Confronted with the ongoing crisis in Syria, a period in which Russia has seemingly reverted to tactics reminiscent of Andrej Gromyko’s use of the veto, which earned him the nickname “Mr. Nyet”, the UN Security Council (UNSC), yet again, faces age-old allegations of anachronism and widespread unworkability. Of course, these accusations of self-interested policymaking are by no means unique to Russia; the US frequently utilises the all-powerful veto to protect Israeli interests in the Middle East. Indeed, the stagnant politics of the UNSC are well known. I need not dull you with a history lesson. In virtually every international crisis Security Council members vote first to ensure that resolutions are favourable to their domestic interests. Successful conflict management and resolution become afterthoughts, relegated to a de facto list of secondary priorities. As a consequence, the Security Council’s frequent deadlocks prevent it from “maintaining international peace and security” found in Chapter V of the UN Charter. Indeed, it fails so spectacularly in fulfilling its mandate it would border on the humorous if not for the severity of the issue. Think Rwanda, Kosovo, Somalia, ad infinitum.
Historically speaking, it is relatively easy to trace the origins of the UNSC. Preliminary planning at the ambassadorial level took place at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, where already there were mutterings of the possibility of a relatively exclusive organ of the UN that would serve as a forum for deliberative action among the ‘great powers’. This was formalised in the Charter the following year in San Francisco. Over the past half-century, however, two dominant narratives have emerged concerning the mindsets and attitudes of the architects of the UN. The first posits draftees simply assumed the allies would continue their cooperation into the post-war period. Of course, the mutual possession of nuclear weapons by the opposing Eastern and Western blocs did not exist either at the time of writing (the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came months after the San Francisco Conference). Conversely, those with a predisposition for scepticism argue the intentional concentration of authority in the Security Council away from the General Assembly coupled with the existence of the veto reflected the fears of a possible direct superpower confrontation. The relative inoperability of the UNSC was, in effect, meant to preserve the status quo. For lack of a better word, we may term the latter of these two conflicting paradigms ‘pragmatic if not slightly cynical’, and the former ‘overly idealistic’.
Either way, the UNSC cannot indefinitely ignore reality. Paralysis abounds. Moreover, the lack of inclusivity and wholly undemocratic nature of the system lays in direct contradiction with the core principle of sovereign equality that underlies the international system.
Perhaps most crucially, the UNSC is woefully anachronistic, reflecting the geopolitics of a bygone era. The five permanent members (P5) once spoke for close to forty percent of the world’s population. They now account for less than twenty-nine percent. In particular, France exercises a level of influence on world politics that cannot be justified by its military, political, or economic ranking in the world. France provides only eighteen percent of the EU’s GDP ($2.097 trillion), behind both the UK ($2.128 trillion) and Germany ($2.81 trillion). Additionally, aside from its support of NATO, French military influence is largely limited to Francophone regions of Africa. Likewise, the UK, though extremely proficient in the application of ‘soft power’, has seen a continued decline in global prestige. Moreover, in the unlikely event that Scotland were to win next year’s independence referendum, William Hague has warned that a corresponding loss in population and GDP would result in a further “diminished” Britain.
Conversely, regional power Germany, colloquially referred to as a “P5+1” country since 2006 when it joined the round table and offered extensive participation in an attempt to effort to resolve the ongoing nuclear saga in Iran, is yet to be afforded the coveted permanent Security Council seat. The world’s largest democracy (India) is excluded. So too are other regional powers such as Brazil and Japan. In wake of decolonisation a half-hearted venture largely meant to quell Afro-Arab grievances was undertaken, and in 1966 the number of non-permanent seats was increased from eleven to fifteen. Nonetheless, Africa and the entire Islamic world remain ostracized.
Though objectively it is apparent UNSC reform is essential, the politics and mutual backstabbing that tends to dominate P5 decision-making similarly makes the nature of potential reform highly contentious. Furthermore, it is not totally clear what is and isn’t politically tenable. Of course, there have been prior attempts at reform. In 1997, a Malaysian diplomat introduced a plan that won significant support but ultimately succumbed to political divisions in the General Assembly. The most recent and highly publicised attempt came in 2005 when then Secretary General Kofi Annan drafted several plausible reform packages endorsing the Council’s expansion from fifteen to twenty-four members. Again, however, idealism succumbed to the politics of the General Assembly.
Further complicating matters, the P5, while vocal in their support of the ascension of such countries as Germany to the permanent ranks of the Security Council, fear reform would dilute their power; the process would require considerable sacrifice on the part of the current permanent members who jealously guard their all-powerful vetoes. That said, reform does not necessarily require the addition of veto-wielding states nor the complete revocation of such a principle. Crucial is the distinction between permanent membership and the acquisition the veto.
Meanwhile, the four leading aspirants for permanent seats (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan—collectively known was the G4) are viewed with an understandable aura of suspicion by the General Assembly, who argue that the G4, far from altruistic coalition, simply seeks to expand Council’s oligarchic structure rather than fundamentally alter it.
Africa represents another quandary. It is no secret that post-colonial countries have long resented the power of countries with the UNSC veto that reflects the post-Second World War era balance of power, but who exactly would fill a potential permanent opening on the Security Council? The African Union has done little to rectify the situation. Senegal has expressed interest and pending the support of France, but would automatically be vetoed by China for its recognition of Taiwan. That leaves regional powers Nigeria and South Africa. The size of its economy and strong relationship with the G8 make South Africa a strong frontrunner, but it still faces infrequent instances of domestic instability.
Micro-level African diplomatic struggles, in effect, reflect a much larger roadblock: reforming the Security Council and correspondingly amending the UN Charter requires the agreement of at least two-thirds of member states in the General Assembly and all five permanent members of the Security Council. The issue of veto power aside, the UNSC could potentially be expanded to include permanent members Japan, Germany, India, Brazil, and South Africa, but Argentina would not accept Brazil, Pakistan would almost certainly reject India, and Nigeria would not accept South Africa. It would seem that many members ostensibly agree reform is necessary, but disagree as to the nature of such reform, preferring the Council they know to a reformed Council they do not.
Nevertheless, one simple but dramatic step UN members seeking reform could take: stop tacitly endorsing the Security Council’s current structure by voting each year to elect new non-permanent members. Refusing to engage in the annual UNSC election process until the realisation of genuine discussion of reform would be a modest and proportional act of disobedience. There would be a significant collective action problem, of course, and there would have to be a well-coordinated agreement to abstain. With a large bloc of states withholding votes and assuming a workable solution could be found to the issue of regional rivalry (a big assumption), however, no new members could be elected and the Security Council could face an institutional crisis. Weak though they may be, there are precedents for such a change: China replaced Taiwan in 1971, and Russia replaced the defunct Soviet Union in 1991 on the Security Council.
Nonetheless, it is relatively uncontroversial that any expansion of the UNSC should increase representativeness of the Council (credibility and legitimacy) while simultaneously ensuring its effectiveness. The lack of representation is augmented by a lack of transparency, a topic of particular controversy at this year’s General Assembly high-level meetings. Though apologists retrospectively argue the P5 is perhaps a necessary evil, assuring continued dialogue between the great powers, in the short-term the Security Council should expand its permanent membership to be more inclusive and reflective of today’s geopolitical realities. Such measures would also enhance the institution’s legitimacy. Even if a Security Council reformed for the better were possible, however, it is noteworthy to add that the UN is merely a pseudo-state actor with limited personality; with the exception of the Secretary General, it is still dependent on the cooperation and good will of the sovereign state system.