Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Obama got it right on Security Council reform

I’d like to take a short break from my running critique of President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy to laud him for supporting India’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. I don’t know what the administration’s rationale was for the shift in U.S. policy, but I think there is a strong realist ...

Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

I'd like to take a short break from my running critique of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy to laud him for supporting India's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. I don't know what the administration's rationale was for the shift in U.S. policy, but I think there is a strong realist case for expanding the Security Council to include not just India, but also Japan, Germany, and Brazil.

International institutions like the United Nations are mostly useless. At their best, they oversell their relevance. They do not exert much independent influence on world events distinct from the states that comprise their membership. What needs doing gets done by states, not by institutions. At their worst, institutions waste time and money on ill-advised causes. But institutions do serve a purpose. They provide regularity to the interaction between states. They enshrine norms and patterns of behavior. They provide a reliable talk-shop. They make it easier to conduct multilateral talks and negotiations. They (sometimes) provide a credible, neutral, third-party voice. They can become useful stores of expertise and data on highly specialized issues.

But institutions only accomplish these limited purposes if states see them as useful in the first place. The League of Nations withered away when its irrelevance and powerlessness was too obvious to overlook, while the Bank for International Settlements is celebrating its 80th birthday because it serves states' interests so well. The most successful institutions are the ones that retain the interest and activity of the greatest number of most powerful states. In other words, institutions succeed because they accurately reflect and respond to the underlying balance of power among states. They become an arena through which great powers can carry on their relations in a predictable and stable environment.

I’d like to take a short break from my running critique of President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy to laud him for supporting India’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. I don’t know what the administration’s rationale was for the shift in U.S. policy, but I think there is a strong realist case for expanding the Security Council to include not just India, but also Japan, Germany, and Brazil.

International institutions like the United Nations are mostly useless. At their best, they oversell their relevance. They do not exert much independent influence on world events distinct from the states that comprise their membership. What needs doing gets done by states, not by institutions. At their worst, institutions waste time and money on ill-advised causes. But institutions do serve a purpose. They provide regularity to the interaction between states. They enshrine norms and patterns of behavior. They provide a reliable talk-shop. They make it easier to conduct multilateral talks and negotiations. They (sometimes) provide a credible, neutral, third-party voice. They can become useful stores of expertise and data on highly specialized issues.

But institutions only accomplish these limited purposes if states see them as useful in the first place. The League of Nations withered away when its irrelevance and powerlessness was too obvious to overlook, while the Bank for International Settlements is celebrating its 80th birthday because it serves states’ interests so well. The most successful institutions are the ones that retain the interest and activity of the greatest number of most powerful states. In other words, institutions succeed because they accurately reflect and respond to the underlying balance of power among states. They become an arena through which great powers can carry on their relations in a predictable and stable environment.

The U.N. Security Council no longer reflects the world’s balance of power. The sole criterion for holding a permanent seat on the council is to have been a winner of World War II, which ended just a big ago. While the permanent five are undoubtedly among the most powerful countries in the world, no one seriously believes they are the only great powers of the 21st Century. The U.N. risks irrelevancy.

So who are the great powers? Happily, we can rely on a quasi-objective dataset to give us the answer. The Correlates of War measures states’ national capabilities over time. It aggregates measures of states’ population, industrial production, energy consumption, military personnel, and military spending to create a Composite Index of National Capability. According to this data, the top ten most powerful states are, in order, the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Brazil, South Korea, Britain, and France. The list conveniently includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the four aspirants (and South Korea).

Reforming the U.N. Security Council to include India, Japan, Germany, and Brazil will help the council more accurately reflect the real balance of power in the world, which in turn would make the Council more useful and relevant to the United States and the other great powers. It will not solve the world’s security problems and it will not end war. But it could save the United Nations from irrelevance, give the United States a more regular forum for engaging the other great powers of the 21st Century, and make rising powers feel they have a stake in the established international system. (And it will help balance China, support U.S. interests in Asia, and lay the groundwork for a loose Pacific alliance to compliment the Atlantic one — but that is a discussion for a later post). Whether or not Obama intended all this in his speech to the Indian Parliament, he took a step in the right direction.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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