UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
What is the purpose of the Security Council in an era of worsening great power tensions? Divisions among its five permanent members (or P5) have repeatedly undermined the United Nations in recent years. The council has failed to halt the catastrophic wars in Syria and Yemen, had no substantive impact on the conflict in Ukraine, and been silent over the international contest for control of the South China Sea. A cursory survey of geopolitical trends suggests that the council’s difficulties are only likely to mount in the years ahead. Three of the five veto-wielding powers – China, Russia and the United States – increasingly frame their antagonisms in Cold War terms. Their animosities are affecting multiple dimensions of international cooperation, from global trade to non-proliferation. If this strategic competition intensifies, there is a high risk that it will further undercut council diplomacy.
Yet it is possible that the council could counter-intuitively gain significance against the backdrop of such big power competition. In the last three decades, the body has taken on an enormous range of roles and responsibilities – from promoting human rights and international criminal justice to discussing the security effects of climate change – yet at root it remains a mechanism for its major members to communicate and compromise over security tensions when other channels are unavailable. During some of the most dangerous phases of the Cold War, such as the 1948 Berlin blockade, the UN offered a rare venue where US and Soviet diplomats could exchange messages and ideas on a one-to-one basis. Seven decades later, the UN still offers a safe space for these powers to strike compromises – such as the successive strengthening of sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) negotiated by China and the US in 2017 – that they might struggle to agree upon in other formats.
It does so in three main parts. The next section outlines three basic functions – concerning (i) policing the non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): (ii) stopping civil wars from spreading into regional or global conflicts; and (iii) providing a framework for cooperation on counter-terrorism – that the UN plays more or less successfully in the current security system. While the council performs many other important roles, the paper argues these are the organization’s fundamental contributions to global stability. Section 3 surveys how the council is performing these functions today. It highlights the negative impact of major power tensions on non-proliferation and civil war management in particular. Section 4 of the paper explores what the breakdown of the Security Council’s role in these three areas would mean for the organization. It concludes that while the UN’s civil war management and counter-terrorism roles are ultimately “dispensable” (if not without cost) the breakdown of its non-proliferation work could do far more severe damage to P5 cooperation and the UN as a whole.
The paper concludes with a call for the P5 – and especially China, Russia and the US – to take steps necessary to avoid such a crash, which is now a very real risk. It does not offer easy policy options for the P5 to follow. While it is nice to say that the major powers should recommit to international law and the UN Charter, avoid using their vetoes, invest in peacekeeping and so forth, it is hardly as if P5 diplomats have not come across these ideas before. The fundamental problem facing the P5 is not to chew over the existing norms and practices of the Security Council, but to see if they can find political and strategic common ground on the council’s purpose as a de-confliction mechanism in an era of competition. This paper aims to clarify dangers that will arise if the P5 cannot find such common ground. It aims to inspire further conversation among security experts and officials in Beijing, London, Moscow, Paris and Washington DC about what the Security Council can and cannot do.