It's the time of year when world leaders converge at the United Nations headquarters in New York. And this year, there will be a lot of talk about multilateral diplomacy — a priority for the Obama administration since it came to office.
Obama's team has courted the world's rising powers, even publicly backing India's hopes to one day be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. But now that India, along with South Africa and Brazil, have rotating seats on the council, U.S. officials and many human rights activists complain they're not living up to expectations.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., says she's had a chance to get a close-up look at how those three countries have been acting on the world stage lately. She's not sounding particularly enthusiastic.
"This has been an opportunity for them to demonstrate how they might act if they were to obtain permanent membership, and for us to assess our level of enthusiasm about that," she says. "Let me just say we've learned a lot, and not all of it, frankly, encouraging."
Philippe Bolopion, who monitors the U.N. for Human Rights Watch, has also been keeping tabs on these countries and doesn't like what he sees, either — especially in the case of Syria.
"It is extremely disappointing, to say the least, to see that India, Brazil and South Africa, for example, are not more eager to get more Security Council action on Syria," he says. "Over 2,000 protesters, peaceful protesters, have been killed — and yet these countries are reluctant to apply any significant pressure on the Assad regime."
U.N. ambassadors from those three nations went to Syria to meet with officials in President Bashar Assad's government. While Bolopion says it made sense for them to try diplomacy, that effort has clearly failed. Still, he says, they don't seem eager to step up the pressure on Assad even now.
The same is true in the case of Sudan, he says, despite U.N. reports that the Sudanese air force has been bombing civilians in a region called Southern Kordofan.
"The U.N. has documented crimes against humanity, in some cases. U.N. peacekeepers have been subjected to mock executions. A U.N. contractor was even killed," Bolopion says. "And yet the Security Council did not say a single word, not even a statement, absolutely nothing. And of course, the Sudanese regime takes notice of that stuff."
That's a case where you might expect a big regional player like South Africa would want to take a lead, he says.
"Their inaction on key human rights issues is quite puzzling, because they do at home defend the very values we would hope to see them defend in the Security Council," Bolopion says.
But there are a lot of big power politics at play at the United Nations, according to David Bosco, author of the book, Five to Rule Them All, a history of the Security Council. He says Brazil, India and South Africa have their own historical allies and see themselves as representing the developing world.
"There is, kind of coded into the DNA of these emerging powers, a deep skepticism of the West, in particular Western interventionism," Bosco says. "The Libya operation actually intensified that uncertainty and suspicion of Western intervention, because they saw the Libya intervention as regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention."
Bosco, an assistant professor at the American University School of International Service, says there's another reason why these countries don't often align themselves with Washington. If the Security Council ever does expand, they'd need broad support.
"They have to think about not only how do we cultivate Washington, but how do we cultivate all the other small and midsized states around the world that are going to determine what the shape of the new Security Council will be," he says. "Russia and China, of course, are big players here, and they are an alternative pole of many of these issues on human rights and interventionism."
Eventually, Bosco believes, this dry run of sorts will sour the U.S. on the idea of Security Council expansion.