The United States Doesn’t Want to Reform the U.N. Security Council

But it’s going to have to. And it’s better to act now, when America is still strong.

The United Nations Security Council meets on Ukraine May 2, 2014 at UN headquarters in New York. Russia warned Ukraine of "catastrophic consequences" unless it halted a military operation against pro-Russian gunmen while Western powers rounded on Moscow at emergency UN talks.   AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA        (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
The United Nations Security Council meets on Ukraine May 2, 2014 at UN headquarters in New York. Russia warned Ukraine of "catastrophic consequences" unless it halted a military operation against pro-Russian gunmen while Western powers rounded on Moscow at emergency UN talks. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Time is slipping away for the Obama administration to mend one of the global system’s key defects — the composition of the United Nations Security Council. For all the rhetoric about council reform being heard this week in New York, the world is not close to rejuvenating the 15-member body’s roster. The council has the same five veto-wielding permanent members — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France — that it did when it opened for business in 1946. The Obama administration might be able to unstick the process, but it needs to act fast.

In theory, every U.S. administration since 1990 has endorsed some kind of reform to Security Council membership. The Clinton administration backed permanent seats for Germany and Japan. George W. Bush’s team narrowed the focus to Japan. President Barack Obama thrilled India by (vaguely) endorsing its bid for a permanent seat during a trip there in 2010.

Behind the scenes, however, U.S. diplomats have been content to watch the different factions in the U.N. General Assembly squabble. When Washington has bestirred itself, it has been to signal its opposition to any hasty moves.

America’s lethargy reflects the reality that, rhetoric aside, U.S. leaders aren’t convinced that council reform is in the national interest. The United States has an awfully good deal on the Security Council. On many issues, it can use the council to help share burdens, amplify its voice, and endow policies it favors with the force of international law. When Washington doesn’t find the council convenient, the veto power means it can work around the body without risking an official reprimand.

The Security Council’s cozy size — the number of nonpermanent members hasn’t increased since 1965 — is also conducive to American interests. Divided by region and interests, the ten rotating nonpermanent members are rarely able to operate as an effective bloc. That leaves the veto-wielding five mostly in charge of the council’s agenda. When they can agree, the rest of the council almost always follows behind.

In many respects, preserving the status quo is Washington’s best option. The diplomacy of likely new members, including Brazil, India, and South Africa, has been frustrating to U.S. policymakers. During the Libya intervention, these countries complained about what they perceived as America’s abuse of its council mandate. Susan Rice, then the U.N. ambassador, was unimpressed. “We’ve learned a lot,” she said of emerging-power diplomacy, “not all of it encouraging.” The prickliness of these emerging powers likely sapped whatever limited energy the Obama administration had for Security Council reform.

However comfortable, the status quo carries risks for the United States. The biggest concern for the United States is that the seemingly moribund reform process might lurch in an unfavorable direction. For all the disunity on precisely how to reform the council, there is broad and deep support for change at Turtle Bay. The necessary two-thirds of the General Assembly could unite behind a plan that Washington doesn’t favor. At that point, Washington and the other permanent members will be hard-pressed to stand in the way. The veto means that the rest of the world can’t force anything on the United States, but blocking a popular plan would have a high political price.

There’s another reason Washington should help galvanize reform. As America’s relative power and wealth slips, it has an interest in achieving council reform sooner rather than later. Changes that occur in a decade or two may emerge in a less favorable political and economic climate. The United States would be better served by leading than by reacting to whatever plan eventually takes hold among the broader membership.

If U.S. interests are best served by accelerating reform, what plan to support?

The plan that Washington should get behind is straightforward: leave the current permanent and elected seats unchanged while adding six new “semi-permanent” seats. In contrast to the existing elected spots, which countries occupy for just two years, the new seats would have four- or five-year terms, and countries should be eligible for immediate reelection.

Backing this new category of members would require some diplomatic finesse. Washington has more or less pledged to support permanent seats for Germany, Japan, and India. But the prospects for the two closest U.S. allies are grim. Veto-wielding China won’t accept a permanent seat for Japan, and the rest of the world won’t tolerate another European permanent member. American diplomats can argue convincingly to Tokyo and Berlin that the semi-permanent option is the best available.

The semi-permanent reform plan has several advantages from the U.S. perspective. It would leave the veto power — which is nonnegotiable for Washington, Moscow, and Beijing — unchanged. It keeps the council at a manageable size of 21. It’s a reform that might even survive a vote in the U.S. Senate, which will have to ratify any amendment to the U.N. Charter.

That said, this plan will please none of the existing coalitions at the United Nations. Brazil, India, Germany, and Japan will insist that they deserve permanent seats with veto power. Smaller states will complain that the plan doesn’t add enough seats and will accentuate the caste structure of the Security Council. And voices around the U.N. will insist that preserving the permanent five’s veto power is unacceptable. But the fact that every constituency at the U.N. will be complaining is the plan’s great virtue. It doesn’t please anyone, but everyone can live with it.

Photo credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist