Security Council Reform, Problems and Prospects in September 2005

Linked with our presentation of Thomas G. Weiss – USA.

By Thomas G. Weiss (June 2005) – Introduction

Anniversaries are a good time to take stock. The United Nations’ roller coaster ride has been severe in the post-Cold War era—from the euphoria after the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War when “renaissance” was a common multilateral refrain, to the current morass after the decision by the United States and United Kingdom to go to war in Iraq in 2003 when the “dark ages” of unilateralism have returned.

There have been continual mutterings about the need for reform since1945.1 The eve of the UN’s 60th anniversary is remarkably like that of the 50th birthday in at least one way—the futile ink spilled and the misplaced attention given to changing the Security Council’s shape and ways of doing business. The panacea for many critics is reforming the composition and working methods of the Security Council. Secretary-General Kofi Annan established the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change (HLP) to seek wisdom from 16 experts, including four former prime ministers.

Their December 2004 report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, contains 101 recommendations and a “grand bargain” that was basically endorsed in March 2005 by the Secretary-General’s own report, In Larger Freedom: Toward Development, Security and Human Rights for All. 2 The linchpin for the sales pitch—Security Council reform that they believe is critical to the UN’s future health—was predictable; only the permanent members (P-5) would have a veto, and increasing permanent and nonpermanent members requires a Charter amendment.

Can amending the membership or procedures of the Council improve either its credibility or performance? If the answer to either part of this question is “yes,” is there any possibility that a Charter amendment could be approved in the foreseeable future? If not, are there feasible changes short of such a constitutional change that could improve the Security Council’s accountability and effectiveness?

While altering the membership is conceivable, at least on paper, the politics behind agreeing to specific changes in the Charter make it more than unlikely; and there is no chance that the P-5 will agree to altering the procedures. Moreover, the various changes under consideration would undoubtedly improve legitimacy but certainly not effectiveness. The best hope for meaningful change in the Security Council in the next decade lies in reinforcing pragmatic adaptations in working methods and in exploring new ones.

Past as Prelude

The question of “who” makes decisions about international peace and security has been in headlines regularly since 1945. The number of non-permanent (or elected) members of the exclusive club of the Security Council was increased only once, in 1965, to reflect decolonization and the influx of newly independent member states, along with the number of affirmative votes required for a resolution.

Many countries possess old and cherished constitutions. For instance, Americans like to think of the US Constitution as a sacred text whose amendment entails soul-searching, public debate, and extended ratification procedures. Yet, its 27 substantive amendments stand in sharp contrast with only three procedural ones to the UN’s Charter in 60 years—which were about the number of seats, once in the Security Council and twice in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Although Charter reform retains salience for diplomats in New York as an agenda item and cocktail pastime, as well as a source of grants for academic and policy analysts, in practice, it has proved virtually impossible.

With increased activism after the Cold War, changing the Security Council’s composition (that is, the numbers of permanent and non-permanent members) and authority (specifically the role of the veto) became a prominent item on the New York diplomatic agenda. Proposals and toasts became particularly frequent around the world organization’s 50th anniversary in 1995 and again on the eve of the 60th anniversary.

Procedural and Political Obstacles

As if the Charter’s structural provisions about amendments were insufficient in and of themselves, the cacophony of views stop proposals almost dead in their tracks. More recently, a third problem has come into sharper relief, namely Washington’s emergence as, according to former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine, the hyperpuissance.

The Veto

Citing the need to avoid conditions that led to the downfall of the League of Nations, the P-5 insisted in 1944 and 1945 on having individual vetoes over Charter amendments. Article 108 effectively provides each permanent member with a trump to overrule any efforts to weaken their formal power. Rumblings originally heard in San Francisco returned in the 1990s when the 185 states that can be elected members criticized the veto as inequitable.

The UK and France as well as, arguably, Russia are no longer “great” powers; but their permanent status with vetoes magnifies their voices in international politics. States use whatever institutions are available to serve their national interests. To ask the obvious, why would a state with a veto give it up or accord the same privilege to rivals? As the debate over the decision to go to war in Iraq and the nature of subsequent UN involvement amply demonstrates, using the tool of the Security Council is a primary objective of French and Russian foreign policies. They have a voice about where and how American (and in this case, British) military power will be projected as long as Washington works through the world organization.

The P-5 will not give up their vetoes easily, and they cannot be compelled to do so by the Charter’s provisions. As every textbook indicates, the veto was part of President Harry Truman’s original sales pitch to the Senate—the US did not wish to be obliged to commit its resources against its will—which permitted ratification of the UN Charter rather than repeat Woodrow Wilson’s humiliation with the rejection of the League of Nations Covenant. Washington’s participation is, and always has been, predicated on the veto. As with amendment to the UN Charter, treaty law would be subject to the advice and consent of the US Senate. In light of the November 2004 elections, it would be unwise to go to that body for any discussion of the UN.


