New Internationalist

Is it time to junk the UN Security Council?

December 2013

Lecturer and writer Phil Leech and researcher Richard Gowan go head to head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

YES: Phil Leech lectures in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Liverpool. He is the founder and editor of globalisationcafe.com and a contributing editor for thinkir.co.uk

Phil

The UN Security Council (UNSC), in its current form, represents an antiquated approach to international politics.

The original intention behind its creation was for it to be an executive arm of the UN, enforcing the will of the international community against rogue states, ensuring compliance with international norms and promoting world peace. However, in reality the Security Council has proven to be Western-centric, overly concerned with the rights and interests of states – rather than that of individual human beings or human societies – and incompatible with the very urgent need to address many of the key issues and challenges of the contemporary world.

The UNSC ‘permanent five’, which exclusively claim veto power, comprises three closely allied Western states – the US, Britain and France (all NATO members) – and their traditional ‘great power’ opponents: Russia and China. The very existence of this privileged clique undermines any claims to fairness that supporters of the UNSC can make. Furthermore, the fact that those three Western powers have a long record of acting outside the perimeters of the UN when it suits them (Iraq and Kosovo, inter alia), or ignoring their responsibilities to other international norms when it suits them (Rwanda, Darfur…) and yet are willing to utilize their privileged positions in order to protect themselves or their friends demonstrates fundamental hypocrisy.

What we have is an inconsistency between the basic structure of the UN, the actions of the UNSC and the principle of fairness that occurs at two levels. First, the UN acknowledges states as the only legitimate form of human organization, despite the wide array of types of state and the unrepresentative nature of some states; and second, the UNSC represents the domination of that system by a few, very privileged, states. Given that this inconsistency is apparently irreconcilable, I contend that the UNSC should be scrapped.

NO: Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He studies peacekeeping and conflict prevention as well as the European Union and United Nations.

Richard

You are right: the Security Council, like life, is not fair. But it was never meant to be. Its main goal is to moderate disputes between big powers and so reduce the risks of major war. In the past few years the US has hammered out deals with China and Russia on Iran, North Korea and, most recently, Syria through the UN. The process is often ugly and the human costs appalling – as the Syrian slaughter underlines. But I’d argue that UN diplomacy is still preferable to unfettered competition between Beijing, Moscow and Washington. I would actually like to see more big powers, like Brazil and India, become full-time members of the Council and give it more credibility as an arbiter in global arguments.

That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the Council’s humanitarian role. The fact that the UN has over 100,000 peacekeepers worldwide in places like Haiti and Darfur indicates that the Council takes humanitarian crises far more seriously than it did during the Cold War. UN peacekeeping is an imperfect tool and big powers’ interests obviously affect these deployments (Haiti would never get such attention if it weren’t near the US) but sometimes big powers approve good things for less-than-perfect reasons.

But let’s pursue your proposal: scrap the Council. What, if anything, would you replace it with? A forum for NGOs? Oxfam and Amnesty International would have more humane and edifying debates than China and the US, but what could they deliver? Perhaps we should select 15 entirely random individuals from around the world to debate war and peace in place of the Council’s current members.

I’m being facetious (I am all for NGOs and activists holding the UN to account). The Council is not the best mechanism we can imagine for running the world. But is there a politically realistic alternative?

Phil

You seem to accept both the inherent unfairness of the system and its inefficacies –which, you concede, constitute the politicization of international norms, sometimes at great human cost – merely because of a poverty of creative thought. I am unconvinced.

Your justification – that the UNSC provides an essential forum for great power interaction – does not withstand scrutiny. Between 1949 and 1971 China had no seat on the UNSC (its place was taken by an ousted government in exile), yet no ‘great power’ war occurred, despite the proximity of US-led wars in Korea and Vietnam.

The Security Council has proven to be Western-centric, overly concerned with the rights and interests of states and incompatible with the very urgent need to address many of the key issues and challenges of the contemporary world – Phil

Conversely, the USSR and the US managed to bring the world to the brink of nuclear disaster over Cuba, despite the fact that both were members of the UNSC. It was not high politics in New York that prevented war in 1962, but the prospect of mutual obliteration! (A similar calculation surely constrains hawks in Delhi, Islamabad and Pyongyang now.)

