Kennedy's Guardian op-ed appears upon the occasion of this year's opening of the UN General Assembly - the annual pilgrimage to New York in which heads of state gather to deliver mostly windy speeches, listen to the Secretary General note with satisfaction UN reforms that in fact have barely taken place if at all, while announcing new ones that will never really come about, and engage in a peculiarly internationalist form of hand-wringing and self-congratulation. This year has a particular focus, however, as Kofi Annan's term comes to an end at the end of the year, and the race is on to become his successor:
The question acquired an urgency this week as heads of states and governments around the world made their way to New York, to deliver their addresses to the UN general assembly and to elect a successor to Kofi Annan as secretary general. The latter task has immediately focused attention on the political horse-trading that takes place inside the security council.
While the foreign minister of South Korea, Ban Ki-Moon, emerged as the frontrunner in the race for the secretary generalship, member states gathering for the UN 61st annual assembly were promised a package of reform proposals. These schemes, designed to improve the way the UN works, include measures to cut waste, bureaucracy and the possibility of corruption, streamlining of procedures, and plans for an overhaul of the body's shaky finances. All of which is important, but none of it excites the general public - or is even a priority for those governments most likely vote for such changes. The only topic guaranteed to grab the attention is the one that has stirred member states ever since the UN was established in San Francisco in 1945: the demand for reform of the security council itself.
The process of electing a new secretary general throws into sharp relief the intrinsic imbalance of the security council's composition. Mr Ban was reported to have won the support of 14 of the council's 15 members in the latest ballot, putting him comfortably ahead of his closest rival, India's candidate, Shashi Tharoor. Only one thing may now block Mr Ban's selection by the security council for the endorsement of the general assembly - and that would be if the one contrary vote had come from one of the permanent five members with veto powers, (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the US).
Thus selection of the new SG is tied intimately to the question of Security Council reform. Kennedy correctly says that Security Council reform is the only issue of UN reform that actually grabs the imaginations of UN member states - corruption, finances, the abuse of the human rights mechanisms by human rights abuser states, patronage and nepotism, rape and sexual abuse by UN personnel and peacekeeping troops, and so on. No, the only one that actually grabs attention for UN member states is "reform" of the Security Council, which is to say, a dilution of its veto powers and the dispersal of its powers. And the attention to it is not merely a matter of third world states seeking to make the General Assembly the seat of power - it is driven, actually, by Japan, Germany, Brazil, and India (and sometimes Nigeria and Indonesia), particularly, seeking power for themselves.
None of this is going anywhere, of course. And it is not merely or even especially the United States that prevents it. It is, more precisely, the smaller and less powerful Security Council states that have the most to lose by Security Council reform. France's claim to a place in the security affairs of the world is premised almost entirely on its permanent SC seat. None of the permanent five especially wants to see the veto either diluted or expanded to include new players, but they have quite different reasons. For France, Russia, China, and somewhat Britain, the issue is preserving international power that does not actually reflect global reach and power - the Security Council permanent seat and veto are a means from a left-over history of WWII that allows you to punch above your weight.
For the United States, on the other hand, which does have global reach and power, even if stretched at this point, the issue is more the effectiveness of the Council itself - for the United States, the issue is that even granting the "justice," as it were, of expanding the Council to make it more "representative" of today's world (although, in fact, the design of the Council was never intended, from 1945 onwards, to be "representative," but instead deliberately a confab of the Great Powers), that could only come at the expense of the limited effectiveness of the Council as it stands today. Add more members and, in particular, add more vetoes, and you guarantee even greater gridlock and hold-up premiums than you have already.
Moreover, each of the proposed new big members that would supposedly make the Council more globally "representative" raises big regional concerns - Japan/China, Germany/another EU vote with France and Britain?, Brazil/the rest of Latin America, India/Pakistan, etc. Nigeria/possibility of civil war and break-up. Moreover, it is not clear what security assets usable globally these players bring to the Security Council table - and their military use regionally in many cases would raise unacceptable hackles among their neighbors. We already see a China that uses its veto not merely for plainly security matters of self-interest, but - in the case of Sudan, for example - effectively rents it out for commercial purposes.
So what does Professor Kennedy have to say? Nothing, really, that hasn't already been said extensively in the discussions last year that preceded the fan-fare, followed by bust, of Annan's big package of UN reforms that have since largely disappeared into thin air. It's a standard, reasonably useful discussion - although his failure to note the difference between the US position and that of other Security Council members on Security Council reform is noteworthy - the US position is only partly that of the other council members. His conclusion is the one that pretty much everyone else reaches:
So the UN will limp along, caught between the ambitiousness of its original design and the blunt fact that the world order remains one in which egotistical great powers still play a disproportionate role, especially in protecting their own interests. This was ever so. The best that can be hoped is that the veto-bearing members will see the need for working together.