The election of five new non-permanent members to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month presents some interesting insights into the ongoing debate over Security Council reform.
Arguably the United Nations’ most powerful and important body, the Security Council is charged with maintaining international peace and security. It is the only UN body with the power to enforce its decisions, using either direct military force (through UN peacekeeping operations) or pressure (economic sanctions and the like) to do so. The UN Security Council has fifteen members. Ten members are non-permanent, elected to two-year rotating terms on a regional basis. There are also five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia), each of which has veto power over the decisions of the body.
For more than twenty years, the topic of Security Council reform has been the bugaboo of United Nations politics. The current structure of the Security Council is a legacy of post-World War II politics, with the five permanent members being the victorious allied powers. But the world has transformed dramatically since 1945, and the changing power distribution of the world threatens to leave the Security Council in the lurk.
Several countries, including Germany, Japan, Brazil, India and South Africa have been actively lobbying for a permanent seat on the Council. Because any decision to restructure the UN Security Council requires the approval of the Council itself, any current permanent member has the ability to veto proposals which would remove their seat. Thus, removing a country like France or Britain—which arguably have less of a claim to global importance than Brazil or Japan—is not in the cards, The only solution is to expand the number of permanent seats on the Council. But too many veto powers on the Council threatens to undermine its ability to make decisions effectively. This is why despite regular calls to reform the Council, real reform has stagnated.
After the most recent elections, many of the most important non-permanent members were elected to the Council, including India, South Africa, Brazil, and Germany. Judah Grunstein at World Politics Review has a great discussion of the implications of the current Security Council, including an intriguing possibility of an emerging South-South voting bloc.
The current composition of the Council certainly means that the United States will have greater difficulty influencing the direction of the organization. Historically, it’s been fairly easy for the United States to offer increased aid or other incentives to a smaller country to secure its cooperation. But larger, more independent countries may be less willing to cooperate. The recent experience of Brazil and Turkey voting against Iranian sanctions (despite concerted pressure by the United States to vote in favor) provides but one example of what should be an interesting year in the United Nations.