if a “Third World” focus has dominated India’s economic thinking, India’s desire to obtain global support for its Security Council bid and its position in the Kashmir conflict have constricted its political thinking. A practitioner of non-alignment during the Cold War, India currently abides by a policy of issue-based alignment, continuing to abstain from identifying consistently with any bloc. Furthermore, to marshal maximum support for its Security Council bid, New Delhi has sought to avoid alienating any major UN constituencies by not taking positions that could harm their interests. Therefore, abstentions are considered India’s default choice in UN voting.[18]

Such risk-averse, non-alienating strategy has paid off in terms of international goodwill and has elicited some global support for its core interests, such as its territorial claims in Kashmir.[19] The strategy, however, fails to signal to India’s Western partners whether it is willing to take a strong stand, including offending others in egregious situations if necessary. India will likely refrain from altering its time-tested, “silence is golden” orientation until it becomes a permanent member.[20] Nevertheless, acting on a global stage is a form of political responsibility, and Indian strategic thinkers need to weigh in on India’s future political conduct while ensuring how such conduct serves New Delhi’s interests within the region and beyond. The lack of such conversations limits the deepening of necessary strategic thought New Delhi needs prior to assuming crucial responsibilities.

In the meantime, however, India can at least learn to rise above Kashmir when acting as an international player. For instance, India has distanced itself from the Arria Formula meetings (informal consultations at Security Council) ever since Pakistan tried to abuse that format to raise the issue of Kashmir.[21] If India truly seeks to become a dominant global player, it cannot be so easily bothered by hostile behaviour from others. When Estonia arranged an Arria-formula meeting to mark the seventh anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia participated in the process even though the event was unpalatable to Moscow. The Russian Mission to the United Nations later called its own meeting on the subject. Moving forward, India needs to stop avoiding such informal arrangements, and instead use them as creative opportunities for diplomacy. Similarly, New Delhi should prepare itself for more scrutiny from its friends and partners as its status rises.

While Indian diplomats strive hard at securing promises of support in their joint communiques from as many countries as possible, they should also foster conversations about what their foreign counterparts would expect from a rising New Delhi sitting permanently at the horse-shoe table in New York. Such conversations within the Ministry and outside in the policy circles are as necessary as the deliberations on UNSC reform.


From the perspective of the United States, policymakers are right to bet on democracies like India. Nevertheless, any expectation for India to be like other established Asian democracies (e.g., Japan or South Korea) will be frustrating and ineffective for multilateral, if not strategic, efforts. As formal allies, both Japan and South Korea have comfortably placed themselves next to the United States on a range of global governance issues, such as the executive powers of the UN secretary-general, nonproliferation treaties, conditional debt relief, and even regime change operations.[22] India, which is still averse to the idea of a formal alliance, will sit in the same pew as the United States and its allies, but a little farther away. Nevertheless, India remains amenable to critical US and Western interests, as seen by evolving, constructive position on efforts to mitigate climate change.

Although New Delhi’s current disagreements with Washington are indeed due to contrasting interests, the divergence between the two governments pales in comparison to Beijing’s truculence. As its economy continues to rise and affinity with the West grows, New Delhi’s interests will continue to evolve. For now, India and the United States have an abridged alliance within the multilateral arena, meaning that India will not be a promoter of the entire gamut of US positions; however, India is not likely either to jeopardise the US’s core interest of maintaining the current global order.

With this understanding, New Delhi should continue raising the issue of UNSC reform with Washington, and Washington should entertain the possibility instead of making it a diplomatic routine of endorsing India’s bid in bilateral statements. Without any real signs of willingness to reform the institution, it would be too much to ask from New Delhi to raise its bid as a “responsible stakeholder”. India’s Security Council presidency in August has shown enough indicators of how US and Western interests converge with those of New Delhi on certain key areas. As common threats in areas like maritime security grow and the old order crumbles, Washington should seriously consider that it is time to bring a partner like India to the Security Council permanently for both their interests, and those of other stakeholders as well. 

