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Members of the U.N. Security Council meet in 2019 as calls for UNSC reform have disappeared. Members of the U.N. Security Council gather for a meeting on Syria, U.N. Headquarters, New York, April 30, 2019 (AP photo by Kathy Willens).

Why Is No One Talking About UNSC Reform Anymore?

Monday, June 3, 2019

It wasn't so long ago that there was a legitimate push to expand the United Nations Security Council. So why have the calls for UNSC reform disappeared?

Among the mysteries of contemporary world politics is the lack of high-level debate over reforming the United Nations Security Council. U.N. membership has expanded dramatically since 1945, from 51 to 193 nations, and the global economy has experienced tectonic shifts, especially in the past 30 years. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the seven largest Western economies—three of which have permanent seats on the council—accounted for 51 percent of global economic output. Today they account for only 30 percent. A decade and a half ago, many voices insisted that the council must expand to retain its legitimacy and effectiveness. They have since fallen silent.

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The most obvious explanation for this reticence is that U.N. member states cannot agree on what form Security Council expansion should take. Under the U.N. Charter, changes to the council’s composition require two-thirds approval within the General Assembly, plus ratification of the relevant legislation by two-thirds of member states, including the five permanent members of the Security Council, known as the P5. No surprise, then, that the council has expanded only once, with the addition of four elected members in 1965.

The most recent serious push for UNSC reform occurred around the U.N. World Summit of 2005. That failed campaign exposed three solid blocs within the General Assembly—divisions which persist today. The first bloc is the Group of 4, or G4, comprising Japan, Germany, India and Brazil. Beyond seeking permanent membership for themselves, the G4 countries support four additional, nonpermanent members, which would produce a 23-nation council. The G4 each want a veto, but they have offered to defer its use for 15 years.

Opposing the G4 effort is the Uniting for Consensus, or UFC, coalition, comprising the G4 countries’ regional rivals—South Korea, Italy, Pakistan and Argentina—as well as other states. Unsurprisingly, the UFC prefers expanding the council’s rotating membership, calling for 10 new elected seats—producing a 25-member UNSC. The third bloc is the 54-member African Union. In 2005, AU leaders endorsed the Ezulwini Consensus, which envisions a 26-member council, including six new veto-wielding permanent members and four new elected members. Significantly, the AU insists that two new permanent members be from Africa.

Contributing to the gridlock, any UNSC reform would require P5 approval. France and Britain, no doubt aware of their diminishing legitimacy as permanent members, have expressed support for G4 aspirations. Russia, in contrast, opposes any form of expansion, which would dilute its global power. China, slightly more pliable, proposes 10 new rotating members, calculating that many of them would be developing countries sympathetic to Chinese positions. Beijing categorically rejects permanent status for Japan and India.

The United States remains rhetorically open to enlarging the Security Council but has taken little action. In this area, President Donald Trump follows in his predecessors’ footsteps. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama each lent rhetorical support to Security Council expansion but eschewed leadership on the issue. They reasoned that the goal would be difficult to achieve and would make it harder to mobilize coalitions for particular resolutions. No U.S. administration has been willing to contemplate a council of more than 21 members.

On the surface, elevating the G4 nations to permanent membership appears to serve U.S. purposes, since in theory these fellow democracies would side consistently with the United States. Germany’s Iraq War vote, however, and the at times exasperating positions of Brazil and India when they were elected members demonstrate the flaws of such thinking. Reflecting on the latter two nations’ performance in 2011, Susan Rice, Obama’s U.N. envoy at the time, lamented that “we’ve learned a lot, and not all of it, frankly, encouraging.”

In the absence of a global catastrophe, such as a war between major powers, deadlock on UNSC reform is likely to persist.

Beyond their votes, aspiring permanent members also need to bring to the table significant capacity for promoting international peace and security. A recurrent impediment to Japan’s and Germany’s candidacies has been their reluctance, for historical reasons, to develop military capabilities required for them to become credible co-guarantors of world order. Brazil’s shortcomings, both military and economic, are even more acute.

Of the G4 aspirants, India presents the starkest challenge to the council’s current composition. On track to pass China in 2024 as the world’s most populous nation, India is growing at a blistering economic pace. It is also developing military capabilities pivotal to Washington’s vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” As these trends proceed, India’s lack of permanent membership is sure to undermine the Security Council’s legitimacy.

In November 2010, then-President Obama told the parliament in New Delhi that he “look[ed] forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council in which India is a permanent member.” His administration failed to follow up, however. Trump seems to be following suit. After meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2017, the president “reaffirmed the support of the United States for India’s permanent membership,” according to the joint communique. Although his administration has since reiterated this endorsement, it has taken no concrete steps to advance this objective, focusing instead on supporting U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ push for reform elsewhere in the United Nations.

In the absence of a global catastrophe, such as a war between major powers, deadlock on UNSC reform is likely to persist. This is in part because states have prioritized contradictory goals in pursuing enlargement. U.N. General Assembly resolution 62/557 of 2008, for instance, authorized the launch of intergovernmental negotiations to make the council more “broadly representative, efficient, and transparent,” in order “to enhance its effectiveness and the legitimacy and the implementation of its decisions.” Effectiveness and legitimacy are not the same thing, however, and any council enlargement may well advance one at the expense of the other.

For developing nations, the Security Council’s legitimacy rests on whether its composition—both elected and permanent—reflects the aspirations and perspectives of the U.N.’s global membership. African nations, in particular, object to being subject to council resolutions they have little opportunity to influence.

The United States and other advanced democracies reject this logic. The council’s primary mission is to be effective, not representative. By this view, the relevant issue for any expansion, particularly of its permanent membership, is whether it will improve the Security Council’s ability to defend global peace and security.

Any aspirant for permanent Security Council membership, then, should be judged against objective criteria. In a 2010 report for the Council on Foreign Relations, my co-author Kara MacDonald and I proposed a list of potential criteria: Any candidate must demonstrate a history of political stability and, ideally, democracy; a robust military and a willingness to deploy it; significant financial contributions to the U.N.’s regular and peacekeeping budgets; demonstrated willingness to use enforcement tools under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter; an ability to lead and broker collective action; adequate diplomatic staff; and a record of conforming to and enforcing global security regimes, as well as of contributing to other global public goods.

A decade later, these criteria are still relevant. All that’s missing now is the meaningful discussion about Security Council reform.

Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World” (Brookings Press: 2018). His weekly WPR column appears every Monday.

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