Balancing the United Nations Security Council

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Written by Casey L. Coombs, U.N. Correspondent

This article was originally published in the Fall 2011 print edition of The Diplomatic Courier.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) is the arbiter of collective security, an exclusive forum where the world’s most powerful nations work together within the confines of international law to effect peace and prevent war. It is also an anachronism.

The Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members (P5) – the United Kingdom, the United States, China, France, and Russia – represent a bygone balance of power. The balance of 2011 is more accurately reflected in the Group of Twenty (G20) major economies. Yet despite a leveling geopolitical landscape, the P5 has retained command and control of collective security at Turtle Bay.

While not an immediate crisis, Kara C. McDonald and Stewart M. Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) argue in a recent publication on UNSC enlargement, “if the Council’s going to be the custodian of international order and the main bedrock of international peace and security it actually needs to draw on the capabilities of the world’s most prominent actors.”


The Council composition has only changed once, in 1965, adding four non-permanent seats in response to a more than two-fold increase in UN membership.

Today’s debate hinges on swelling UN ranks as well as a major redistribution of global power, and three blocs are steering negotiations. The Group of Four (G4) – Japan, Germany, Brazil, and India – seeks permanency for themselves, along with an undetermined number of non-permanent seats; Uniting for Consensus (UfC) strives to block G4 aspirations, instead lobbying for ten non-permanent seats (mostly from the developing world); and the African bloc’s Ezulwini Consensus demands two permanent African seats (with vetoes), plus three non-permanent seats.


If the blocs are steering negotiations, the UN Charter amendment process is steering the blocs. A proposal first requires an initial two-thirds vote from the General Assembly; then two-thirds of the parliaments of Member States need to ratify the resolution; finally, nine out of the UNSC’s fifteen members must ratify the measure, including all five veto-wielding permanent members, who benefit most from the status quo.

With that in mind, the Ezulwini Consensus is untenable. None of the P5 is in a position to extend the veto at present, and neither of Africa’s two main candidates are without flaws: Nigeria has a burgeoning population and great economic potential, but still faces systemic corruption and a host of unwieldy governance problems; and South Africa, though bustling economically, has yet to establish itself as a global player.

The UfC’s enlargement proposal, by shelving any talk of permanency, underplays balance of power concerns important to rising powers and pointed out by McDonald and Patrick. Moreover, the African bloc – which represents about one-third of the General Assembly – combined with the diplomatic reach of G4 countries, lowers the likelihood that such a plan could overcome the first hurdle in the amendment process.

The G4 – perhaps due more to the composition of its membership than the substance of its proposal – has seemed most palatable of late. In fact, the Group indicated earlier in the year that it was close to securing the 128 votes necessary to bring a draft resolution to the GA floor. However, sources close to the negotiations told your correspondent as the Diplomatic Courier was going to press that G4 countries have since refocused efforts toward advocating longer-term, non-permanent seats with an option for permanency down the road. That would afford the G4 a probationary period to prove themselves while giving the P5 a horizon against which to evaluate the potential permanent suitors. Either way, the Group’s biggest initial obstacles remain the UfC and African blocs, though a deal with the latter – by swapping GA votes for one or two African seats on the G4 ticket – might be the optimum suboptimal outcome either could hope for.

Balancing Legitimacy and Consensus

While regional collective security institutions – ranging from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the Peace and Security Council of the African Union (AU) – play a vital role in the maintenance of peace and security, none has the scope of the UNSC. Further, as Lee Feinstein, former US national security advisor and UN expert, observes: “the reality is that for much of the world, the UN has carried the stamp of legitimacy and consensus. In this respect decision by the United Nations, including the legally binding decisions of the Security Council under Chapter VII, may be more acceptable to other governments than pressure from any single nation or group of nations.”

A more balanced Council would foster both legitimacy and consensus in an increasingly multipolar world.