Insecurity Council

Is the U.N.'s seat of power a curse?

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

For small states, election to one of the U.N. Security Council's 10 nonpermanent seats is a unique opportunity to have a major say in the world's largest political debates. It's the diplomatic equivalent of moving up from the minor leagues to the Yankees. And it's not just a political windfall: Studies have shown that temporary Security Council members receive 59 percent more U.S. aid than nonmembers and are 20 percent more likely to get help from the International Monetary Fund during their two-year term and for a couple of years afterward.

But though a stint on the council is good for a country's international standing and bank account, new research by political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith of New York University suggests that it might actually make countries less prosperous and democratic.

Relative to other countries, temporary members of the Security Council see economic growth drop 3.5 percent and score 2 percent lower on the widely used Polity ranking, which measures levels of democracy. They also see press restrictions increase 3.1 points on Freedom House's 100-point scale.

For small states, election to one of the U.N. Security Council’s 10 nonpermanent seats is a unique opportunity to have a major say in the world’s largest political debates. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of moving up from the minor leagues to the Yankees. And it’s not just a political windfall: Studies have shown that temporary Security Council members receive 59 percent more U.S. aid than nonmembers and are 20 percent more likely to get help from the International Monetary Fund during their two-year term and for a couple of years afterward.

But though a stint on the council is good for a country’s international standing and bank account, new research by political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith of New York University suggests that it might actually make countries less prosperous and democratic.

Relative to other countries, temporary members of the Security Council see economic growth drop 3.5 percent and score 2 percent lower on the widely used Polity ranking, which measures levels of democracy. They also see press restrictions increase 3.1 points on Freedom House’s 100-point scale.

Is the Security Council itself an enemy of democratic capitalism? No, says de Mesquita. "It’s that a vote on the council is a very valuable commodity that can be bought." Temporary membership, like newfound oil riches, gives governments a revenue stream they didn’t earn and encourages bad habits.

The result is often corruption. When Zaire was a temporary council member in the 1980s, for instance, Mobutu Sese Seko pocketed generous aid packages from the United States, but his country’s per capita GDP contracted nearly 5 percent. After Robert Mugabe’s government served a council term in the early 1990s, Zimbabwe’s per capita GDP fell nearly 4 percent — and we all know what became of democracy and press freedom there.

The findings add to the increasingly contentious debate over the effectiveness of foreign aid — while providing grist for U.N. bashers. But as de Mesquita is quick to point out, it would be foolish to blame the council for a problem caused by the great powers that are its permanent members. "What we have to change are the incentives of our governments," he says.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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