The shady politics of UN Security Council reform

At the time of writing, the front page of BBC News shows the announcement by President Barack Obama during his visit to India, that he backs India’s drive for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. India will already spend the next two years on the UNSC as a temporary member, but has been lobbying hard, along with a handful of other hopefuls, to gain a permanent seat. The announcement may very well be sincere, but in political terms it is also ‘easy money’: instant applause, a few new friends and no need to follow up with any concrete action. Certainly, if India’s Security Council membership is even to be considered, it will require a protracted and highly unlikely process of UN reform beforehand, whereby the permanent members agree to let in new members. Thus when the final decision comes, it won’t be up to Obama anymore, regardless of whether he wins the next presidential election.

This is what is so cheap about these promises and announcements of firm support. On the one hand, making this announcement may put some immediate pressure on Pakistan (though I don’t personally understand how this clever game would play out to the United States’ advantage). More likely, this is an easy political gesture, a quick win, that in the end means nothing. It reminds me of a recent and highly insincere expression of ‘African solidarity’: Sarkozy’s emphatic plea for an ‘African’ seat at the Security Council, the absence of which the French President denounced as ‘scandalous’ (to loud applause in Montreux, Switzerland, where he was addressing the heads of state of la Francophonie – basically France and a bunch of African states).

Maybe all of this is too harsh, and these heads of states should be commended for their forward-thinking rhetoric (even if that is all there is). At the same time, it is difficult to take Sarkozy at face value when you see him complacently lapping up the applause for his oh-so-heartfelt words (dubbed version).

Furthermore, while opening up the UNSC to broader representation may seem like the ‘right’ or the ‘good’ thing to do, a democratic gesture, a recognition that times have changed, and so on, it is also something very likely to further paralyse an already dysfunctional organisation. Last time there was serious talk of expanding the Security Council was in 2003-2004, when Kofi Annan made a plea to the member-states to agree to an ambitious set of reforms, also of the Security Council. With the door to the Security Council seemingly left ajar, various aspirants set off to prove their case. The result: discord. Italy lobbied against Germany, the prospect of Japanese membership caused demonstrations and violence in China and Brazil’s relations with Argentina cooled off considerably over the issue. Covering this topic in some depth back in 2005, Prof. Mats Berdal of King’s College London notes how the talk of UNSC reform prompted the re-establishment and expansion of the so-called ‘coffee club’, originally led by Italy and Pakistan in the 1990s but now joined by Argentina, Mexico and Spain, to derail the lobbying efforts of their respective neighbours, as it once had done in the 1990s when the issue of UNSC expansion was, then too, on the agenda.

Yes the current UNSC membership is undemocratic and a poor reflection of current and future demographics and power relations. But while inviting more members may be a nice diplomatic gesture or a quick political win, it is also likely to stoke tensions, provoke heightened rivalries and, if the reform does one day come to pass, result in an even more dysfunctional and paralytic Security Council.


17 thoughts on “The shady politics of UN Security Council reform

  1. Pingback: The shady politics of UN Security Council reform - Kings of War | Dla ciekawskich

  2. David Betz says:

    Interesting post, David. UN reform reminds me of the old joke about a lost tourist asking a peasant for directions to another village and being told that for one thing he shouldn’t start from here.

    As you say ‘if the reform does one day come to pass, result in an even more dysfunctional and paralytic Security Council.’ I support it for exactly this reason. Come to think of it I support the admission of Turkey to the European Union for this reason too.

    There is an axiom popular amongst innovators and designers ‘fail faster, succeed sooner’. The logic is pretty self-evident. Both institutions positively deserve and need to fail utterly and irremediably, the sooner that something more viable can be created in their stead (at least with some degree of world governance which seems to me needful, I’m not so sure I see the need for anything on the matter of ‘Europe’, but I digress). The tragedy is that the UN is failing sloooooooowly achieving little to nothing useful while resolutely blocking the emergence of anything which might.

    On a side note, I read somewhere the other day (NY Times?) that amongst the myriad mooted Republican candidates for presidential elections in 2012 was His Excellency the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Mr John Bolton. Leave aside the dubious plausibility of this eventuality the better to savour the historical irony of Obama emptily offering UN reform to be effectuated by a later President, the most abrasive diplomat of modern times.

