The UN has long been held up as a model of international idealism—supporters see it as a possibility to create a better world, while even detractors tend to characterize it as if anything too idealistic to achieve its goal of global peace. Indeed, looking at UN documents like the Declaration of Human Rights can certainly give that impression. However, the design of the UN makes a sizable concession to Realpolitik in the form of the UN Security Council, simultaneously the most powerful and most practically limited body within the United Nations.
In most UN functions, including both the General Assembly (consisting of all member countries) and the smaller committees that oversee most of the UN’s day to day duties, the principle of ‘one country, one vote’ is strictly upheld. The extent to which Ireland and India having the same representation actually represents ‘democracy’ in action is debatable, but it is likely the purest manifestation yet of the Westphalian ideal of states as equal, independent sovereigns. This concession to smaller states is not as powerful as it may seem, however, because all that any of these bodies can do regarding a sovereign state is make recommendations about their behavior.
The Security Council, on the other hand, can mandate member behavior and back up its mandates by authorizing serious repercussions, including the use of force. It is the Security Council that authorized the Gulf War and the no-fly zone over Libya, and the Security Council that authorizes the deployment of peacekeeping elements (the famous blue helmeted UN peacekeeping forces). And in the UN Security Council, all ideals about equality between states are sacrificed to the largest, most powerful members. The UNSC has 15 members, but they are divided into two distinct tiers: the ten rotating members each have one regular vote and represent various regions of the world for a set term. The remaining five members – the US, UK, France, China, and Russia – hold their seats permanently, and a single vote by any one of them is enough to veto a resolution, with no possibility existing for it to be overturned. Thus, a resolution in the UNSC must secure not only a majority of the voting members, but the support or abstentions of all five permanent members (not coincidentally representing the five major winners of World War II).
This fundamentally undemocratic nature of the UN Security Council of course undercuts much of its idealism, but it also may be why the organization has survived at all. Consistently deploying peacekeepers over the opposition of global great powers is a quick way to create conflict between the relatively fragile UN and strong individual states and would quickly reduce its legitimacy in the eyes of the large powers which are needed to keep the whole thing afloat.
The ramifications of this skewed council, however, are increasingly becoming difficult to ignore, and they threaten to undercut the legitimacy of the UN itself. First, of course, the widespread veto power means that in effect peacekeepers and other more muscular approaches to world security are used only where no major power has a direct interest. This has in effect meant primarily in Africa and parts of Asia and Europe. While the two tiered system initially meant that the vast majority of the world’s economy and military might was encompassed in the UNSC and its actions primarily took place in peripheral areas, shifts in the global economy have started to change that. Major economies, like Japan, India, and Brazil, and population centers like Nigeria and Indonesia, find themselves without any representation despite being important regional powers. If the UNSC no longer reflects the balance of power in the world, it runs the serious risk of losing its legitimacy in the eyes of such countries.
The transformation of a UNSC permanent member—Russia—into an international pariah has also threatened the balance. The majority of states in the world have expressed disapproval of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and have voted to suspend Russia’s participation in the UN Human Rights Committee. Continuing to grant such a country an absolute veto over security matters is hard to square with the idea of international democracy or an international community in a meaningful sense.
As a result of these shifts, several proposals have been floated to reform the security council. At one end there are calls from Ukraine and its close allies to simply remove Russia from its permanent seat. These impassioned pleas are unlikely to go anywhere, though it is indeed difficult to square Russia’s continued veto power with its loss of economic and conventional military power. More realistic are proposals to either increase the number of permanent members to be more geographically inclusive (for example, by granting the privilege to Nigeria, Brazil, and India), or removing the entire institution of permanent members. The latter idea is nearly impossible to conceive – the United States and China would have little interest in being part of any body that could mandate their actions. Another intriguing but also likely unworkable possibility is to guarantee a seat for international bodies, like the European and African Unions, to be chosen by those federations as a whole. It is unlikely, however, that such organizations have the cohesion necessary to make such an arrangement work.
The former proposal, though, of increasing the number of permanent members, has some potential. The most obvious problem is that it increases the number of veto points and thus even further decreases the likelihood of any measure passing. However, a potential reform in tandem could greatly increase its efficacy—that of a weak veto. In a series of models, researchers at the University of Sheffield found that of the most common proposals, only requiring a two member veto to block resolutions would make the body overall more democratic. The majority of vetoes performed by a single member are done by the United States or Russia; neither France nor the United Kingdom has cast a veto vote in the last 30 years and France has only once vetoed a motion in isolation. Moreover, the history of single member vetoes is hardly illustrious—in general, the United States alone vetoes resolutions related to Israel, while Russia has vetoed resolutions related to human rights violations in Serbia, Syria, and elsewhere. The addition of several more members along with the requirement for a double veto would change this dynamic, encouraging the formation of coalitions to block resolutions and thus facilitating negotiation and compromise.
Would such a proposal have any chance of success? There would certainly be substantial obstacles, but there are good reasons to try. Some manner of reform is necessary to maintain the functionality of the UN as a potential tool for pursuing a liberal vision of international politics. For one thing, the entire institution of peacekeeping, which has shown great potential for quelling conflicts, is threatened by the inefficiency of the Security Council. The security council has never been great at sending in peacekeepers to deal with threats that involve proxies of the permanent five members, but for much of the late 1980s and on, there were ample theaters—including broadly successful missions like El Salvador and Mozambique—where peacekeeping helped wind down conflicts that may otherwise have smoldered for years and could have flared up again. Within the spheres of influence of the permanent members, however, this is impossible, and recent events have shown the problem with it. Russian peacekeepers have been deployed in Georgia and disputed areas between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 demolished any reputation that mission had of neutrality, and the Russian pull out of peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh has threatened to destabilize the region all over again. UN peacekeeping is going to be necessary in the future, but the single veto threatens to make it impossible to use as more and more conflicts become proxies for great power clashes.
And while limiting the power of the single veto might reduce the agency of the US in some instances, it would be more than worth it if it helps salvage a liberal vision of global cooperation. This is of course a daunting task: any amendment to the UN charter must be passed by 2/3 of the General Assembly and all of the present permanent five members of the Security Council. The coming months and years may be the best opportunity in decades to institute such a reform. Russia’s reputation and diplomatic power is at a nadir; while it will have incentive and the ability to veto any operational change to the UN, it may be possible to find a compromise that Russia approves and China, the UK, and France, which almost never utilize a lone veto, may be amenable. The process, as with anything in the UN, will likely be lengthy, but the sooner real efforts are begun to make reforms, and the more committed the US is to the idea domestically, the greater the chance of ensuring a functional Security Council for the future.
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