Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council
When the United Nations was founded over seventy years ago, the victorious Allies saw it as the capstone of the postwar order. This new organization would work to keep the peace that had been achieved at such tremendous cost. At its head would be the Security Council, dominated by its five permanent members, united in a “trusteeship of the strong.” These powerful nations would serve as the world’s policemen, taking on the burden of keeping the peace and ensuring that the devastating World Wars of the first half of the twentieth century would never return.
Even in this idealized—not to say mythologized—retelling, the realities of great power politics are apparent, but from its founding, the history of the Security Council has not been one of idealism tempered by pragmatism. Rather, it has been a history of pragmatism and power overcoming idealism and democracy.
Even among the permanent members, equality has not been an operative principle. At the time of the founding, the United States stood alone on the international stage. Britain and France were exhausted by war and already in the process of losing their empires. The Soviet Union was undoubtedly a victor, but it had suffered immense losses in the war. After decades of war and famine, China was weak and riven by civil war. Even today, when all five permanent members—the “P5”—are powerful and relatively prosperous, decision-making on the Council is dominated by the United States, usually but not always with the active involvement of the “P3,” which brings Britain and France into the fold. US influence is so pervasive that it is sometimes referred to as the “P1.”
The non-permanent members struggle to make any impact on the Council despite their legitimacy as the elected representatives of every member state. With the advantages of permanency and the threat of the veto, the P5 are able to continuously dominate Council proceedings. The ten elected members have at times made their mark on the Security Council, but this has been the exception rather than the rule.
Despite this democratic deficit, the Council has had real achievements along with failures both of commission and omission. In this critical analysis of the Security Council, James A. Paul, former executive director of Global Policy Forum, examines its history of successes and failures, idealism and arrogance. Long a major figure in the NGO community at the UN, Paul founded the NGO Working Group on the Security Council, convening frequent meetings with Council ambassadors. He has written many articles, reviews, policy papers, and books on international relations and global politics, including the RLS–NYC study “We the Peoples?” The United Nations on Its Seventieth Anniversary (October 2015).
Security Council reform is long overdue, and calls for this reform have been on the table for decades. Most commonly, these calls have taken the form of large and powerful nations seeking a permanent seat on the council. Paul argues that such proposals, which have proven unachievable, have stood in the way of more creative and fundamental reforms. A democratic transition is needed to bring about the Security Council we need: One that can work for genuine peace.