    It was Bolton I think who suggested the UN should be invited to relocate its HQ to Ouagidoudou. This was some years ago. But given what you say about Sarkozy’s rhetoric and how cheerfully received it was in La Francophonie a genius idea, no? Methinks the shopping not so good as NYC though…

    An afterthought: Canada is too, or once was at any rate, an eager player in La Francophonie. News from home tells me that they are not so keen on the UN as they were, and vice versa, having been rebuffed in their bid to obtain a temporary seat on the UNSC. All humbug.

    • David, thanks – that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Still, perhaps it is my Scandinavian origins, but I feel uncomfortable cheering for a catastrophe for the UN Security Council, even if it were to replace it with something much better. I think the organisation adds value in some contexts (see the comparative studies on nation-building at RAND, for example) and that despite its flaws and outdated membership, it still has a legitimacy worldwide that would be difficult to replicate by another organisation, particularly one deemed more ‘effective’ in the eyes of the West (if this was to mean a more interventionist agenda). That’s not to say there are distinct problems to overcome, and that reform is also unlikely, but perhaps these could be worked on in less drastic ways than by changing the UNSC membership, or by dismantling the organisation once and for all. To quote David Brent: “I don’t think you solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place”.

    • David Betz says:

      Interesting discussion here, David. And below also. As Olaf says, there is no limit to punching at this organization. And yet I struggle to convert my feeling of animus toward the UN into mere ambivalence. As I see it, the UN does some vital things well (such as coordinating international air travel and such-like global administrative functions which everyone wants and no one suspects) which would be done just as well if not better by stand-alone institutions; it does a lot of quite pointless things not very well at large expense, running what is in effect a global graft mill; it does a handful of very hard things, such as Congo, mostly barely tolerably badly and occasionally tragically awfully as in Rwanda; and it does some things in areas which high-minded people like me, and you!, value very highly indeed in a way that is a shocking affront to decency and common sense–case in point, the human rights and equal rights commission.

      The irony is that the UNSC’s attempt to ‘save humanity from hell’ by regulating war has contributed much to the perverse effect frequently observed in this blog of states failing to exercise good strategic judgement in the use of force. The result in fact has been a deregulation of war (see Hew Strachan’s strategy and limited war in Survival from a couple of years ago)–we haven’t given up arms, nor should we have, we just ended up fighting a lot more sub rosa ‘wars’.

      Really not much good to be said for the UNSC in its current formation and no doubt less good will there be to say of it in some more expansive formation. The General Assembly is a backwater, which is good because whenever it stops being one it looks like a cesspit–to whit the sermons provided by Ahmedinejad recently and other great moments in humanity like Yasser Arafat addressing the gathered nations with a holstered gun on his hip. Yuck, frankly, blah.

      One of Napoleon’s maxims says ‘Never interrupt an opponent while he is making a mistake.’ The corollary of this must be never fail to interrupt a friend while he is making a mistake. Personally, I think a friend of humanity would do their best to hasten the end of this mistake.

    • Chirality says:

      I would venture to expand further on your comment that “…the UN is….. achieving little to nothing useful….”

      In not ‘failing faster’ not only is the UN achieving little of use, its interventions, when they do happen, have a tendency to prolong regional tensions and conflict by not allowing decisive outcomes.

      Srebrenica and Sarajevo during the 90’s being good examples.

    • The United Nations’ approach to peacekeeping has changed quite significantly since Srebrenica. While it is difficult for a UN peacekeeping operation to ‘create’ political conditions that would lead to a smooth war-to-peace transition, it would be unfair to say that they do not, in many cases, provide enabling assistance to facilitate such transitions when the conditions are right on the ground, but still fragile.

      This is one of those issues that seem to polarise opinion. My personal view is that the UN provides many good services but also faces many serious problems. For anyone truly interested in the performance and fate of the organisation, it is necessary to go far beyond blanket statements.

    • Chirality says:

      The UN approach to peacekeeping since Srebrenica may have changed but I still feel that the thrust of my argument is valid. It is not just the transition from war to peace but the continued state of peace where UN intervention singularly seems to fail. From the 1948 Arab-Israeli war onwards there are many examples of wider conflict being exacerbated in the longer term due to UN intervention not allowing a decisive outcome. I of course understand that this is not necessarily everyone’s view.

      I also agree that the UN isn’t entirely uselesss and does provide good service e.g. many of the activities of the World Health Organization.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      Let’s not forget the successes the U.N has had with peacekeeping in D.R Congo. While it is well known that there are serious flaws in the state and its military, it is still an incredible improvement from what was considered likely to become the next absolutely failed state in Africa.

    • olaf says:

      The Rwandan genocide was not committed by the UN. However, since the UN is an inter-governmental organisation, and another member government (the French one) helped prolonging the genocide, one can blame the UN even for this crime. There are no limits to punching at this organisation.

      Of course, the UN is far from what it could be, but the responsibility is with the member states…the UN is what they make of it. The lack of a peace support operation to Rwanda in 1994 goes in equal parts to Kofi Annan and the US government. Remember?…”some acts of genocide appear to have occurred”.

      Sometimes it is worth to have a look at the more recent history, the huge operation in DRC/Kivus, for instance. If one only reads the bad news they were utter failures, if one looks closer one sees all the good work done every single day.

      Then, there are the mistakes that have not been repeated, means some lessons have been learned: the repeatedly frustrated African Union’s efforts to draw the UN into a long, and useless war in Somalia are a good example, I would assume. The AU had launched a small AU “peace support operation” (troops from Burundi, and from Uganda) hoping for the UN to step in once it was started. This was a big miscalculation…one has smelled the rat called “mission creap”.

      There has been UN work before 1994, and after, and these different tasks have nothing in common any more.

      After all, as Dag Hammarskjöld has put it

      “The United Nations was created not to lead mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell”.

      One should add…if the member states allow that.


    • Chirality says:

      My point about decisive outcomes does not imply a lack of death and misery, merely less death and less misery in the long term. Nor does it imply a desirable political outcome to interested state players.

      The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a UN debacle and an example of my point. To precis (simplistically): The force commander of the UN mission to Rwanda was aware of a plan for mass killings several months prior to the start of the slaughter. This info. was relayed to the UN Secretary General’s military aid and no action was taken. The presence of Belgian UN peacekeepers was used in propaganda to inflame the situation. The Rwandan Patriotic Front took control of the country (due to UN under manning and risk aversion to battlefield casualties), and led to the politicised (NGO + UN aided) refugee camps on the border. The presence of these camps ‘substantially’ contributed to the first and second Congo wars – killing an estimated 4,000,000 plus people.

      The 1994 genocide was awful in every sense but UN action prior, during and post genocide led to more conflict and misery in the region for the next 10 years.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      A far bigger problem with the abilities of the U.N is that member states are usually unwilling to put up the money or the soldiers to actually get things done. Too many times a U.N force has been rendered helpless because the member states refuse to sufficiently supply it or give it the leeway to return fire.

    • olaf says:

      “The Rwandan Patriotic Front took control of the country (due to UN under manning and risk aversion to battlefield casualties), and led to the politicised (NGO + UN aided) refugee camps on the border.”

      Do you think the UN should have fought on the side of the Rwandan government (which committed the genocide against its own population) in order to stop the RPF occupying Rwanda? Please keep in mind that it was the RPF that alone stopped the genocide. You write that the RPF’s victory in Rwanda caused the Interahamwe/FAR ‘refugy camps’ .

      The sad truth is that the French Operation Turquoise actually shielded the genocidaires from being decisively beaten by the RPF. Operation Turquoise made the FAR retreat possible, and allowed for their regrouping in the North and South Kivu regions. This, and the fact that Papa Kabila did nothing against these forces was the cause of a further decade of war.

      I support some of your argumentation that a decisive outcome of war is perhaps better than a never ending protracted conflict , an idea which was developed before by Luttwaks ‘Give war a chance’ (Foreign Affairs, 1999) though. However, if one blames the UN one should decide whether this is for ‘not having intervened’ or ‘for having intervened’.


  3. Formerly Grant says:

    It isn’t likely to happen quickly but it is likely to happen. You can only ignore realities for so long before they start to batter down your door.

  4. olaf says:

    “…la Francophonie – basically France and a bunch of African states”

    Well, there is a bunch of 31 African member states, including all lusophone African states except Mozambique, and other non French speaking African countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Equatorial Guinea, and Mauritius. Rwanda left for good reason, and joined the Commonwealth.

    Belgium is a member, Canada, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, and Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Vietnam, Cambodia, Dominica, Laos, Lebanon, then Albania, and Andorra. Austria, Croatia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland have observer status.

    …and Vanuatu is member both of the Francophonie, and of the Commonwealth, like Cameroon, Canada, and Mauritius.

    This may not be a first rank political organisation, but it is not irrelavant either.

    • Olaf, point taken, though my slightly nonchalant phrasing was not intended to imply that the organisation is irrelevant but rather to highlight the fact that there were many African heads of state in attendance.

  5. Pingback: The Permanent (Membership) Debate

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