A 21st Century Breakdown of the UN Security Council? – Josh Nezam

The major powers choose to pursue political goals through the UN Security Council because it facilitates cooperation and consensus in many domains where interests converge. In enforcing agreeable norms or tackling transnational problems, the council gives the powers the mandate of legitimacy to assume its “global governor” role and intervene in the affairs of sovereign states for the sake of preserving international peace and security. It is also a defensive measure insofar as it checks actions that violate core interests of other council members, which have the potential to hinder cooperation and lead to interstate conflict between the powers. However, where core national interests conflict, the utility of the UNSC breaks down. This is why the US has on several occasions bypassed the council as well as the reason that there are some issues that the council cannot effectively address. UNSC unity and legitimacy are becoming increasingly impeded in an incipient multipolar world where other powers have the capabilities to defend their expanding interests and normative visions.

To understand why the great powers created the UN Security Council we must look back to its founding context and what drove its creation. In many ways, the UN was a corrective version of the League of Nations. Wilsonian idealism created an institution which offered states collective security in return for surrendering a degree of sovereignty. The United States failed to ratify the treaty in the belief that the US should not be so deeply tied to what Washington called “foreign entanglements” and that the US could become entrapped in conflicts that were not in its core interests. Without the participation of the most powerful nation, the League had a strong legal framework but ignored elements of power. Niebuhr encapsulated this deficiency when he said “These pure constitutionalists have a touching faith in the power of a formula over the raw stuff of human history” (Bosco, 28). Transgressions by Japan in Manchuria and Italy in Ethiopia prompted weak response by the war-torn European states. Joseph Nye notes that state action was not constrained by legal and moral principles enshrined in the League, but was driven by overriding national interest imperatives: “the balance of power in Europe prevailed over the application of the collective-security doctrine in Africa” (Nye: 2014, 129).

The United Nations was radically different from the League because the US joined. Collective security would now be backed by the credible use of force to safeguard peace and security, and a stable balance of power was restored. The League of Nations proved that ideals must be “tethered to power”, and thus the council became “a creature of great power politics, not international bureaucracy” (Bosco, 3). This notion is reflected in the UN structure in that while it is largely based on political equality, the UNSC, in contrast, reflects the inequalities of political reality and grants only the most powerful states special rights and responsibilities. Without exclusive rights, the powers would see little benefit in surrendering partial freedom of action in exchange for collective security. The “Yalta formula” illustrated the minimal influence the UN would have over the powers, relegating it to lowest common denominator compromises and favoring its utility not in the capacity of a global governor but in that of a concert.

The UNSC not only facilitates but constrains action. It facilitates action by providing a mandate to function as a global governor in pursuit of international peace and security. It’s concert function is important because it serves a restraining role to prevent major disruptions of international peace and security. For example, a big reason that the US has not pursued a policy of forcefully halting North Korean nuclear proliferation is because that action would be detrimental to China’s core interests. In addition, the US has acted prudently with respect to Ukraine because the area is a core interest of Russia. Dealing with these great power flashpoints are beyond the domain of the council because its members have many divergent interests. Sengupta touches on this dilemma when she says “the right of veto has long enabled the permanent members to reject anything that threatens their strategic interests, despite the organization’s lofty principles.” The result is an inability of the UN to act, but simultaneously an issue of restraint on a potential flashpoint. Gowan highlights that fact that council veto power provides incentive to pursue a policy of realpolitik. The great powers have a penchant for cooperation where interests converge, yet they are also “liable to press home geopolitical advantages, by force if necessary, as they become available.”

What we are left with as a series of political trade-offs between the powers that protect their core interests at the cost of the institution’s legitimacy in the eyes of non-council members. Bosco highlights another critical manner in which the UNSC facilitates cooperation between the powers: “because Washington routinely needs Beijing’s vote on council matters . . . it is harder for the United States to ignore Chinese concerns and interests” (Bosco, 251). In the end nothing can be done by the council to help the millions in North Korea whose human rights are violated daily or to protect civilians from the lawless struggle for power in Syria.

The imminent danger to the UNSC and international peace and security in the post-9/11 world is a breakdown of the concert function. In the US invasion of Iraq, the failure to achieve a UNSC resolution did not induce policy restraint. In what was termed the “Kosovo formula – working through the council as far as possible, bypassing it to use military force, and then reverting to it after the fact” (Bosco, 212) – the US both recognized the importance of the UNSC mandate for legitimacy, but also understood that complete contempt for UNSC would undermine its efficacy in restraining other states. After all, “coalitions of the willing” are not sanctioned uses of force based on norms or principles, but rather selective “councils” that happen to have the same interests. If the UNSC no longer fulfills its concert function of great power harmony and mutual restraint, we would expect to see bolder normative transgressions akin to Russia’s annex of Crimea and China’s bullying in the South China Sea. Against this backdrop, there is a burgeoning anxiety that the powers may regress back to rigid military alliances in search of their interests if the UNSC fails to deliver.

Additional Sources:

Nye, J. S., & Welch, D. A. (2014). Understanding global conflict & cooperation: Intro to theory & history.

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