Seeking Repairs the UN May Not Need

By John R . Bolton

Review of The Once and Future Security Council, edited by Bruce Russett.

As the United Nations approached its 50th anniversary in 1995, many of its acolytes believed the event provided an auspicious occasion for sweeping changes in the institution. In particular, there were widespread calls for altering the membership of the Security Council.

While the suggestions ranged from adding new permanent members to increasing the Council’s current 15 nation membership to 25 or higher, they generally aimed at reducing the influence of the industrialized democracies. These revisions were allegedly necessary to improve the Council’s “representativeness” and its “legitimacy,” thus strengthening it for the future.

Alas, the 50th anniversary came and went–and nothing happened. Those advocating restructuring the Security Council could not even agree among themselves what changes were required, let alone persuade the five existing permanent members to undertake the arduous task of amending the United Nations’ charter.

The “reform” variations were endless, and ultimately self-defeating. The predicted window for change opened, a lot of hot air blew through, and the window closed for the foreseeable future. The U.N. acolytes were disappointed, but undeterred, as this new collection of essays, edited by Professor Bruce Russett of Yale University clearly shows. Even its title, The Once and Future Security Council, betrays the mixture of legend, theology and fantasy that is so central to the academic fascination with reshaping the U.N. Security Council.

The failure of member states to agree on recreating the Council reflects the fundamental political problem facing the United Nations: There is simply no consensus on the organization’s role and function in its second half-century. Simply stated, that is why the “logic” of Security Council reform fell apart.

The U.N. charter makes the Security Council the organization’s decision-maker for matters involving international peace and security. Thus, the Council’s five permanent members play a key role. The present “Big Five” (United States, England, France, Russia and China) were selected in 1945 as the world’s most powerful countries. Today, although they remain the world’s only declared nuclear powers, and the relative political-military status of America is again comparable to 1945, the “Perm Five” collectively are not nearly so dominant as they once were.

Germany and Japan have especially strong claims for permanent Security Council membership, and Japan has not been shy in making its case. Taken alone, realpolitik arguments for adding these two nations to the Council are exceptionally strong. Unfortunately for them and for the Security Council, however, such a result was not to be. Critics contend that a Council with a “Perm Seven” that included Germany and Japan would be “too European,” and not “Southern” enough, to use U.N. terminology.

In response, countless–and often contradictory–suggestions for a revised Security Council have emerged, such as one which called for adding several new permanent members based on regional allocations: Brazil to represent Latin America, India to represent South Asia, and so on. Another plan called for the addition of rotating permanent seats for various geographic regions: a permanent seat for Latin America, for example, would be regularly shifted from country to country within the region, with each nation taking a turn on the Council. Still another proposal called for new non-permanent members, on the grounds that the present Council is too small.

The utter collapse of the supposed momentum for amending the U.N. charter to restructure the Security Council should have signaled to the U.N. acolytes that they faced a fundamental, real-world political problem. This realization, however, seems to have eluded Professor Russett who, with this book, continues to advocate amendments to the U.N. charter short of changing the permanent membership of the Security Council.

Such an approach, however, ignores a critical point: Once the charter is opened for any amendments–however small and well-intentioned they may be–the entire Security Council debate is reopened. It is unrealistic to think that the daunting task of charter amendment will be broached solely for the purpose of what amount to niggling changes.

Unfortunately, the unreality of these policy recommendations obscures some of the excellent empirical work in this volume concerning the functioning of the Council, such as Nigel Thalakada’s analysis of recent Chinese voting patterns, Barry O’Neill’s work on voting power within the Council and Ian Hurd’s assessment that, despite frequent assertions to the contrary, the Council’s effectiveness has not been diminished by the absence of certain states.

Moreover, James Sutterlin concedes in his opening essay that the Security Council is functioning “more efficiently than ever before in its history.” Some would say such a pronouncement amounts to damning with faint praise, but it nevertheless raises an essential question that this book ultimately leaves unanswered: Why risk “fixing” an institution that is not doing too badly, especially when even the best-intended suggestion for change might well result in its paralysis?