Beyond the discretionary use of the veto, the second problem preventing reform is political paralysis over non-permanent and permanent members, the latter with or without vetoes. The increase in numbers beyond the current 15—five permanent, and 10 non-permanent members serving rotating two-year terms—is unobjectionable in terms of greater diversity. However, those more interested in results than process are quick to point out that an expanded Security Council would hardly improve effectiveness. A larger Council would be too big for serious negotiations and thereby increase the chances for paralysis but also remain too small to truly represent the membership as a whole.

The vague agreement to accommodate more seats at the table for the clearly underrepresented Global South is obvious as is the total lack of consensus about which countries should be added. The arguments coming from delegations, from the North or the South, are transparently self-serving. “More diversity” from Germany or Japan, “more middle powers” from Pakistan, or “more small states” from Singapore represent predictable packaging of self-interest in the garb of a more legitimate Security Council. A more serious difficulty is disagreement on new permanent members.

If the problem is too many industrialized countries, why are Germany and Japan obvious candidates? Would Italy not be more or less in the same league? Would it not make more sense to have the European Union represented (rather than Paris, London, Berlin and Rome)? How do Argentina and Mexico feel about Brazil’s candidacy? Pakistan about India’s? South Africa and Egypt about Nigeria’s? How do such traditional UN financial and troop-contributing stalwarts as Canada and the Nordic countries feel about a plan that would disenfranchise them and elevate large developing countries? Moreover, if the veto is undemocratic and debilitating, is it logical to give this to the new permanent members? Would the lowest common denominator not be lower still?

The obvious answers to these questions indicate why there has been no agreement. Perhaps more difficult than arriving at a consensus on the number of members is how to select these new members. Whether done by the General Assembly or sub-contracted to regional groupings, the shape of a selection process is extremely controversial.

The Remaining Superpower

Calls for Charter amendments ring hollow and overlook a harsh reality. There are two “world organizations”: the United Nations, which is global in membership, and the United States, which is global in reach and power. Indeed, the jostling about Charter reform is, quite frankly, a distraction from dealing with the realities of US power and UN frailty. While critics of American hegemony want power to be based on authority instead of capacity, the two are inseparable. As the world organization’s coercive capacity is always on loan, UN-approved military operations only occur when Washington signs on. The value added of other militaries is mainly political and not operational in any meaningful way for enforcement (as opposed to traditional peacekeeping).

This reality will not change until Europeans spend considerably more on defense and have an independent military capacity. There is little evidence, however, that European parliaments or people are willing to support substantially higher defense expenditures.

If the purpose of the Security Council is to enforce its decisions, US participation is a sine qua non. While European gloating over the turn of events in Iraq is perhaps understandable as a visceral reaction, the idea that the remaining superpower will continue to participate, politically or financially, in an institution whose purpose would be to limit its power has no precedent. This will be as true for the second administration of George W. Bush as it was for the first one.

Can the Council engage the US, moderate its exercise of power and restrain its impulses? Part of the reasoning behind the establishment of the High-level Panel, in the down-to-earth words of one diplomat interviewed, was the notion of “keeping Washington in the tent.” Iraq seems to have demonstrated to at least some observers in the Beltway the sobering costs of “going-it-alone.” US interests can be and have been pursued through multilateral institutions and decision-making procedures. The choice is not between the UN as a rubber stamp and a cipher—between the axis of subservience and the axis of irrelevance.

Indeed, a plugged-in policy adviser for the second Bush administration might well argue that Washington could gain some cheap diplomatic points by supporting Security Council reform—knowing that it will not happen, but in the unlikely event that it does, the US would be able to deal with it more easily than the other four permanent members.

The sun of enlightened American devotion to and leadership of the world organization set momentarily during the first administration of George W. Bush. The results of the November 2004 elections do not augur well for much multilateral sunshine in the near term. The reality of power, however, means that if the world organization is to flourish, the United States must be on board. The current moment is dark, but that is not to say that the kind of political commitment and internationalist vision present the last time the US was so dominant on the world stage, right after World War II, will never dawn again.

Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary, Change

Under Secretary-General Annan’s tenure, there have been other initiatives—what he called “the quiet revolution” to describe changes that could be initiated without altering treaties or asking the approval of member states. The Council itself has made a number of efforts regarding transparency, inclusiveness in proceedings and accessibility to the General Assembly.4

The Security Council also introduced a new oxymoron: “a private meeting open to the entire membership.” The Secretariat began the practice of issuing press releases of statements by the president on behalf of the Council. Instead of desperately roaming in the maze of UN corridors looking for information, non-members and the press now get regular briefings about private consultations from the president. Draft agendas and draft resolutions are now commonly circulated instead of being kept under lock and key.