About the Authors

Prof. Harsh V Pant is Director of Studies and Head, Strategic Studies Programme at ORF.

Chirayu Thakkar is a joint doctoral candidate at the National University of Singapore and King’s College London.


Appendix A: India’s UNSC Presidency, August 2021

India’s presidency at the UN Security Council in August 2021 had by far the most ambitious agenda compared to its earlier stints. The Indian permanent mission organised three signature events and produced 14 ‘outcome documents.’ The three events were organised on the topics of maritime security, peacekeeping operations, and terrorism in the Middle East, which were chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, respectively.

Exactly ten years ago, India had the Council presidency in August 2011, when it adopted one resolution, two presidential statements, and issued eight press statements.[23] In comparison, India adopted five resolutions, three presidential statements, and issued five press statements during its August 2021 presidency.

Signature Events:

(1 ) Enhancing Maritime Security: A Case for International Cooperation

This event was the most highlighted one of the three. It was chaired by Prime Minister Modi, the first Indian premier ever to preside over a Security Council meeting. The African Union was invited and was represented by the deputy prime minister of the Republic of Congo, who is currently serving as chair. Russia, Kenya, Vietnam, and Niger were represented by their heads of government. Foreign ministers or equal-ranking Cabinet members represented other permanent and elected members. Only China and Tunisia were represented by their UN envoys. Such a high level of representation elevated the stature of the debate. In this debate, PM Modi ideated fives principles of maritime security.[24]

(2) Threats to International Peace and Security caused by Terrorist Acts

External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar chaired this meeting dealing with terrorism as a global issue from Africa to Afghanistan. He also addressed it in national capacity laying out an eight-point action plan to meet the challenge of terrorism.[25] India again urged UN members to adopt the “Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism,” something New Delhi has been pressing for many years. All 15 members of the council stated how their respective geographies are afflicted by terrorism and presented their views on addressing the scourge of terror. Apart from national representatives, there were three debriefers: (1) Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism, (2) Michèle Coninsx, Executive Director of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee, and (3) Davood Moradian, Director General of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. The UN Secretary General’s latest report on ISIL was also discussed.[26]

(3) The Middle East Peace Process, including the Palestine Question

India conducted its third event on the last second day of its presidency. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla chaired the meeting. The event started with a debriefing from Tor Wennesland, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General, who informed the meeting of both the devastation and recovery after three months of deadly exchange between Israel and Gaza. All 15 members presented their views in line with their long-term positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Foreign Secretary reaffirmed its support for a viable Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.[27]

Presidential Statements:

UNSC defines a presidential statement as “a statement made by the President of the Security Council on behalf of the Council, adopted at a formal meeting of the Council and issued as an official document of the Council.” India made the following statements during its presidency:

  • Reports of the Secretary-General on the Sudan and South Sudan (S/PRST/2021/14)
  • Maintenance of International Peace and Security (S/PRST/2021/15) [Maritime Security]
  • Peace and Consolidation in West Africa (S/PRST/2021/16)
  • United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (S/PRST/2021/17)

UNSC Resolutions:

UNSC defines resolutions as “formal expressions of the opinion or will of United Nations organs.” Under India’s presidency, the following resolutions were adopted collectively:

  • United Nations Peacekeeping Operations S/RES/2589(2021)
  • The Situation in Mali S/RES/2590(2021)
  • The Situation in the Middle East S/RES/2591(2021)
  • The Situation in Somalia S/RES/2592(2021) [Extension of UNSOM]
  • The Situation in Afghanistan S/RES/2593(2021)

Press statements:

Press statements are a routine affair at UN Security Council that inform the world about Council proceedings. They also give presidencies a chance to spontaneously offer their opinion on issues related to global peace and security before extensive consultations happen in other settings, whether formal or informal. Keeping the UN spirit alive, India condemned the terrorist attacks in Pakistan in one of the press statements. The following press statements were made during India’s presidency, which excludes releases that are routinely issued to the media:

  • Escalating Violence in Afghanistan (SC/14592)
  • Terrorist Attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan (SC/14597)
  • Situation in Afghanistan (SC/14604)
  • Statement on ISIL/Da’esh (SC/14609)
  • Terrorist Attack Near Kabul Airport (SC/14615)


[1] Modi first Indian PM to preside over UN Security Council meeting: Syed Akbaruddin Hindustan Times, August 01, 2021. At the end of the debate, India issued a Security Council presidential statement.

