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The UNSC and the Shift in Global Power

Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010

Judy Dempsey offers a typically insightful piece on the challenges facing the EU at the U.N. these days. Ironically, Dempsey pivots off of Germany's election as a non-permanent member of the council, whereas the real news of this year's batch of non-permanent members is the presence of India and South Africa. With Brazil already there from last year, that means the council will now include all the member states of IBSA and BRIC, with Turkey thrown in for good measure.

We already got a taste this spring of what an alternative emerging powers line at the UNSC could look like with the Brazil-Turkey vote against sanctions on Iran. In some ways that was an exceptional case, since their vote resulted in part from resentment over the U.S. rejection of their joint diplomatic effort to try to avert those sanctions.

But in other ways, it was illustrative of several more general realities. First of all, it revealed the ways in which the rules of the global governance game are clearly stacked against the possibility of emerging powers increasing their influence by force, rather than persuasion. In other words, in a direct confrontation with the status quo powers, there is little chance they will come out on top.

Second, it reveals the way in which the rules of the global governance game are clearly stacked against the possibility of emerging powers increasing their influence, period. That could conceivably have important consequences moving forward, if it leads to emerging powers seeking alternative forums that more accurately reflect both their global influence and their global concerns and interests. Dempsey's article references this paper by Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner (.pdf) on how the U.N. General Assembly is already reflecting that shift, but obviously it's the Security Council that serves as the gold standard.

Two potential developments bear watching as indicators. First, the degree to which the class of 2010 emerges as a South-South bloc with a coherent agenda and solid voting discipline will reveal a great deal about the future configuration of power in the international arena. For all the talk of the emerging multipolar world, what we've seen so far is a group of bright stars that have yet to either develop the gravitational pull necessary to become true poles, or align themselves into a constellation. This year's UNSC presents itself as an intriguing opportunity for the latter to emerge, but that will depend on whether a common agenda actually exists.

Second, the degree to which the U.S., the U.K. and France create the space for such a South-South voice to emerge on the council will reveal a great deal about whether they have learned anything from the past decade's failures and overreach, to say nothing of history's march. My hunch is that as things currently stand, the emerging powers do not really have enough overlapping interests to sustain a disciplined bloc on the council. But an anti-Western agenda could obviously fill that gap if they feel that the Western permanent members, with Germany, are aligned against them.

Time will tell whether we look back on this year's council as a turning point or a dog that didn't bark. But in either case, it will be say a lot about whether and how the global governance system adapts to the emerging global power structure.