Monday, May 16, 2005

UN Security Council membership

Like Julian Ku at Opinio Juris, here, I was puzzled by the New York Times' story on how the US is supposedly particularly in opposition to expanded Security Council membership with additional permanent seats and vetoes. Actually, to be honest, I thought it was a silly story. I've been serving as an expert on a major UN reform report, have listened and read a zillion things about Security Council reform from leading players in all this - and to argue, as the NYT article did, that it was the US that was specially in opposition to new permanent vetoes flies in the face of everything I have read or heard from folks around the UN.

The Times' story read as a sort of yet-another-act-of-US-obstruction, whereas the truth is more prosaic. None of the existing veto-holders favors expanding that little club - and why should they? What would the existing club have to gain from new members? And everyone and everything that I've had contact with on UN reform says flatly that if the US is opposed, its opposition is modest compared with the opposition of Russia (whose great power status consists of aging nukes and the permanent veto), China (give Japan a veto - you must be joking), and France (with no other countries more representative of the global south, it has automatic relevance, plus the aging nukes and permanent veto status as great power). Of course the US is opposed, for national interest reasons but also because expanding the veto makes the Security Council less workable than it is already.

Did I call the Times' article silly? Stupid is closer to it, I'm sorry to say, and I'm surprised that the second writer listed was the Times' UN person.

Here's what's really on offer for Security Council reform. No new veto-holders. Expansion of existing permanent members (veto-less) to take on Japan, perhaps Brazil, perhaps Nigeria, perhaps India, perhaps Germany. Or, as several prominent foreign diplomats with much distinguished UN service have suggested, no change at all - simply allow countries like Japan or Germany to negotiate their way to de facto permanent status by diplomacy (an option the US doesn't like, because it involves basically buying votes, and using such currency as overlooking human rights abuses to do it). There are other issues here - Germany believes that it deserves to be a permanent member with veto, on account of its economic clout and financial contributions, despite the fact that it brings no military assets to the table, endorses functional pacifism, and would increase the number of EU members to three. Nigeria might fall apart in a civil war - kind of embarrassing for the organization supposedly responsible for international peace and security. India has a minor problem with Pakistan.

Those of us who don't think so highly of the UN, at least in its security role, think that expansion of the Security Council with lots of new members is a dandy idea - guarantee its ineffectiveness and so make ever more important coalitions of the willing with or without SC approval. So as long as new permanent members don't have vetoes, it is both a practical measure of justice, given where the world's population lies, and a good thing to make the SC what it is, both morally and practically, a talking shop of the great powers, nothing more and nothing less.

But even these changes are doubtful. As I've suggested here before, real UN reform in matters of international security is simply impossible - there is no agreement among the great powers as to what it should look like, and people who spend their time thinking about it are wasting their time. And Julian is absolutely correct about the legal hurdles for actual Charter amendment.

What can be reformed at the UN falls into two broad areas. First, the internal machinery of human rights and democracy - abolishing the Human Rights Commission is doable. Second, reform at the technocratic and managerial level of poverty reduction and economic development - so long as the secondary role of the UN, even compared with the World Bank, let alone private sector investment, is acknowledged.

Fundamentally, though, UN reform is about pruning back the aspirations of the organization and its groupies worldwide. Replace the vision of the overarching tree of global governance with a few low, sturdy, reliable hedgerows in particular areas with no aspirations above that level.

What does this suggest about a new Secretary General? Curiously, it argues for a genuine visionary, not the safe grey technocrat most likely destined to follow Annan. But what kind of visionary? A visionary whose vision is to downsize the aspirations of the UN, and make it a grey and technocratic kind of place, a place that does not see itself as the seat of humanity's aspirations, but a functionary in discrete and concrete matters, measured solely by competency and technocratic, efficicient achievement.

1 comment:

W.C. Varones said...

I'm all for reform and more permanent members on the Security Council, but the veto thing will always be a problem. As Kofi Annan admits, the UN is totally impotent because of the veto power of corrupt, bribe-taking, and/or nefariously motivated countries like France, Russia, and China.