[2] Chirayu Thakkar, India and the United States: Friends Elsewhere, Foes at the UN. Stimson Center Policy Memo, 2020.

[3] Xenia Dormandy “Is India, or Will it Be, a Responsible International Stakeholder?” The Washington Quarterly, 30(3) (2007): 117-130.

[4] US deadline ends, India stops purchasing Iranian oil. Economic Times, May 24, 2019.

[5] India votes against Iran in IAEA resolution. The Hindu, November 27, 2009.

[6] Trump abandons Iran Nuclear Deal he long scorned. The New York Times, May 08, 2018.

[7] For other divergences in the current context, Harsh V Pant and Chirayu Thakkar, “The U.S.-India Relationship Is the Quad’s Litmus Test, Foreign Policy, September 29, 2021.

[8] Russia has legitimate interests in Ukraine: Shivshankar Menon. Business Standard, March 06, 2014.

[9] India abstains on voting on proposal on UK spy case at The Hague. Economic Times, April 05, 2019.

[10] Putin’s presence in UN debate on Maritime Security underlines India’s strategic autonomy. Economic Times, August 16, 2021.

[11] India-US-EU Combine Halts China’s Belt and Road Initiative at the UN. The Wire, December 12, 2018.

[12] India, New Delhi, “GOI Agrees with UN Reform Initiative,” Wikileaks cable: 06NEWDELHI4827_a. Dated July 10, 2006.

[13] Alyssa Ayres, “India and the G7.” Council on Foreign Relations Blog, June 04, 2020. (accessed October 01, 2020)

[14] Climate Transparency, Climate Transparency Report 2020.

[15] Kara C. McDonald and Steward M. Patrick, UN Security Council Enlargement and U.S. Interests, Council on Foreign Relations Special Report No. 10, 2010.

[16] UN in cash crisis from unpaid dues, secretary-general says. ABC News, April 03, 2020.

[17] Harsh V. Pant, Council of Councils Global Memo, Global Perspectives: The UN Turns Seventy-Five. Here’s How to Make it Relevant Again. September 14, 2020.

[18] Ashok Malik, “A Case in Absentia. Pragati, (2012).

[19] Rekha Dixit, “Scrapping of Article 370: Measured reactions from international community. The Week, (2019).

[20] C. Raja Mohan, “India’s Strategic Future. Foreign Policy, November 04, 2010.

[21] It is not possible for India to boycott Arria-formula meetings entirely as an elected member. Nevertheless, usually an Indian diplomat would start their address to the meeting by placing on record India’s “reservations on this format of meeting as it has been misused in recent past.” A state for illustration can be found here. For the account of Pakistan’s unsuccessful attempt at using Arria-formula meeting for Kashmir and India’s diplomatic activism to block it, see Gharekhan, Chinmaya (2006). The Horseshoe Table: An Inside View of the UN Security Council. New Delhi: Pearson Education.

[22] Consult the comparative graph in Chirayu Thakkar, India and the United States.

[23] Excerpts of then Indian PR Hardeep Puri’s letter.

[24] Text of PM Modi’s speech.

[25] Text of EAM Jaishankar’s speech.

[26] UNSG’s ISIL Report.

[27] Text of Foreign Secretary Shringla’s speech.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

Read More +
Chirayu Thakkar

Chirayu Thakkar

Chirayu Thakkar is a joint doctoral candidate at the National University of Singapore and Kings College London.

Read More +