Those who argue that the rising power of the international public opinion is the strong argument against the preservation of the veto power are in fact wrong.
As he retreated from Moscow in 1812, huddled in his carriage with his army collapsing around him, Napoleon Bonaparte asked his foreign minister why Europe’s rulers resisted him so fiercely. “It’s your majesty they fear”, the minister told him. “The governments are afraid of universal monarchy”. And they still are. Uncontested power is disliked around the world.
So, it is not surprising that Article 27 of the UN Charter allows the permanent members of the Security Council to quash any non-procedural draft resolution with their negative votes, irrespective of the level of international support and popularity it may have. In his fascinating book “Governing the World” Columbia University historian Mark Mazower has powerfully demonstrated that international institutions have been only as effective as the Great Powers of the age have allowed them to be. So, should we hope that the world be a better place if the Permanent Five are stripped of their veto power? My answer is “no”. The world will not be a better place, it will be more unstable place and while we can legitimately ask the question if the current permanent members of the Security Council are indeed sill the great powers of our age, the question about their veto powers should be treated separately.
In a paradoxical way the debate on the veto power of P5 resembles the discussion on the elimination of the nuclear weapons. Everybody is going to agree that the existence of the nuclear weapons and the status of some countries to be more equal than other in the international system is an awful thing but many will argue that both nuclear weapons and the veto power of the P5 make the world a more governable place.
The analysis of the recent uses of veto power in the UN Security Council will reveal some interesting trends. First, the use of veto has dramatically declined after the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was the first one to cast veto in February 1946. And in the days of the Cold war permanent members of the UN Security Council have used their veto right 240 times. In striking contrast in the first post-Cold war decade only nine draft resolutions were vetoed. In the recent years the veto was used more actively and Russia ended up being the one most ready to veto while France and Britain never used their veto right after 1989. But what is more important, the “pocket veto” (the explicit or implicit threat of veto) was an important incentive for finding solutions in the face of some of the most difficult crises the world has been facing. So, we can see that when veto power is exercised, it comes at a high cost for the respective country while at the same time the treat of veto forces cooperation.
In the post-Cold war period any time when a single member of the Security Council has decided to use its veto unilaterally this was not so much a demonstration of power but a manifestation of defeat when it comes to winning the support of international public opinion. This is true in the 13 cases when the US has unilaterally vetoed resolutions related to Israel and it is true in the case of the latest Russia’s resolutions related to the Ukrainian crisis. In the case of the US, the permanent use of Washington’s veto in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dramatically hurts US’s attempts to present itself as an honest broker in the Middle East conflict. In a similar vein, Moscow’s decision to veto the establishment of the UN tribunal for investigating the crash of the Malaysian airplane in Ukraine made many believe that the military units of the rebels in Donetsk had something to do with the accident. It is symptomatic that even majority of the Russians were in favor of the establishment of the Tribunal, according to the Levada opinion polls.
Those who argue that the rising power of the international public opinion is the strong argument against the preservation of the veto power are in fact wrong. It is exactly the fact that people around the world are better informed and ready to take position on the world crises that makes me believe that the veto option does more good than bad. In the interconnected world in which the most important actors are in fierce competition for the hearts and minds of the global public using UN Security veto could not be an easy decision. Publics could be indifferent in the cases of China using its veto power in order to punish any country that has dared to recognize Taiwan as was the case twice in the last 25 years. But when it comes to major conflicts involving a lot of human tragedy states can veto only at the cost of losing much of their soft power.
A kind of ‘checks and balances’ of our time, P5’s veto option remains an instrument of last resort in the resistance against uncontested power.