The first and most urgent task for the United Nations Security Council is to add more permanent members, believes Ramesh Thakur, emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. The irreducible minimum for any credible system of collective security is that the key actors making and enforcing the coercive decisions, in the name and on behalf of the international community, are the major powers of the day. This is the logic justifying permanent membership with veto rights. This is the criterion on which, more than any other single factor, the Council fails the test comprehensively.
The crisis of multilateralism is the product of countries, led by the major powers, instrumentalising international organizations as vehicles for the pursuit of narrow national interests rather than maintaining an effective multilateral order as a global public good in its own right. The United Nations is located in a specific historical context, namely the period in mid-1945 as the Second World War came to an end. In addition, it operates as the hub of a network of global governance actors. Expectations of continued effectiveness of mandated multilateral machinery that reflected the particular distribution of power, the security threats, and other structural-contextual factors of 1945, are misplaced, because all these have experienced wholesale transformations.
In order to make multilateral institutions more effective, the leaders of countries that matter the most must marry a belief in multilateralism as a global public good to pragmatic steps to address the challenges in making multilateralism work. More than anything else, this means reforming the structure, composition and working methods of the UN Security Council (UNSC). The call for reforming it is justified by the need for greater credibility, legitimacy, representation, effectiveness, and enhanced capacity and willingness to act in defence of the common peace.
If a week is a long time in politics, 75 years is an eternity in international politics. One can only react with bemused puzzlement to expectations of continued effectiveness of mandated multilateral machinery that reflected the particular distribution of power, the security threats, and other structural-contextual factors of 1945, when all these have experienced wholesale transformations. Among the changes are:
The devaluation of military might as a freely convertible currency into other forms of power and influence, which explains diminishing US leverage despite unchallengeable military dominance;
The broadening of threat perceptions from hard to human security issues like climate change and pandemics;
The steady eastward drift of wealth, power, and legitimacy of existing national political institutions based on performance more than process;
The deconsolidation of democracy with declining levels of trust and faith in democratic institutions and governments, even in Western societies; and
The emergence of an international order that is not unipolar, bipolar, or even multipolar but polycentric, with a resulting ‘pluralization of diplomacy’ where countries do not coalesce around rigid blocs. Instead, they have more relations with a wider range of countries on a broader menu of issues.
In such a world, no country has the leverage to set the rules largely on its own and as an externalization of its organising political principles.
The first and most urgent task is to add more permanent members. The irreducible minimum for any credible system of collective security is that the key actors making and enforcing the coercive decisions, in the name and on behalf of the international community, are the major powers of the day. This is the logic justifying permanent membership with veto rights. This is the criterion on which, more than any other single factor, the Council fails the test comprehensively.
As well as geographical balance, membership criteria should include contributions to the regular budget, voluntary contributions to UN activities and agencies, and troop and other personnel contributions to UN peace operations. Those who contribute the most to the regular budget, specialised agencies, and peace operations should have a commensurate say in making decisions; those who make the decisions should contribute commensurately.
Whether in fact they should be “permanent” will be contentious. Introducing a third category of ten-year veto-less members eligible for re-election will add to the complexity without satisfying the new category of members. That means the choice should be either to downsize the existing P5 also to ten-year renewable terms with no veto power, or else to enlarge the P5 to P10 with the same veto rights as the existing five. My preference would be for the former, which would avoid repeating the mistake of fixing permanent membership when all history teaches us that great powers too rise and fall on the tide of history. But the second option might be less politically infeasible.
Second, the elected membership should be increased to 18, their term extended to three years and their roles enhanced. Their potential utility and role in revitalizing the Council as an effective executive body has been relatively neglected. There is merit in considering how the elected membership of the UNSC might be reformed – with respect to numbers, terms, selection process, and roles – with a view to improving the Council’s representational and performance legitimacy. In contrast to the seemingly futile quest for reforming the UNSC permanent membership, investing in reforming the elected membership may be less difficult to achieve. For it can produce win-win outcomes all round, including a reduced workload for the P5.
This should attract support from the necessary two-thirds of the UN members, without provoking P5 opposition. The probability of broad support would be increased with the specification of a fair regional distribution of the elected seats. Increasing the size of the UNSC and extending the term of the elected members would therefore increase its capacity to fulfil its responsibilities for maintaining international peace and security.
Third, there should be a more equal division of responsibility with the General Assembly (GA). The Council has vastly expanded its powers and reach in recent years, including with respect to the use of military force, coercive economic sanctions, and directing member states on the terms of domestic legislation. The growth of the Council’s reach has been accompanied by a curtailment of the Assembly’s power, prestige, and authority.
Without the need for any Charter amendment, the GA can revise the Secretary-General (SG) selection procedure to give the two principal organs co-equal roles and responsibility. One chamber can propose a short-list of three candidates and the other chamber makes the final choice from that list. This, and only this, will ensure that the SG is equally responsive to both the UNSC with the geopolitical heavyweights, and the GA with the full membership.
A second example of growing assertiveness by the GA is the nuclear ban treaty adopted on July 7, 2017 by 122 states despite a boycott of the negotiating conference and fierce lobbying against it by the five nuclear weapon states, who are also the five permanent members. The ban treaty was an assertion of normative primacy by the majority of states and thus also a declaration of independence by the GA. The NPT and the ban treaty embed the geopolitical and normative balance of power, 52 years apart in time, of the nuclear haves who control the UNSC and the majority have-nots. The latter have the numbers in GA in today’s polycentric world to reframe the challenge, set the agenda, and control the narrative; the former continue to control the implementation and enforcement agendas.
Fourth and finally, if the effort to amend the Charter falls victim to self-interested negativism, states may want to convene a fresh constitutional conference to establish a new and improved successor to the UN. Opponents of UNSC reform are in denial about the critical importance and urgency of the subject. It is central to, not peripheral to let alone a distraction from, other much needed reforms, including management and personnel. The brutal reality is that resistance to UNSC reform has held up progress on much of the rest of the UN reform agenda. Obsession with the rest of the UN reform agenda without confronting the UNSC deadlock is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it sank.
There are two broad pathways out of the impasse. The first, that probably will have to be tried, is to convene yet another summit and present it with a package of proposals that include substantial Charter amendments. Perhaps all member states including the P5 and regional rivals of the aspirant candidates will act in enlightened international interest. Unfortunately, nothing in the history of UN reform efforts gives cause for optimism and gathering rosebuds of consolation of a trickle of management reform achievements will not rescue multilateralism nor save the organization. It seems to have become reform-proof.
The only other option then is to convene another San Francisco-equivalent conference and to draft and adopt an entirely new Charter to supersede the existing Charter. As with the transition from the League to the United Nations, the best of the existing provisions can be carried over, some valuable evolving practices can be codified, and some innovations adopted.
If both pathways are closed off or reach dead-ends, then the world can continue to muddle along to the next global catastrophe. We certainly cannot say we were not forewarned.