Moreover, the urgent threat that faces humanity today is not a great power conflict but global climate change. The fact that four of the UNSC’s permanent five are in the top 10 countries for C02 emissions (China and the US are ranked one and two respectively) demonstrates a skewed relationship of power and accountability.

What is the alternative to an unfair system? My response is simple: a fairer one! The UNSC should give way to a system that holds great powers to account and overcomes this democratic deficit before it is too late.

Richard

You are exaggerating my argument about big power politics. I am not claiming that the Security Council is the one and only obstacle to a world war. If it were, we’d all be dead. I am arguing that it is nonetheless a helpful mechanism for reducing tensions between major states, lowering the overall level of international tensions.

The process is often ugly and the human costs appalling – as the Syrian slaughter underlines. But I’d argue that UN diplomacy is still preferable to unfettered competition between Beijing, Moscow and Washington – Richard

I also don’t buy your point about China. Beijing sent hundreds of thousands of troops to fight the US-led forces in Korea – which the Security Council had mandated – in the 1950s. So yes, China’s absence from the Security Council did add to Cold War tensions, contrary to your position. I don’t disagree about Cuba, though.

Enough history. I concur that the Security Council is no use whatsoever on climate change. But no other multilateral forum is doing massively better. The 2009 Copenhagen summit culminated with President Obama cutting a backroom deal with his counterparts from Brazil, China, India and South Africa. This was no fairer than the way permanent Security Council members resolve crises, even if it involved different powers.

That shows how hard it is to design decent multilateral institutions. I may not be thinking very creatively, but your alternative adds up to a couple of slogans. I’d love a ‘fairer’ system to address the global ‘democratic deficit’. But how do we get beyond rhetoric? Let’s use our remaining correspondence to outline what we think the main institutional components of a fair but feasible international security system might look like.

Phil

The presence of Chinese troops in Korea does not refute my point. There was no major war between the two sides. Instead, the example is roughly comparable with other Cold War proxy conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola and – arguably – the Middle East. It was a ‘balance of power’ that prevented escalation to an all-out great power war, not multilateral negotiations, and certainly not the UNSC.

‘Fairness’ and ‘democracy’ are far more than slogans; particularly to those who endure conditions where their absence is the status quo.

munksynz under a CC Licence
Flying the flags - does the UNSC represent all countries equally? munksynz under a CC Licence

The UNSC should not just be defined as an impartial-sounding ‘multilateral organization’ but rather an establishment predicated on ‘neoliberal institutionalism’. This is not a neutral ideology; it privileges the interests of certain states and certain groups at the expense of others. My contention is that in the face of major threats such as climate change, this dynamic is not only troubling but also harmful.

If power rests with those who are both the most responsible for creating the climate-change crisis and the best equipped to deal with its fallout, then there is no incentive to make the kind of changes that are urgently needed.

If, as it seems, you really want to take multilateralism seriously, we need to restructure global power dynamics in favour of weaker actors and hold the great powers to account. Thus the UNSC should be scrapped in favour of any institution that runs counter to established norms. In short, we need a system that redistributes power, not one that maintains the dominance of established élites.

Richard

The good news is that many organizations either represent weaker states or unite civil- society actors from around the world. They range from the Alliance of Small Island States (which articulates the dangers of rising sea levels to its members) to the global protest movement Occupy. The bad news is that such groups struggle to change the realities of power. 

China prioritizes economic growth over small islands. US capitalists were irked but not defeated by Occupy. To challenge these realities, you need a global revolution.

Until that happens, I believe it is possible and necessary to work through the existing balance of power to do some good in the world. I fully agree that the Council rests on the balance of power but still hold that it moderates risky power dynamics. 

Yes, there were Cold War proxy wars in the Middle East, but the US and USSR returned repeatedly to the UN to make deals to stop those conflicts (although we’d surely agree that the UN has failed the Palestinians). Since the Cold War, the Council has sent peacekeepers to back up elections from Cambodia to Mali. Again, some of those elections were unfair and peacekeeping failed in Srebrenica and Rwanda.

I recognize the Council’s biases and the limitations of UN interventions. I share your fears about climate change. But I believe that we can save some lives and ease some crises through the UNSC – and this is both a pragmatic and a moral choice.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 468 This feature was published in the December 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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