International Relations

The UN Security Council: where is it now and where is it going ?

Anna Morin (2014), Colombia University, Summer School. 


       The powerful, like the victorious, do not just write history. They grab the seats at the top tables and decide who can join their cosy club. One of the obvious rules of today’s politicized world, such an idea depicts what many think about the United Nations Security Council today: a handful of powerful states, deciding the fate of them all. Yet, with the unrelenting phenomena of globalization, growth and capital are blooming elsewhere, and pressure for international restructuration of power-sharing is incessant. The United Nations Security Council is constantly solicited for memberships expansions, while questioned in terms of efficiency and legitimacy. The discrepancy between the council’s right to ‘decide and execute’, while other members hold the cards to simple ‘recommendations’ seems like much of an anachronism to many. Thus, a question repeatedly comes to mind as to the status of the five UN ‘sovereigns’, and the true adaptability of the Security Council to the new global world: what should be done, if anything, to the United Nations’ all-mighty Security Council? First, we will try to understand the reasons behind its current nature, and why reforms seem imperilling. Then, we will examine what have constituted evident reasons for transformations. Lastly, we will inquire as what can be the way forward, towards better effectiveness, and swifter responses.

I/ The un-reasonable prospects of change

    Naturally to most, the question of membership expansion of the Security Council to broaden regional balance and legitimize the Council’s authority globally, is understood as a fair one. In an organization claiming to represent the entirety of the people of the world, why wouldn’t it. But, in a growing world of ‘non-polarity’, like Richard Haas defined it, idealistic principles and political realities seldom often match.

     Returning to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, it seems for states as for men in the matter of politics, when structure and order are aspired to, hierarchical authority is inevitable. And the United Nations is, before all, the paragon of international politics. While inclusiveness might lead its moral thrives, it is its practical efficiency’s nemesis. Indeed, such argument further finds power in precedence. While the United Nations has a decisive body, readily apt to take action, its predecessor, the League of Nations, did not, and probably constitutes to the mind of many a mistake not to be repeated. While the League had similar aspirations to that of the United Nations, it lacked a small executive body, ready to decide, and bind other members to its choices. The League’s exaggerated equality principles led to its downfall: it could not reach consensus, and enforce action timely (Goodrich, 1947). When many even differ in their core definition of what constitutes a threat to international peace and security, the decision-making apparatus had to be amended, for any progress to be made (Roberts, 2008). After the League failed to foresee the Second World War, and disappointed in its handling of it, collective security became the utmost goal for the new United Nations. The Security Council permanent members became its wardens, because of their military might (Goodrich, 1947): able to convince, lead and influence other states with better ease, and received compensation in their right of ‘veto’, and chair at the leading international table.

      Moreover, as Realists of International Relations argue, states are rational actors, guided by principles of interest and gains. Being permanent members of the Security Council has offered sufficient benefits, as the veto power, or selective membership, to the five greater states to remain in the organization, and somehow help expand its values internationally. A remodeling of the Council, and relegation of such benefits could push P5 members in their retranchements, questioning their national interests in yielding to the UN’s norms and remaining the main financial benefactors of it; impeding the organization itself for some time. The question would shift towards the UN’s own independent capacity to survive without a strong P5 commitment? For now, the P5 members remain the only nations able to exert global influence, and ensure peace and security.

       Their multi-disciplinary strengths have enabled the UN to act for more than 50 years, ensuring properly enforced sanctions and resolutions in certain operations, but not only. Their strong institutional memory and experience dealing with international conflicts have been most beneficiary to the organization, and its members. Changing the dynamics of the Security Council, or adding member states would not only further endanger the timeliness of decision-making, but risk destabilizing the world’s political scene, fashioning new regional tensions regarding who gets membership, and fostering grievances.