The Council also routinely holds consultations with troop contributing countries and increasingly with senior UN staff. It has convened several times at the level of foreign ministers or heads of state to increase the visibility and buy-in of important deliberations and decisions. The Council has requested fact sheets from the Secretariat on mission areas and, more importantly, conducted site visits. Perhaps most importantly, under the so-called Arria formula, an individual member of the Council can now invite others for a candid exchange with independent experts and civil society.

The reform debate has also led to proposals that amount to alternative formulas to finesse the veto. The P-5 could voluntarily exercise greater restraint—for example, by restricting the veto only to matters under Chapter VII enforcement action, and even for one type of coercive decision (humanitarian intervention) to abstain when vital interests are not involved.

Another approach is to seek institutional stamps of approval outside the Security Council—either when it is paralyzed or even distracted. Clearly, this is far more controversial, and many object. Nonetheless, there is relevant historical experience, including NATO’s 1999 humanitarian war in Kosovo and the Economic Community of West African States’ intervention in Sierra Leone, which was only subsequently blessed by the Security Council. Indeed, were the Council to be expanded, the likelihood of paralysis would undoubtedly increase as would the probability that action would be pushed away from the UN. Regional organizations would become more relevant. Whether they would act under Chapter VIII of the Charter and remain under Security Council scrutiny is another matter.

Hence, in tactical terms even those interested in actually amending the Charter should ponder whether a series of small steps to maintain momentum is more sensible than giant steps.

What Next?

The call for a dramatic change in the Security Council, like much else, was placed on the back burner after 9/11. The High-level Panel’s report is an attempt to put an assessment of new threats, and hence of new UN institutional ways to address them, more in the limelight. The panel’s recommendations and the Secretary-General’s endorsement of them will be considered at a world summit just before the General Assembly convenes in September 2005 on the occasion of the 60th anniversary.

Whatever the plausibility, the panel’s and the Secretary-General’s reports had to contain a reference to Security Council reform. The recommendations consist of three elements. First, there should be an expanded 24-member council, but the panel puts forward two alternatives. In addition to the P-5 and 10 elected members, “Model A provides for six new permanent seats…and three new two-year term non-permanent seats…Model B provides for no new permanent seats but creates a new category of eight four-year renewable-term seats and one new two-year term non-permanent (and non-renewable) seat.” In both models, the veto should remain the prerogative only of the P-5, and seats be divided among major regions.

Second, Charter Article 23 never specified diversity as a criterion for membership but rather the willingness of Council. The panel would like to enforce financial, military, and diplomatic contributions as part of the selection and re-election criteria of those aspiring to membership and not merely equitable geographical representation. Third, the panel suggests a full review in 2020.

It is unclear how debate at the September summit might pacify the usual nemeses, or why many delegations might find the suggested changes preferable to the status quo.

The jealousies and vested interests that have plagued this issue since 1995 will likelyremain intact for 2005 and beyond. It is not clear, for instance, whether the most serious candidates will agree to take half-a-loaf—that is, a permanent seat with no veto. It is not clear that the UK and France will accept the inevitable discussion of an EU seat that would be on the agenda at the 15-year review. It is not clear that the US will agree to consider a 24-member body. It is not clear that some of the main “losers” (the Italy’s, Algeria’s, Mexico’s, Pakistan’s and Nordics of this world) will not go to the mat over the very issues to which they have consistently objected. It is not clear why Arab or Eastern European states would agree to an allocation that makes no specific allocation to them. Most importantly, it is not clear how the recommended changes will improve the chances of reaching consensus on decisions regarding the use of force.

Since the UN’s 50th anniversary, not much has changed, although Germany and Japan appear to have become more impatient about their restricted roles as ATM’s for the budget. In the next decade, the Security Council will retain, in the Charter’s original words, “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Yet, the Council will also retain the same permanent members with vetoes and, in all likelihood, the same number of elected members.

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The CUNY Graduate Center. This article is excerpted from Overcoming the Security Council Reform Impasse: The Implausible versus the Plausible, Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2005, Occasional Paper No. 14.


1 See Edward C. Luck, Reforming the United Nations: Lessons from a History in Progress (New Haven: Academic Council on the UN System, 2003), Occasional Paper No. 1.

2 A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (United Nations Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, 2004); and In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All (Report of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, 2005).

3 For example, see recent books by David M. Malone, ed., The UN Security Council: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2004); Richard M. Price and Mark. W. Zacher, eds., The United Nations and Global Security (New York: Palgrave Press, 2004); and James S. Sutterlin, The United Nations and the Maintenance of International Security: A Challenge to be Met (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Press, 2003).

4 Procedural Developments in the Security Council-2001, United Nation document S/2002/603, June 6, 2002. Available at:

Comments are closed.