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Don’t Reform the Security Council

By Jonathan Cristol

Every year, the opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is accompanied by predictable calls for UN Security Council (UNSC) reform. There is widespread agreement that reform is necessary, but complete disagreement about the specifics. The depth of this disagreement can be seen in the  framework agreement for UNSC reform, adopted on Sept. 14. The agreement is 25 pages long, with 123 pages of addenda, and contains an almost infinite number of permutations of changes. It succeeds only in highlighting the impossibility of UNSC reform passing either the UNGA or the UNSC.

The UNSC does not need reform. States support particular reforms either because those reforms are in their national interest, because they know they won’t happen, or because they value diversity and transparency over functionality and efficacy.

The most common reason cited for UNSC reform is that it is not reflective of “the geopolitical realities of our current world,” to quote the previous UNGA president, Sam Kahamba Kutesa.  But in fact, it is more reflective of the current geopolitical reality than it was at its creation in 1945, when France was in ruins and China was scarcely a regional power. The current “P5” — U.S., Russia, China, U.K., and France — are (still) the most powerful states in world.  The U.S. and China are the two largest economies, the U.S. and Russia have the two largest nuclear arsenals, and China is rapidly expanding its military force projection and has already built a worldwide economic empire. The U.K. and France have nuclear arsenals, global cultural reach, and are the 6th and 7th largest economies. More importantly, they are the only five powers that can act with impunity — impunity which does not stem from the veto power, but from “geopolitical reality.”

There are two points of agreement for UNSC reform among the member-states — that the UNSC should be expanded and that it should be more transparent. Even the current P5 publicly support expansion in principle, which is easy to do when you know that your rivals will always oppose the reforms you support and vice versa. Transparency is a trickier one, which the U.K. and France have said is, “a matter for consideration by the Security Council, not the General Assembly.”  This highlights a key aspect of reform as without P5 unanimity on reform, reform will not happen. And no state is going to vote to make itself less powerful.

UNSC expansion could take many forms. There could be an addition of permanent members with the veto power or permanent members without the veto power. There could be an addition of rotating seats with the veto power or an expansion of the non-permanent members, as happened in 1966 when the number of non-permanent members expanded from six to ten. In the end, it is hard enough to get agreement of the P5 plus 4 of the 10 non-permanent members that to add additional members, even without the veto, makes sense only if the goal of the organization is diversity and not functionality.

UNSC transparency is the major concern of the smaller states that would never be considered for a permanent seat on the UNSC and have no major ally in such (faux-) contention for a permanent seat. Here too, national interest gets in the way of efficacy and functionality. The only way for the UNSC to allow for effective, open, and full debates are for its deliberations to be held in secret and off-the-record. Were the UNSC to hold hearings and to deliberate in public, it would turn into another venue for showboating and grandstanding, and serious discussions of peace and security would fully return to the ad hoc bi- and multilateral talks that predated the UN System.  

And this result of reform is key: The dilution of the power of the P5 would succeed in making the UNSC more reflective of the UNGA, but it would also pave the way for more ad hoc side-meetings, informal arrangements, and unilateral action. The reason that a P5 state can take whatever action it wants — invade Iraq, annex Eastern Ukraine, build artificial islands to expand territorial waters, intervene in West Africa, and so forth — is not because it can veto any UNSC resolution directed against it. The P5 states can get away with anything because no other states have the power to stop them. Nuclear weapons, force projection capabilities, and global economic strength provide a lot more cover than does the veto power.  

The P5 are the exact right states to exercise veto power over matters of international peace and security. E.H. Carr wrote in 1933, “the constant intrusion… of power renders almost meaningless any conception of equality between members of the international community,” and this lack of equality is why it is the most dominant states on the map can and should dominate the conference rooms in Turtle Bay. Even now the current set-up allows for small, geographically diverse states to override the P5; resolutions must have nine of 15 votes total to pass. The fact that the P5 can do what they want anyway, is exactly why they should be the P5 in the first place.  And there is no other state that could realistically be added with a veto power.

The UNSC is absolutely a sub-optimal structure for maintaining international peace and security. But in the reality in which we all exist, this sub-optimal structure is optimal. Calls for UNSC reform sound great and make people feel good about themselves, but the structure of the body should remain unchanged. It isn’t that the UNSC allows the P5 to act with impunity, it is that the states that can act with impunity comprise the P5, and it is only with their unanimity that anything substantive can be achieved.

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Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College.  Follow him on Twitter at @jonathancristolHe reports from the United Nations on international security and UN reform.

[Photo courtesy of John Gilespie]

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