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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

04 August 2005

Security Council reform

Reforming the Security Council is one of the more complex institutional redraws ever, which is why it is taking so long and why it is unlikely to succeed anytime soon. But the good news is that delay is not a vice, primarily because the Security Council, in its present form, functions well.

To begin with, let’s admit that the veto will never go away; so we cannot compare a veto-bearing council to a veto-less one. Vetoes block resolutions, it is true, but that is not always bad. Remember the saying that it is better for a hundred guilty people to go free than for one innocent to be sent to jail? It’s the same with the Security Council: better for a hundred resolutions to not pass than for one really bad one to be adopted. A bad resolution can convert a political wedge into a legal and institutional one—and could undermine both the UN as an institution and international law as a process.

Which means that a new council will not eschew the political sensitivities that plague it today. There will be no resolutions on Chechnya and there will be no vote on Tibet or Taiwan. It is also unlikely that the Security Council will move into conflicts where it would not otherwise; that’s because the Security Council is usually willing to endorse moves by coalitions of the willing—particularly African missions—even if the P5 will not involve themselves (not, though, when the P5 opposing the moves).

Instead, the main change would be more failed resolutions. More countries will have be persuaded, so the likelihood of any resolution passing will decrease. Even more, with an enlarged Security Council, there will be more national interests that will unveil themselves in council discussions; resolutions will have to be accommodating of more countries’ sensitivities and peculiarities, translating into even fewer resolutions being passed on their merits and value for maintaining peace and security.

What else would a new council do? It can bring more countries to the table and improve its decision-making process. But the idea that unless countries are in the Security Council their worthy ideas will not be heard seems disingenuous. The UN process accords the right to member states to plead their cases with the Security Council, and the UN Charter also gives the Secretary General the option of brining issues on the Security Council agenda. It’s unlikely to find many good ideas about how to manage international politics once more countries are given a seat at the table.

What about the thornier issue: who to include in a new council? To become a permanent member, countries need to have the capacity to maintain peace and security and to add to the Council’s legitimacy.

From the P5, only America, Britain and France have a capable military capacity to enforce their wills in far away lands. Other countries merely have militaries that can play a vital role in peacekeeping. The true problem would be for the deciders to be different from the implementers—for small countries, for example, passing resolutions that the America, British, French, Russian or Chinese militaries would have to enforce. This would never happen because of the veto; it is also unlikely for the P5 to force a resolution onto to another country—force a country, that is, to intervene in conflict to stop it.

In other words, the Security Council capacity to maintain international peace and security would not be enhanced by an enlarged council. What about its legitimacy? On one hand, having more countries accept a resolution adds weight and legitimacy, though a 9-6 resolution (what it needs to pass today) sounds pretty legitimate now too. On the other, more countries can lead to deadlock, and hence raise questions about the efficacy of the United Nations.

The real problem with legitimacy, however, is that there are few unquestionable candidates for the Council. Brazil is a big country, but so is Argentina; and Venezuela carries more influence than any other in Latin America today. A third European seat would reward Germany but it would give disproportionate influence to Europe. An Indian seat would be challenged by Pakistan—imagine the Security Council trying to resolve the issue in Kashmir with India in the Security Council and Pakistan out of it. And an Egyptian seat for Africa would be tricky because Egypt belongs more to the Middle East than to Africa; as for a Middle Eastern seat for Egypt, why Egypt and not Saudi Arabia—or Iran?

Which brings us to Japan and South Africa. Both have an indisputable geopolitical claim to leadership; Japan has spent lots of money on the UN, and South African troops are trying to keep the peace in many of Africa’s wars. Japan’s problem is China, which is unlikely to accept giving its rival a seat. South Africa, though, does not have a similar geopolitical challenge in its way.

It is no coincidence that major institutions are drawn after wars where the balance of power is clear. Today, this task is hard because the world is more complex than at any point in history when statesmen have sat to design a new international order. Reform will be slow and painful. But at least it’s good to know that we shouldn’t lose too much sleep while it takes place.



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