The UN Security Council Can’t Handle the 21st Century

Over 70 years after its inception following World War II, the UN Security Council (UNSC) remains one of the greatest and most enduring examples of multilateralism the world has ever witnessed. Deliberate disregard for the rules by the body’s most privileged state actors, however, has eroded respect and legitimacy for the institution worldwide. This is a structural problem that must be addressed through reform—and fast. The UNSC’s composition is outdated and inappropriate for the emerging geopolitical realities of the 21st century.

The UNSC remains largely unaltered from when it was created in 1946. The so-called P5, comprising China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, are permanent members that wield the right to veto any and all resolutions they find unsuitable to their interests. There are also ten elected non-permanent members that serve two-year terms. These members are not granted veto rights, and have been “equitably distributed” by geographic region since the mid-1960s: three seats for Africa, two for Asia, two for Latin America, two for Western Europe and North America, and one for Eastern Europe.

Shortsighted and hypocritical violations of international law by veto-holding states have endangered the Council’s legitimacy. When the United States shunned global public opinion in 2003 and toppled the Iraqi regime, it sent a strong signal suggesting it was not beholden to international law. Similarly, in 2014, Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula, legally part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. This has not gone unnoticed, and has set a terrible geopolitical precedent.

Emergent global powers without veto privilege, but dominant in their respective regions, pose the gravest threat to the outdated system. Germany, as both Europe’s economic powerhouse and the world’s fourth largest financer of UN peacekeeping operations, rightly feels entitled to more influence within the multilateral framework. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in concert with Japan, India, and Brazil, maintained they wanted to collectively “take others with [them] to reach a modern working structure of the Security Council which suits the 21st Century.”

“Emergent global powers without veto privilege, but dominant in their respective regions, pose the gravest threat to the outdated system.”

It is important that these calls for change do not go unacknowledged. Japan and Germany have the third and fourth largest economies in the world, respectively, when measured by GDP. India, home to 1.2 billion people, is the world’s largest democracy. Moreover, it is a nuclear-armed state that harnesses considerable influence in South Asia. Brazil, for its part, is the largest economy in South America measured by GDP and the 7th largest globally, directly behind the United Kingdom and France. As the biggest economy in Africa, Nigeria would be an excellent contender for a UNSC spot too, as would South Africa.

It is becoming impossible to explain why privileged actors like the United Kingdom or France deserve the coveted veto over these new regional hegemons. The colonial behemoth that was the British Empire is effectively dead. And neighboring France, given its deplorable economic situation, has been labeled “the sick man of Europe.” While Germany continuously takes charge in bailing out irresponsible countries, frail France retains its ability to reject outright any UN resolution that does not serve its interests.

“It is becoming impossible to explain why privileged actors like the United Kingdom or France deserve the coveted veto over these new regional hegemons. The colonial behemoth that was the British Empire is effectively dead. And neighboring France, given its deplorable economic situation, has been labeled “the sick man of Europe.””

The danger in all this? This painfully visible double standard breeds—and indeed, has already bred—contempt. When the emergent powers decide that the potential blowback from acting unilaterally grants more benefits than conducting diplomacy and “playing by the rules” of the UN charter, the UNSC loses legitimacy and respect, leading to a more anarchic, unpredictable, and unstructured community. At that point, veto power would become obsolete.

Therefore, the P5 should embrace reform now, and even gain bonus points by taking the lead, rather than wait until it is too late. This would likely mean radical change. One option is to dissolve the veto power entirely but induct many more permanent members, making decisions based on a majority vote. This would allow for a more equitable and inclusive balance of power. But heavy obstacles would arise, like deciding which countries would be included, and which would remain disenfranchised. Negotiations may also take longer. Finally, having agreed to give up significant power, former veto-holding states may have more of an incentive to act unilaterally.

Even if there was broad support for UNSC reform, the UN charter dictates that two-thirds of the UN General Assembly must agree to any amendments, or 128 of the 193 states. (This has happened only once previously, in 1965, when the size of the UNSC was expanded from 11 to 15.)  And of course, the entire P5 must be on board, an incredibly difficult task in itself. The prospect of Germany’s induction into permanent membership would likely anger Russia, since that would add yet another NATO member into the fray. And China would be quick to strike down Japan’s bid.

It remains unclear how best to reform the UNSC to meet the challenges of this century, but it is clear that the composition of the body no longer accurately reflects the world it strives to govern, and this mismatch challenges its legitimacy and ability to enforce international law. The emergent powers must be given a stronger hand in the game, lest our existing multilateral framework descend into irrelevance.

Image: United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron attends the UN Security Council high-level summit as part of the UN General Assembly in 2014.


Luke A. Drabyn is a U.S. Fulbright Student based in Kiev, Ukraine, conducting research on transnational human trafficking policy. A former Blog Manager at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, he has worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Department of State, and American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College, where he double majored in government and legal studies and Russian language. Follow him on Twitter.

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