The Multilateralist

The U.S.-Russia-China alliance on the Security Council

The U.S.-Russia-China alliance on the Security Council

Negotiations on reforming the UN Security Council  have sputtered on now for almost two decades without much to show for it. For some observers, this is utterly unsurprising. The five veto-wielding permanent members (the P5) have no interest in a reform that would dilute their authority. But I’ve often argued that the principal obstacle to reform is not the veto-wielding P5 but the broader UN membership.

Amending the United Nations Charter requires two-thirds support in the General Assembly, and no plan has emerged that could cross that threshold. The P5, all of whom have supported reform rhetorically, would be hard pressed to oppose a plan endorsed by a large majority of the General Assembly. Fortunately for the permanent members, the sharp division within the Assembly over how to reform the Council has persisted. Broadly speaking, one group of states wants new permanent seats while another group wants new elected positions. The so-called G4–Brazil, Germany, India and Japan–and their supporters have been in a long-running battle with a group of states–dubbed "Uniting for Consensus" (UfC)–that opposes new permanent seats. Led by Pakistan, Italy, Korea, Mexico and Argentina, this group has often blocked G4-led initiatives to accelerate the reform process. My impression has been that this state of affairs allows the P5 to utter occasional bromides about reform without having to actively oppose it or even worry much about it.

In discussing the issue recently with a group of well informed Council watchers, however, I heard a quite different account of the UN dynamic. These observers–including several seasoned UN diplomats–argued that the P5 are not  simply contented observers of the General Assembly’s disunity. In fact, they insist, the United States, Russia and China have quietly but aggressively worked to keep the reform process from gathering momentum (Britain and France have generally adopted a more conciliatory approach and haven’t been nearly as assertive on the issue).

One key piece of evidence these observers cite is a démarche that the United States apparently sent last year to the UN’s point person on Council reform. That official, Afghan ambassador Zahir Tanin, has shepherded the so-called Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council Reform since 2008. Last summer, Tanin made a bold move to unstick the talks. He offered to draft a "concise working document" that could galvanize more intense negotiations. Tanin also broached the idea of a high-level session of the General Assembly to increase the political profile of the debate.

According to diplomats I’ve spoken with, these ideas did not go over well at all with the Americans, Russians, and Chinese, who feared that the reform process might take an unpredictable turn. All three governments (and others, including key UfC countries) effectively told Tanin to back off. It’s not clear precisely what impact those diplomatic interventions had, but it’s difficult to believe they didn’t significantly impact the Afghan official.

For states who believe the reform process desperately needs a jumpstart, Washington’s position was particularly disappointing. "The demarche in summer 2012 illustrates that the P3 [the U.S., Russia, and China] continue to have no interest in Council enlargement and are willing to work actively against it even when there is a very limited promise of progress," a senior diplomat at the UN told me. In the wake of that exchange, it appears that the reform process has returned to the slow-track. UN General Assembly president Vuk Jerimic–a Serbian minister seen as quite close to Moscow– has mostly taken over the Council reform portfolio and, according to one Western diplomat, is "keeping Tanin on a tight leash." 

For its part, the United States insists that it does not oppose Council reform. Like its recent predecessors, the Obama administration has acknowledged the need for change in the Council’s membership. In late 2010, President Obama publicly endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat. But administration officials insist that the only way forward is through a consensus process rather than a loud and potentially fractious General Assembly debate and vote. "We continue to believe the best way to update the Security Council for the 21st century is to do so on the basis of unified action through the intergovernmental negotiation process," a State Department official told me, "not a return to the divisive General Assembly debates of decades past." The official would not confirm the Tanin démarche.

To certain seasoned observers of the Council reform process, this insistence on consensus is in fact a prescription for continued paralysis. Many diplomats from the G4 and other countries are bitterly disappointed that Washington has teamed up with autocratic Moscow and Beijing to endorse this approach rather than working with Britain and France to advance the reform process. From their perspective, Washington’s pleasant words about modernizing the Security Council mask a quite different reality–a superpower that has no interest in reforming the institution’s membership.