14 November 2017

Reforming the United Nations Security Council

In the wake of the devastation caused by the Second World War, the world’s leading powers sought to create an organization that would ensure that yet another world war would not take place.  Unlike the failed League of Nations that was created just a generation earlier after the First World War, this new organization, the United Nations, was designed to allow the victorious powers of the Second World War to establish a system that would enable them to prevent yet another devastating global conflict.  This led to the formation of the United Nations Security Council, a body consisting of the most powerful allied countries in the Second World War. 

Initially, the Security Council consisted of the United States, the Soviet Union, China and the United Kingdom, the “Big Four” as they were then known.  Worried about the possibility of a US withdrawal from Europe after the Second World War, the British government pushed for France’s membership in the Security Council, something that was only reluctantly accepted by US President Franklin Roosevelt.  At the same time, the United States wanted Brazil to be a member of the UN Security Council, but this was rejected by the Soviets and the British.  As such, the five permanent members of the Security Council were established, each of which was granted veto power over Security Council resolutions.  In addition to these five permanent members, there are now also ten non-permanent members, each of which serves a two-year term that lacks the power to veto resolutions enjoyed by the five permanent members. 

Since its creation, the make-up of the United Nations Security Council has been controversial, something that has threatened the legitimacy of that body.  First and foremost, many countries argue that the current Security Council’s permanent members no longer accurately reflect the balance of power in the world in the 21st century.  For example, many countries argue that the United Kingdom and France are no longer among the world’s most powerful countries and that their permanent membership on the Security Council is a legacy of the colonial era. 

At the same time, there are many major powers that are not permanent members of the Security Council, many of whom have openly expressed their interest in gaining a seat at the top table at the United Nations.  These include both major developed economies as well as rapidly-growing emerging markets.  Meanwhile, a number of the countries on the Security Council struggle to work together on most issues, weakening the ability of that body to enact any substantive measures to prevent or stop conflicts around the world.  This combination of an outdated membership structure and the inability of its leading members to work together is causing a major crisis of credibility for the Security Council, a trend that could render that body obsolete unless major reforms are enacted.

If there ever will be an expansion of the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, there are a number of countries or organizations that would have to be considered.  These include:


  • India: Home to 1.3 billion people and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, India probably has a better claim to membership than a number of current permanent members of the Security Council. 
  • Japan: Possessing the world’s fourth-largest economy and a population that is nearly equal to that of Britain and France combined, Japan has long sought permanent membership on the Security Council.
  • Brazil: Latin America’s dominant power and home to more than 210 million people, the world’s fifth-largest country by area nearly became a permanent member of the Security Council at its onset and today possesses a solid claim for such a position.
  • Germany: Europe already holds two of the five places on the Security Council, but that region’s most powerful country, at least economically, Germany, is not among them, something that Berlin has attempted to change.
  • European Union: Some experts have called for Britain and France to give up their permanent memberships on the Security Council in favor of a European Union seat, but Brexit and French pride make such a change extremely unlikely.

In addition to these five potential new permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, many other countries have also sought such a position.  However, none of them have come close to gaining much traction for their membership bids.

As the United Nations Security Council finds its increasingly difficult to work together on many substantive issues, and as many of the world’s leading powers remain outside of that body, its long-term legitimacy will increasingly be questioned.  On one hand, the two dominant powers of the 21st century, the United States and China, are both present on the Security Council and can use that body to work together to find common solutions for a range of issues and threats.  However, without the presence of India and other large powers, the Security Council will find it increasingly difficult to handle major threats to global security in the years ahead.  This is a good reason for the permanent membership of the Security Council to be expanded, perhaps with reduced (or no) veto power for new members of that body. 

Unfortunately, such a reform is highly unlikely to take place.  On one hand, China is reluctant to expand the Security Council as it has grown from being the weakest member of that body to its second-strongest, and it does not want its rising clout there to be diluted.  At the same time, Russia, Britain and France all realize that their permanent membership on the Security Council is one of their remaining claims to great power status, and thus, and expansion of that body would further weaken the power and influence that this status grants them.  As such, the Security Council faces the threat of increasing irrelevance, with the world’s powers ignoring that body, a development that could further add to the rising level of geopolitical risk facing the world today.