UN Reform: Don’t Hold Your Breath

The interminable wrangling over the composition of the UN Security Council, scheduled to resume August 27, is unlikely to bear much fruit anytime soon. And that may not be such a bad thing. Almost all the proposals are worse than the situation they purport to remedy.

Reform of the UN Security Council (SC), under “open-ended” negotiation for almost 20 years, isn’t an issue to stir the masses. Those members of the global public who care about the UN at all are more likely to worry about the efficiency of the Council than its composition. However, in the diplomatic community the issue is about prestige and increasing the chances of smaller powers to get a seat at the top table.

In fact, all the various reform proposals should be read in the light of the motives of their proponents, who are often more concerned with diplomatic posturing than preparing the Council to deal more efficiently with global affairs. Indeed, many of the reforms suggested would tend to make the Security Council even less efficient.

The Italians, for instance, have suggested that a European Union seat should replace the British and French permanent memberships. The British and French vetoes rule out the idea, but even if the proposal has a spurious equity in terms of geographical balance on the Council, the EU is far from a decisive entity and a seat for it would effectively imply a perpetual abstention. Other maneuvers are simply blocking measures: the Italians are casting around for a way to deny Germany a permanent seat, the Pakistanis to thwart India, and the Argentineans to stop Brazil.

Expanding the Security Council?

Most of the current reform proposals involve adding members in order to broaden geographical representation, which is admittedly loaded in favor of the richer, more developed nations. Former unconfirmed U.S. representative to the UN John Bolton was rarely right about UN issues, but he certainly had a point that increasing the size of the Council much beyond 20 would turn it from a committee to a mass meeting.â€

Take the example of the Economic and Social Committee, which was supposed to handle the crises that possibly fueled World War II. This committee has trebled in size in order to become more “representative.” In 1965 the UN Charter was altered to increase its membership from 18 to 27 and in 1971 to 54.†Its effectiveness has diminished in inverse proportion. Its most newsworthy work now is blackballing various NGOs who have upset prominent members.

In the case of the permanent five members of the Security Council (P5) ó China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States ó the motive behind opposing reform is naked: the preservation of their historical privileges. The UN Charter is explicit: Any of the P5 can veto any changes to the Charter. These five countries have made it clear that they will not accept any significant change in their prerogatives. Indeed, while divisions among them have been a major factor in stopping the Council from being effective, they all unite firmly in opposing any reduction in their prerogatives.

During the Cold War, there was a certain brutal logic to position of the P5, since they were the only declared nuclear states. This status gave their SC veto more heft. However, no one today suggests giving North Korea, India, Pakistan, or Israel a permanent seat because they now have the nuclear qualification.

The veto is a touchy issue. Clearly unjust and unfair to those that do not have it, it is also a pragmatic response to the experience of the League of Nations. A Security Council bound by consensus would be totally ineffective. At the same time, major members, in particular the United States, probably would walk out of the organization if faced with decisions they did not like. In fact, much of the damage the veto does is by implication. A veto-holder uses its threat to dumb down resolutions before, and this is an American specialty, vetoing the attenuated result.

The veto may be unjust, but so is the world. The United States did not have to veto a resolution condemning the invasion of Iraq ó because nobody put one up for consideration. The positive resolutions by which the United Kingdom and United States sought Council approval were defeated, not by vetoes, but because Blair and Bush could not get a majority. Smaller powers have suggested that a nay vote be distinguished from the more portentous exercise of the veto. That would allow the United States and China to vote against a resolution, scoring points with their friends but allowing the majority vote to take effect.

Selective Additions

The P5 are now prepared to accept, in principle, the addition of more permanent members. But they continue to oppose any extension of the veto to the new permanent recruits. Their motives may be selfish but they are quite right. A Council frequently rendered ineffective by the possession of five vetoes would be condemning itself to perpetual irrelevance by doubling that possibility.

However, agreeing in principle is different from agreeing on exactly which countries get promoted. Since Japan and Germany pay more than four of the P5 in dues, they clearly have a claim to representation. But for the historical reasons that once stigmatized them as “former enemy powers,” both countries punch way below their military and diplomatic weight. Their membership is also opposed, respectively by China and Italy. And if they were accepted, the industrialized world would be even more over-represented on the Council.

Adding representation from the developing world encounters many obstacles as well. India would appear to be the most widely accepted candidate, but Pakistan and Indonesia each would quibble. Brazil, the favored representative of Latin America, could expect some opposition from Argentinean pride. Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa are in the running for the putative African permanent seat. The parlous state of democracy in the first two outweighs their population and power as candidates and there is no clear consensus.

One way around this regional opposition would be to add to the numbers of temporary seats on the Security Council. But this would bring the numbers to the breaking point. Indeed, the African states collectively pose almost as much of a threat to an effective UN as the veto-holders. The countries take turns for the temporary seats. The candidates are generally known decades in advance ó and they are not always the continent’s brightest and best.

Uniting for Change

The most creative proposal for change comes from the “Uniting for Change” group, which represents a range of motivations from Italy’s obdurate resistance to Germany becoming a permanent member to Canada’s apparently altruistic concern for UN efficacy. Instead of creating new permanent seats, this group suggests new, longer-term temporary seats, perhaps re-electable. To sweeten the pill for all the diplomats waiting their turn, they have also added more of the current form of temporary seats, putting the Council’s size dangerously close to ineffectiveness.

Apart from the fatal flaw of not flattering the amour propre of the aspirant great powers, this proposal certainly does more to enhance the democracy that is on every diplomat’s lips. The re-election provision would certainly help regional powers to be more accountable to their neighbor’s wishes, while the ending of current term limits would boost their ability to counter the P5′s current incumbent advantage.

Canada has also proposed three changes to make the Council work more effectively. First, the veto would be restricted to decisions taken under Chapter VII of the Charter ó those that involved forceful solutions. Second, the veto should not apply in discussions about “genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.” And third, when a member does use a veto, it must explain and justify that use publicly.

For the Canadian proposals to move forward, the United States as the only effective veto-wielder must agree to some or all of such changes. The Obama administration might be temperamentally more inclined than any U.S. government in the last three decades to embrace such changes. But at the moment, the last thing the Obama administration needs is for the anti-UN nuts joining the National Rifle Association, the “birthers,” and the anti-healthcare crowd.

Public diplomacy has hitherto meant states influencing people. The best, and sadly faint, hope for genuine UN reform is concerned citizens influencing states, particularly the United States and other permanent members, through monitoring and lobbying.

Senior Foreign Policy In Focus analyst Ian Williams is a journalist and author. Much of his work can be found on his blog, Deadline Pundit.