UN Security Council: Thank you, next

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In a June 2023 report on UN Security Council (UNSC) reform published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Zhang Guihong, a leading Chinese scholar on UN affairs, describes the UNSC as “still an indispensable stabilising force for the international community and a cornerstone of the international order.” Sadly, this is an overstatement. It would be more accurate to say, as Rajesh Rajagopalan of JNU New Delhi recently did of the G20, that the UNSC’s efforts over the years have been “not entirely useless.”

In a time of complex transnational challenges—wars, climate change, migration, illicit financial flows, drugs- and people-trafficking, pandemics, and more—being ‘not entirely useless’ is nowhere near good enough. The people of the world are being short-changed by a body that is very probably unreformable in any meaningful way.

The UNSC is supposed to be a vital part of the ‘rules-based order’ but what rules would they be? Rules that failed to prevent the United States and its allies from invading Iraq in 2003, with devastating consequences for the region and beyond? Those that permitted the disastrous military intervention in Libya in 2011? Rules that did not prevent Russia, UNSC President-in-office at the time, from launching an invasion of neighbouring Ukraine in February 2022? That have allowed the issue of Palestinian statehood to fester, until the recent explosion of violence in Israel and Gaza?

The P5 Anachronism: France and the UK

The UNSC has five permanent members known as the P5—the US, China, the Russian Federation, France, and the UK—and ten additional members that serve a two-year term.  The continuing P5 status of France and the UK stretches credulity, being based on what pyschologists term delusions of exceptionality. Although both countries consider themselves in the vanguard of UNSC reform efforts, the reality is that neither will give an inch as regards relinquishing their P5 veto power, even if they pride themselves on not having actually used the veto for many years. France’s P5 status is highly important to how it sees its role on the world stage. Likewise for the UK: P5 status is key to its post-Brexit, ‘Global Britain’ self-image.

The EU’s incoherent position

It is sometimes suggested that, in the interests of a more effective and representative UNSC, the seat of France could be allocated instead to the EU. However, French scholar Zaki Laïdi, who is currently special adviser to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, calls this  a ‘non-starter.’ As he explained to me, it makes no sense to have a unified seat as long the EU remains a federation of nation states and not a state; what matters is the EU’s capacity to reach common positions.

Although the EU plays an active role at the UN in general, it can be said to punch significantly below its weight there. The European External Action Service in Brussels is not even allowed to have a view on the issue of an EU seat on the UNSC, since the matter has never been brought to the attention of the European Council.

Hapless reform efforts

Efforts to reform the UNSC are nothing new. A Royal Institute of International Affairs discussion paper concluded in 1995 that some reform would be better than none at all, and that this would only come about if states stopped chasing ideal solutions.

Today, among the countries most eager to attain permanent membership of the UNSC are the so-called G4—Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan. However, there are no grounds for automaticity for these or other countries, such as Nigeria and South Africa, both of which are regularly mentioned as potential permanent members.

Take Germany, as an example, an industrial powerhouse with impressive economic achievements. (Of late its ‘model’ has lost much of its shine, insofar as it was heavily dependent on Russia for energy imports, and on China for exports, especially of automobiles.) How precisely is any smaller EU member state supposed to benefit from Germany becoming a permanent member?

Or take India, which we can rightly describe as a civilisational state. Yet, there are nagging worries about freedom of religion and expression there—for example, the authorities recently charged the novelist Arundhati Roy over public comments made long ago. India is ranked eleventh on the 2023 OpenDoors World Watch List of countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. Improvements in these areas would surely strengthen India’s case.

Then again, expanding the UNSC to include a number of ‘five-day’ Council members—akin to members of a golf club whose playing privileges are restricted—hardly seems a recipe for success. If you were India, having just completed a remarkable mission to the Moon, would that seem an attractive prospect? The metrics of the UNSC insofar as consequential countries are concerned simply do not reflect present-day realities.

Ukraine should be a turning point, but…

The Carnegie Endowment report on UNSC reform observes that the relevant question today is whether the war in Ukraine is a sufficient geopolitical shock to bring about another moment of creation. “Most contributors [to the report] believe it is not. Rather, they anticipate that the status quo will persist, at the cost of declining council performance and legitimacy.” According to one of the contributors, Rohan Mukherjee, although the war in Ukraine has given fresh impetus for UNSC reform, the intergovernmental negotiations process “remains mired in the restatement of ossified positions.”

At a public event in July 2023, Canada’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Ambassador Bob Rae, was asked about a possible resolution of the war in Ukraine. Despite noting that the invasion represented almost every breach of the UN Charter one could imagine, he argued that ultimately Russia and Ukraine would have to take responsibility for how this conflict would unfold, subject to pressures, interventions and back-street diplomacy. With due respect, one could ask: What then is the responsibility of the UNSC supposed to be?

Now another crisis

UN official Markus E. Bouillon asserted in a 2016 book that for seven decades, the situation in the Middle East, particularly the ‘Palestinian question’, had been one of the most vexing problems on the UNSC agenda. Although the Council had addressed acute crises and ensured some stability through the instruments at its disposal, it had rarely been able to play a decisive or norm-setting role. Bouillon continued, “All too often the Security Council has remained mired in discussions over issues that, albeit important, are but facets of the bigger conflict, rendering it less and less likely (or possible) that the Council could contribute decisively to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

This does not augur well for the crisis that erupted on 7 October 2023, with attacks by Hamas forces on multiple targets inside Israel—described by many as Israel’s 9/11. With Israel’s forceful response, the conflict has already brought huge casualties and the prospect of retaliatory violence on an enormous scale.

Thank you, next

In an editorial published in December 2022 entitled “The new world order and the rise of the middle powers”, the Financial Times did not even mention the UN (or the UNSC). Asked about this, the newspaper’s chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman granted that the UN was not irrelevant but said that it was rarely a decisive factor in anybody’s calculations. That assessment is as damning as it is polite.

For the current situation with the UNSC to continue would be unacceptable. Yet to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, it seems all too possible that “It can’t go on. It’ll go on.” To avoid this dismal scenario, the UNSC needs to be thanked for its services and replaced by something new.


Michael Sanfey holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP) Lisbon. He is a Visiting Fellow at the EUI’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, working on a research project entitled The Liberal International Order and Global Governance: Ramifications of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. His next article will outline what shape new structures could take.