A Path to Security Council Reform?

By: William Burke-White

My last post examined three possible scenarios for the shape of the UN Security Council in 2030, suggesting that, but for the possibility of a lucky crisis, Security Council reform remains unlikely and that there is a real possibility that the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Council will wither considerably by 2030. This post seeks to instill a bit more optimism by considering the possible sources of global political leadership for Council reform and ways that existing stalemates might be broken to allow the kind of reform that would lead to what I termed the “Reform and Reinvigoration” scenario in that earlier post.

Part of the challenge of Security Council reform is the lack of global political leadership to drive such a process forward. Existing efforts for Council reform have stagnated, weighted down by UN bureaucratic process, divides among states contending for permanent membership, and an unwillingness of any current permanent members to champion a reform process. While states such as Brazil and India that have a possible claim to permanent seats on the Council invest significant political capital on the issue, they lack the global political influence needed to drive the issue forward and each potential new member has a regional competitor—Mexico or Pakistan, for example—ready to invest equivalent capital. As a result, such states are unlikely to have ability to break existing stalemates or find workable formulas for reform.

Beyond these contender states, there are really only two meaningful sources of political leadership for Security Council reform: the United States and Europe. Both the US and existing European member states have reasons for preferring the current shape of the Council and sitting on the sidelines of reform, but there is also a compelling logic for the US and Europe to show leadership on the issue. Moreover, collectively the US and Europe could find potential break-through solutions to existing logjams in a way that might make the “Reform and Reinvigoration” scenario viable.

Start with the US. Of course, the US benefits form current Council dynamics. The US veto ensures US interests are ultimately protected on the Council. Similarly, the US can usually muster the minimum additional 8 votes needed for a resolution to pass, assuming no other permanent members veto. Yet, the US also has a deeply vested interest in ensuring the long-term effectiveness of the Security Council and, more generally, the post-World War II order, of which the Council sits at the heart. By acting sooner, rather than later, as a leader in Security Council reform, the US will be far better positioned to help define the shape and structure of the reformed Council that emerges. Moreover, by taking a clear leadership role, the US can shift the political costs of opposition to other Permanent Members of the Council who may, in fact, be more reluctant to support reform and who have been able to effectively hide behind the US on the issue. Ultimately, if and when the US is willing to the look at Council reform from a slightly longer time-horizon, the benefits of leadership on the issue are obvious.

Over the past few years, of course, the Obama Administration has shown some willingness to advance the issue. While maintaining redlines on questions such as the expansion of the veto and the total membership of any reformed Council, the US has explicitly backed India’s bid for a permanent seat and given support to Brazil’s claims. Yet, these statements – in the context of presidential trips to both countries—have not been backed by visible diplomatic efforts or by evident changes in approach either in New York or in national capitals. The time may well be ripe for more active US leadership. And while such leadership would certainly not lead to immediate reform, it would put the US in a far better political and diplomatic position to shape reform when and if it ultimately occurs.

The second possible source of global leadership on Security Council reform is Europe.  The logic for issue leadership from Europe is even more apparent than for the United States. Ultimately, Europe seeks three seats on a reformed Council – the existing French and British permanent seats and, presumably, one for Germany as well. In light of Europe’s economic woes, internal challenges, and reduced relative political influence, the longer Europe waits to lead on Council reform, the less likely it becomes that this three-seat goal can be achieved. In fact, the more time that passes before reform occurs, the less likely it is that both France and the UK can reasonably maintain their existing seats. For Europe, early Council reform is far better than Council reform in 2030.

The Europeans may also hold the key to breaking current logjams and finding a mutually acceptable formula for Council reform. Specifically, a key redline for the US is the maximum number of permanent members on any reformed Council. Too large a group and the US (among others), rightly fears that any consensus on the Council will become impossible. Yet, most formulas that would incorporate the new members necessary for the Council’s perceived long-term legitimacy quickly push against that numerical ceiling. What if the Europeans could reach an internal agreement on say two post-reform European seats? Such an agreement might involve, one seat for the EU itself and one that rotates among Germany, the UK, and France.

Admittedly, current political divides within Europe make such compromise seem far-fetched. But if Europe could reach such an agreement, the symbolic value of both internal European compromise on the issue and the slot that such an agreement would free-up might make real reform possible. In light of a European compromise, competitor states to those states with the strongest claims for new seats might have to relax their diplomatic postures. A promise of European magnanimity on the issue could well serve leverage to push for compromises among other contenders. And, of course, the third seat, to which Europe would, essentially, relinquish a claim could be used to enhance the broader legitimacy of the Council, while more easily staying within a fixed maximum number of members.

Perhaps this is a leap too far. Admittedly, the efforts to build a common European foreign policy through the new External Action Service have underperformed. And, while, Europe’s current financial woes seem to occupy all available diplomatic time and energy, a new European bargain (and perhaps identity) that might serve as the solution to the current economic crisis could well be the foundation for a broader political bargain within Europe that might include a new approach to the Council. Even if such an agreement is a stretch, it offers perhaps the best hope for protecting Europe’s long-term interests, finding the global leadership needed for Council reform, and identifying a workable formula for the inclusion of new permanent members. Should the Europeans reach such an agreement and the US be we willing to demonstrate real political commitment to reform, the “reform and reinvigoration” scenario discussed in my last post might not be unattainable.

By billburkewhite Posted in GT2030

3 comments on “A Path to Security Council Reform?

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  3. Mr. Burke-White,

    What your two posts do not address is the desirability of UNSC reform. The assumption seems to be that if we could just overcome obstacles to reform then the reforms would create a more effective UNSC. There is every reason to think, however, that reforms that involve expansion of the Council will inevitably lead to a less effective UNSC. I would point you to the “veto points” literature in political science for the logic of this.

    Basically the expansion of the numbers of actors involved in a decision creates a few deleterious effects.

    First, decisions are less likely to be made. Trying to get 5/5 UNSC permanent members plus 4 of the remaining 10 on board is often a challenge. Add more members, especially is they have the veto, and fewer decisions will make it through that institutional framework. More states equals more divergent interests (isn’t this the point of diversity) means less agreement.

    Second, those decisions that do get made will take longer. The job of arguing and horse-trading that is necessary to get a UNSC resolution passed will take longer. While that may not be of critical importance on something like a climate treaty, it can been tens of thousands of lives in a humanitarian crisis.

    Third, those decisions that are made will be of a “lowest common denominator” nature. Concessions have to be made to reach agreements. The more players the more concessions. In a time where bold policy may be needed, the watered-down nature of expanded UNSC decisions are unlikely too offer meaningful solutions.

    The debate about UNSC reform pits two values against each other. The “fairness” of increased membership comes at the cost of institutional effectiveness. All the proposed reforms that increase membership guarantees less effectiveness. Those reforms that call for limiting the veto will either be blocked by the veto members or will drive them away from using the institution.

    Look at the two UNSC actions that are most often cited when it comes to effectiveness in international security; Korea 1950 and the Gulf War 1991. The absence of the USSR due to a boycott is the only thing that allowed UN action on Korea, and the endgame of the Cold War and Soviet weakness and dependence of the West as well as Gorbachev’s reorientation of foreign policy allowed for action against Iraq. Does anyone believe that Putin’s Russia would have been so compliant? What these cases show is that only when the decision-group is DECREASED does the UNSC tend to be more effective. Note the abject failure of the G-20 to do anything of substance, versus the G-7’s effective management of the western-dominated international economy for several decades.

    Any international organization is effective only when its member’s specific policy interests are substantially aligned. When I look forward to 2030 increased alignment of interest is not the future I see.

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