President Joe Biden used his speech this week to the United Nations General Assembly to call for the U.N. to “become more inclusive” in how it handles global security. That included a proposal to expand the U.N. Security Council, which has final say under international law for keeping the peace.
It’s a very nice sentiment and one that I fully support. Security Council reform has been a niche interest of mine for roughly half my life now. And in theory, all members of the U.N. agree that the Security Council has to change. The big question, though, is the one that he pointedly avoided: how?
The big question, though, is the one that he pointedly avoided: how?
As part of his broader condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden backed boosting the membership of the Security Council beyond its current 15 members. Russia, like the United States, is one of five permanent members of the Security Council, alongside China, France and the United Kingdom. There are also 10 nonpermanent members who are elected by region and serve two-year terms.
Any of the permanent five (P-5) can veto any proposed resolution to an international crisis that the council considers, giving them outsized power over international sanctions, peacekeeping missions, and even calling for a cease-fire when war breaks out. Moscow has relied on the veto power it inherited from the Soviet Union to safeguard allies like Syria and inoculate itself from consequences for its invasion of Ukraine. (And while Russia has been the most aggressive with its veto in the past decade, the U.S. is the runner-up.)
The U.S. “supports increasing the number of both permanent and nonpermanent representatives of the council,” Biden said. “This includes permanent seats for those nations we’ve long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.”
That would be a much needed, and long-awaited, change. The last time the U.N. added seats to the council was back in 1963, when the General Assembly approved an expansion from six nonpermanent members to 10. Since then, the U.N. has grown from 113 members to 193.
The place of the P-5 in the world has shifted as well since the U.N. was founded. At the end of World War II, the victorious Allies got to set the terms of the new organization and become permanent members on the Security Council. But while China has come a long way since 1945, and the U.S. is still dominant globally, Russia is not the power that the Soviet Union was. And some nations question why Britain and France should still rank among the arbiters of world peace at all.
Which brings us back to the question Biden glided over: how? Which countries should be granted permanent seats? Should they get a veto as well? Would just adding new rotating seats help make the Security Council more representative of the global community? Or should any reform simply focus on the veto itself?
The process of answering those questions has been sclerotic, meandering and seemingly unending. There are currently at least five proposals for restructuring the council, each backed by a different set of countries. And for reasons of national competition, historical enmity, or outright pettiness, there’s nothing close to a consensus on any of them.
To wit: The Group of Four — Japan, Germany, India and Brazil — have perhaps the best case to be made for being made permanent members of the council given the size of their economies and their contributions to the U.N. system.
But none of the G-4 members have the unconditional backing of all five current P-5 members, and all face at least some opposition from a rival group that would rather see no new permanent seats added. India is the only one that has close to full support — but Beijing has signaled that its backing depends on India delinking its bid with Japan, which China fully opposes as a permanent member.
Never did I dream that their heated arguments over when an idea should be written down on a big piece of paper on the wall were such realistic depictions of the actual U.N.
Meanwhile, the informal forum where U.N. members are meant to debate these proposed reforms — the Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council Reform — has made almost no progress since its founding in 2009. The most they’ve produced is two documents that are used as reference points for where countries stand on various reform issues. When the IGN last met in April, the biggest point of contention was whether the talks should proceed with “text-based negotiations” instead of just discussing ideas.
“There is currently no formal record-keeping of our discussions,” a diplomat from the Philippines complained at the time. “If there was, then we can make the process cumulative and progressive, instead of discussing anew every year sans any resolution in any specific cluster or item within the cluster of IGN reform topics.”
I spent years of my life helping to run Model United Nations conferences for high school students. Never did I dream that their heated arguments over when an idea should be written down on a big piece of paper on the wall were such realistic depictions of the actual U.N.
On principle, Biden deserves praise being the first U.S. president to propose Security Council reform during the General Assembly. But his vague, people-pleasing statement makes little actual progress. It would take a real marvel of diplomatic skill and leadership to make headway on this matter, which I don’t see being a real priority for the Biden administration. It’s really at the point that it feels incredible that the U.N. was ever founded in the first place.