      While its precursor stumbled on the reach of consensus and effective decision-making, the United Nations Security Council’s condensed power shareholders enables bypassing more deadlocks, and promises better action in most cases (Goodrich, 1947, p.17). With the rise of new challenges to collective security in the 21st century, like environmental threats, terrorism, or diseases, the UNSC needs to be able to take swift and timely decisions. As reiterated by Ambassador Gumbi, representing South Africa in the U.N, consensus between members of the Council is imperative in maintaining international peace and security, considering the changing nature of threats (Omar, 2011, p.13). Bolstering the permanent membership of the Council would only risk increasing the possibilities of stalemates, which the world clearly cannot afford.

 II/ The pitfalls of sovereign interests

    Thus, with regards to the actual possession of power of international organisations, the UN is not much of a change from the League (Goodrich, 1947, p.10), and still often faces many impediment in upholding the UN’s values globally. Numerous member states share the view that ‘permanent membership implies almost perfect mastery of issues, procedures, and practices, and even of what is not said…’ (Mahbubani, 2004, p.253) by the mighty P-5. When the United Nations fully stand for collective cooperation, tolerance, and unity, its practical operations are often centred on the dusts of ‘diplomacy, based on national power’ (Mahbubani, 2004, p.254). Such contrast between a moral aspiration for concerted action, and short-term and interest-based daily practices, is a major challenge to the UN’s efficiency, and ability to pose as serious and impartial actor around the world.

     An epitome of the UNSC’s failure to protect its own legitimacy, and that of the UN around the world, was the 2003 Iraq war. Primarily damaging by raising internal disagreements, it propagated the image of a failing UN, unable to unify and tame its permanent members. The United States’ intentional overlook of the Council’s decision delegitimized the independent power of the organization, and its ability to uphold principles of equality between members. The US did not accept its role as non-leader and not sole decision-maker, strongly impairing the purpose of the UN. If the US did not have to abide by the rules regarding Iraq, then what could stop other powerful nations of doing as they pleased? While the American use of force in Iraq did impair the United States itself, it widened the debate regarding the UNSC’s rightful power mastery, and ability to provide independent impartial efficiency.

     What the 2003 situation unravelled was a global pattern of ‘variable geometry’ in politics and conflicts (Roberts, 2008). While the United Nations’ main goal is to deal with conflicts around the world, regardless of their characteristics, a certain sense of selectivity regarding the organization’s agenda was now undeniable (Wallensteen & Johansson, 2004). The prevention or emphasis of international attention on particular cases is especially detrimental to the UNSC’s legitimacy, and the organization itself, not only now perceived as a weapon of West, but as personal weapon of the Council. In the eyes of sovereign states, and non-state actors, the colonial essence of the United Nations remains, and operations on the ground grow fundamentally more dangerous, much less efficient, while continuing to be targeted because of the ‘Western’ values they are percieved as expressing. And how can the UN properly operate when it is now fighting a war of its own in the field, and in the minds of the people it seeks to protect and represent?

     Since the ‘post-Iraq’ United Nations framework, much scepticism started to surround the organization, the legitimacy of the Security Council and its permanent members. While the Charter and the infamous ‘veto right’ have made changes impossible, options need to be considered, to unify the national agendas with that of the organization.

III/ Bypassing the resembling autocracy of the Security Council

   It is often underlined that words matter greatly in diplomacy; especially in the United Nations. Consequently, while radical changes are not yet in the cards, ignoring the plea for adjustments is not the way to be taken either.

    Undeniably, relentless fervour from member states to gain Security Council membership has not decelerated. The idea of permanent membership, or election to the E-10, ironically holds the greatest incentive for member states’ participation. The election of member states to the Security Council constitutes a major issue for the organization. Willing to prove their right to contribute, and ability to take sensible decisions, E-10 members are an asset to the organization, furthering its reach, and challenging its comfortable standards. Yet, as claimed by David Malone, E-10 members are still given mere ‘responsibility without [real] power’ (Mahbubani, 2004, p.254). This will prove damaging in the long-term to their desire to get involved, and their belief in the credibility of the UN. While giving the extended members of the UNSC a veto right seems out of reach considering our arguments in the first part of this essay, considering other possibilities of added power to their membership could be an interesting way to go; or start at least. The option of a right to revoke a P5 veto, under E-10 consensus, with valid political arguments, could not only give the E-10 a real share of power, but also enable the United Nations to better bypass the practice of ‘variable geometry’ talked about earlier.

