At the Security Council, Compromise and Reforms in Short Supply
The United Nations General Assembly meets today to elect five new nonpermanent members of the Security Council. Although the winners will not begin their terms until January, the U.N. is approaching the end of two turbulent years in which three major powers -- Germany, India and South Africa -- have held temporary seats in the council, playing prominent roles in its debates over Libya and Syria. All three aspire to permanent seats in the forum, but have no choice but to head for the exit. (Colombia and Portugal are also off.)
When the trio of powers won seats on the council two years ago, Bruce D. Jones and I warned in these pages that there was no guarantee that they would cooperate easily with the council’s five permanent members: the U.S, China, France, Russia and the U.K., collectively known as the P5. But we also argued that their presence could restore real credibility to the council, which has repeatedly been criticized for failing to adapt to changing global power dynamics. At the time, it seemed that the U.N. agenda would be dominated by African issues, such as South Sudan’s transition to independence and elections in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There was no reason to think that such matters would create major rifts in New York.
Events didn’t turn out that way. The Arab Spring put the Security Council in the limelight and threw it into confusion. Germany shocked the U.S., France and Britain by refusing to vote for military action in Libya in March 2011. While Berlin hastened to undo the diplomatic damage, India and South Africa attempted to carve out an independent position over the mounting crisis in Syria in collaboration with Brazil, which sat on the council from 2010 to 2011.
Though this initiative made no impact on the evolving conflict, diplomats concluded that the IBSA countries -- India, Brazil and South Africa -- as well as Germany had made a mark on the council. Their presence challenged the two-tier diplomatic procedures by which the P5 made most big decisions in private. The P5 were not entirely happy. U.S. officials were stung by criticisms of the Libyan war from Brazil, India and South Africa. And although China and Russia were happy to cooperate with the IBSA powers over Libya, they were also wary of any potential dilution of the P5’s special status.
Exacerbating these concerns, Brazil, Germany and India, working with Japan, launched an intensive drive for permanent seats on the council in the spring of 2011. Despite enjoying considerable support, they were unable to win over the two-thirds of U.N. members required to make even limited progress toward council reform. Discussions continued in the first half of 2012, but the chances of fundamental changes to the council’s structures seem less likely today than they did two years ago. The P5 subsequently stymied a General Assembly resolution tabled by Switzerland and a number of other small countries in mid-2012 calling for more transparency and efficiency in the Security Council’s working methods. Rather than making any real concessions, the P5 have arguably reinforced their dominance over council diplomacy in the past two years.
Even during the bitter wrangling over Syria, which saw India and South Africa signing up to the anti-Assad consensus in early 2012, the dominant theme in U.N. diplomacy has been Beijing and Moscow’s intransigence, and not New Delhi and Pretoria’s views. When the P5 foreign ministers met in Geneva for last-ditch talks on Syria in June, they involved their counterparts from Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar but not Germany, India or South Africa.
If Russia and China continue to adopt a hard line on first-order strategic questions in the Security Council and remain willing to paralyze it on a regular basis, broader questions of council reform may seem increasingly irrelevant. In the meantime, a new set of powers will have to navigate the treacherous diplomatic environment in the council as best they can. How will the respective candidates perform?
Temporary seats on the council are distributed by region. Rwanda and Argentina are running unopposed for the African and Latin American seats. Their candidacies are not uncontroversial. Rwanda has had to defend itself against accusations of meddling in the DRC at the U.N. this year, with new accusations emerging just this week. There are suspicions that Argentina will use the council as a platform to talk about its long-standing dispute with the U.K. over the Falklands Islands, though to little effect. Ultimately, neither Argentina nor Rwanda is likely to have a decisive impact on diplomacy with China and Russia.
There are three candidates for one Asian seat: Bhutan, Cambodia and South Korea. South Korea, which is expected to win, may provide additional leverage -- and insights -- in dealing with Beijing. However, a new crisis on the Korean peninsula could lead to an especially acute confrontation in the Security Council.
The final two seats available are for members of the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG), which largely includes U.S. allies from the Cold War. This year, Australia, Finland and Luxembourg are in contention. The Australians can also offer expertise on China, and the Finns know a great deal about sensitive diplomacy with their Russian neighbors. But this remains a close race, as Luxembourg has also run a strong campaign.
If Australia wins a seat, it will be able to use the fact that it will hold the G-20 presidency in 2014 to maximize its multilateral leverage. But if there is going to be any deep rapprochement at the U.N., it will involve diplomacy within the P5, especially among the U.S., China and Russia. This process will be affected by the U.S. elections and China’s leadership transition. Whatever the outcome of this week’s U.N. elections, the winners will have to wait for signals from Washington and Beijing about the future of great-power diplomacy. That, more than anything, will determine whether the Security Council will prove important or impotent.
Richard Gowan is an associate director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation