Washington: In terms of the large geopolitical battles currently underway, the election of a judge to the International Court of Justice may seem like a small thing but tellingly, it has pitched India against Britain in a battle royale where loyalties of old friends and new are being tested.
At issue is the last seat in the world court where India’s Dalveer Bhandari and Britain’s Christopher Greenwood are in a very close fight. Eleven rounds of voting have already taken place in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the Security Council (UNSC) without a clear winner. To win, a candidate must get a majority in both chambers.
Bhandari has more than an edge in the UNGA where the world’s small and weak have a voice, whereas Greenwood has been winning in the UNSC where the old order holds sway.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has lobbied for Bhandari with various leaders as have other senior Indian officials. It is a time of reckoning. Will the US, France and Japan – India’s new friends – stand up to be counted and will old friends such as Russia do the “needful”?
Britain, the old colonial power has clearly made it a prestige issue, and a desperate measure of how much it still matters in a world that is passing it by. India, the new, emerging power, should see the election as a truth meter, as it were, to gauge the substance of its many newly minted “strategic partnerships.”
All these are and should be real questions as India calculates where things really stand in this world of flux but where the old Anglo-Saxon bonds still appear to hold true even if the US ambassador the UN is Nikki Haley, an Indian American.
Bhandari has consistently beaten Greenwood in the UNGA – he won the last vote 121-68 in the round last Thursday – but Greenwood has an edge in the UNSC for obvious reasons. He has nine votes to Bhandari’s five with one abstention. If the UNGA is the voice of the “people,” the UNSC is anything but.
Greenwood, interestingly, as professor law at the London School of Economics, had advised the British attorney general that the use of force in Iraq was justified when the Bush administration desperately sought support for what turned out to be the most egregious war of error.
Also read: To Beat Back UK Challenge on ICJ, India Seeks Two-Thirds Majority in UN General Assembly
The Bhandari-Greenwood deadlock has got UN member countries’ teeth on edge. It is being billed as a barometer of the state of the world. The difference of opinion between the two chambers on the two candidates is seen as a commentary on why the Brits should go home.
Yet they refuse to because they consider losing the first election in more than 90 years as a complete humiliation. The rest of the Permanent Five – the veto wielding powers – see the vote as an endurance test of their influence in a world desperate for the UN and its affiliated bodies to reflect change. If Britain is humiliated today, could they be next?
Britain, a declining power by any measure, has decided to resurrect the old colonial playbook. It has come up with an obscure tactic to stop the vote in the UNGA. It is using its fiat in the UNSC to get to the finishing line.
On Monday, November 20, the British, against all good legal advice, are set to invoke the mechanism of conducting a joint conference via the UNSC if they again lose the vote in the UNGA, which they will. The arcane proposal, last used 96 years ago, would select three members each from the UNGA and the UNSC to work out the logistics.
But it would throw the UNGA, which includes all countries, and the UNSC, which includes five permanent veto powers and ten members elected for a two-year term, into the realm of the unknown and a direct conflict. The result could be disastrous even for an institution that gets by using Kabuki and method acting as its go-to tactics.
Besides, the British move will expose UNSC members, who have so far been telling both sides they have voted for them, because the vote will not be secret but open. Most UNSC members don’t want to be exposed for obvious reasons because they can’t maintain their fiction.
The British will invoke the procedure only if they are sure they have the nine votes in the 15-member UNSC. If the voting in the UNGA stops after the first round, New Delhi will know the British have more sway over Washington, Tokyo and Paris than it does. And this is small potatoes compared to the real battles that may come down the line.
The Americans, it seems, haven’t even given it a thought to vote for the Indian candidate – call it disarray in the Trump administration or the inability of the US State Department to stray from the line. The US could easily vote for Bhandari without spending too much political capital but there is little hope it would. And what the US does, so does Japan for the most part.
India and the US have built a strong partnership over six administrations in Washington and four government in New Delhi. The Trump administration recently upped the ante by suggesting a “100-year partnership” with India when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called India and the US two “bookends” protecting everything that’s holy between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The expansive scenario Tillerson built before going to New Delhi last month was billed as defining the relationship for the “next century.” The election of Bhandari is but a small test of how the next 100 years will pan out.
Can US President Donald Trump, who is known to break rules and the tedium of conventional thinking or his senior officials, give a visible sign that they mean what they say?
The chips are down. If the Americans or the Japanese or any other newly minted friends of India can’t stand up to be counted, how can New Delhi hope for their support for the real battle that is not fought in the realm of bureaucratic gamesmanship and the arcana of the United Nations but in the real terrain?
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.