The shady politics of UN Security Council reform

At the time of writing, the front page of BBC News shows the announcement by President Barack Obama during his visit to India, that he backs India’s drive for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. India will already spend the next two years on the UNSC as a temporary member, but has been lobbying hard, along with a handful of other hopefuls, to gain a permanent seat. The announcement may very well be sincere, but in political terms it is also ‘easy money’: instant applause, a few new friends and no need to follow up with any concrete action. Certainly, if India’s Security Council membership is even to be considered, it will require a protracted and highly unlikely process of UN reform beforehand, whereby the permanent members agree to let in new members. Thus when the final decision comes, it won’t be up to Obama anymore, regardless of whether he wins the next presidential election.

This is what is so cheap about these promises and announcements of firm support. On the one hand, making this announcement may put some immediate pressure on Pakistan (though I don’t personally understand how this clever game would play out to the United States’ advantage). More likely, this is an easy political gesture, a quick win, that in the end means nothing. It reminds me of a recent and highly insincere expression of ‘African solidarity’: Sarkozy’s emphatic plea for an ‘African’ seat at the Security Council, the absence of which the French President denounced as ‘scandalous’ (to loud applause in Montreux, Switzerland, where he was addressing the heads of state of la Francophonie — basically France and a bunch of African states).

Maybe all of this is too harsh, and these heads of states should be commended for their forward-thinking rhetoric (even if that is all there is). At the same time, it is difficult to take Sarkozy at face value when you see him complacently lapping up the applause for his oh-so-heartfelt words (dubbed version).

Furthermore, while opening up the UNSC to broader representation may seem like the ‘right’ or the ‘good’ thing to do, a democratic gesture, a recognition that times have changed, and so on, it is also something very likely to further paralyse an already dysfunctional organisation. Last time there was serious talk of expanding the Security Council was in 2003–2004, when Kofi Annan made a plea to the member-states to agree to an ambitious set of reforms, also of the Security Council. With the door to the Security Council seemingly left ajar, various aspirants set off to prove their case. The result: discord. Italy lobbied against Germany, the prospect of Japanese membership caused demonstrations and violence in China and Brazil’s relations with Argentina cooled off considerably over the issue. Covering this topic in some depth back in 2005, Prof. Mats Berdal of King’s College London notes how the talk of UNSC reform prompted the re-establishment and expansion of the so-called ‘coffee club’, originally led by Italy and Pakistan in the 1990s but now joined by Argentina, Mexico and Spain, to derail the lobbying efforts of their respective neighbours, as it once had done in the 1990s when the issue of UNSC expansion was, then too, on the agenda.

Yes the current UNSC membership is undemocratic and a poor reflection of current and future demographics and power relations. But while inviting more members may be a nice diplomatic gesture or a quick political win, it is also likely to stoke tensions, provoke heightened rivalries and, if the reform does one day come to pass, result in an even more dysfunctional and paralytic Security Council.

Originally published at on November 9, 2010.

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