     Strengthening member states’ worthwhile participation in the United Nations is key both for the growth of the organization and its values, as well as for the Security Council’s wellbeing. What needs to be kept in mind is the political nature of the UN. Unlike a legal organization, its foundations are found in political will, and the spread of international norms in all parts of the world. Therefore, every country’s participation counts. Regional organizations’ role should also be enhanced in decision-making, or operational participation. While understandably, financial issues come into play; the role of regional bodies as mediating actors, decision takers and influences vis-à-vis neighbouring issues, should be welcomed by the UNSC with furthered attention.

      Additionally, while P-5 members will not lose their grip on power anytime soon, using their veto right outspokenly or implicitly in closed doors consultations (Luck, 2010), another option would be the increasing of the Council’s accountability regarding decision-making, and political positions. Enforcing stronger transparency would pose an important incentive on the Council’s decisions, and surely increase its political will to better enforce international peace and security, globally. Because of the ultimate right of ‘veto’, real changes are still difficult to imagine regarding the United Nations Security Council. However, the debate should not be tamed, and options should constantly be explored. Indeed, like Martin Kobler argued: ‘standing still, means that we are moving backwards’. And with the constant renewal of international conflicts, the United Nations certainly cannot afford to be stagnant.

                                                                                     * * *

 In the matter of politics, perception is often seen as reality. And when it comes to the United Nations Security Council, the authority of its five permanent members, although seen as unfairly maintained, remains unbending. We have argued in this essay that, although an amendment to the Council and its membership principles cannot be expected at the time, other possibilities should not be left unexplored. Increasing the Council’s accountability, and gradually giving more valuable power to other elected members would not only increase its own efficacy, but also reinforce the entire organization’s legitimacy globally. While maintaining the Council’s authority, the UN needs to further other organ’s responsibilities and decision-making rights, to ensure the basic value it mainly stands for: unity of the world. While concerted action is primordial, ignoring the voices of other member states to avoid cacophony in the Council will probably prove damaging to the UN in the long run, especially in a world of growing non-polarity, where power is constantly redistributed. In any ways, to maintain a legitimate stand on international power, and an efficient decision-making strategy, the Council will need to foster accountability, take better account of other organ’s contributions, and understand the need to, sometimes, overlook basic national interests. From a somehow realistic standpoint, if and when such measures could arise, is another matter to be questioned.



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  • Luck, E., (2010), ‘Mixed Messages’, Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C.
  • Mahbubani, K. (2004). ‘The Permanent and Elected Council Members’. In D. M. Malone (Ed.), The UN Security Council: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers
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  • Omar, B., (2011), ‘Strenghtening the UNSC: Tapping into the German and South African Experience’, Compilation of the Reunion at Burgers Park Hotel, Pretoria, South Africa
  • Remarks by Ambassador Rice ,U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN at NY U’s center for Global Affairs” A New Course in the World, a New Approach at the UN” August 2009
  • Roberts, A., (2008), ‘A hundred Little Napoleons: Is anyone in charge of Today’s Nonpolar World?’, Spiegel Online International, October 23rd, [], Accessed 9th July 2014
  • Robert C. Hilderbrand, Dumbarton Oaks:The origins of the United Nations and the search for postwar Security ( Chaptel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,1999), Chapter 6,” The Security Council,” pp.122-158
  • Ruth B. Russel, A History of the United Nations Charter ( Washington, DC: The Brookings Institutions,1958), Chapter XXVIII, “ The Problem of the Great Power Veto,” pp.713-749
  • Secretary General’s Address to the Princeton Colloquium: “The Imperative for a New Multilateralism”, 17 April 2009
  • Wallensteen, P., & Johansson, P., (2004) ‘The Security Council: Decisions in Perspective’. In D. M. Malone (Ed.), The UN Security Council: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers
  • ‘Who runs the world? Wrestling for Influence’, The Economist, 3rd July 2008, [], Accessed 6th July 2014



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