Self-Interest and Regional Rivalry Ensure UN Security Council Reform Remains Elusive

By James Carstensen | December 5, 2018 | 5:17pm EST
The U.N. Security Council meets in New York. (UN Photo, File)

Berlin ( – United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reform may be long overdue, but experts are not predicting breakthroughs anytime soon, given complicating factors including the fact meaningful reform would require some countries to surrender or share advantages enjoyed for decades.

The perennial debate was stoked again last week when German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz proposed in a speech that France relinquish its permanent UNSC seat for one to be held by the European Union at large. Unsurprisingly, France quickly rejected the idea.

The council comprises five permanent members, with veto powers, plus another 10 members elected to serve two-year terms each. The makeup of the P5 – the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain – essentially reflects the state of the international community at the end of World War II. The P5 are also the declared nuclear weapons powers. (Communist China replaced Taiwan in the the “China” seat in 1971.)

Today’s world looks very different, and countries like Japan, Germany, India and Brazil – together known as the G4 – have long hankered for positions at the U.N. that reflect their weight and financial contributions.

After the U.S., which pays 22 percent of the U.N. regular budget, non-P5 member Japan is the next biggest contributor, accounting for 9.6 percent.

Other non-P5 members which account for more than P5 members are Germany (which pays more than France, Britain and Russia) and Brazil (which pays more than Russia.)

“The G4 countries will continue to have an uphill struggle against gaining a permanent seat on the UNSC for the foreseeable future,” said Erik Kleinsmith, associate vice president in Intelligence and National & Homeland Security at the American Military University.

Kleinsmith agreed reform was long overdue, but said self-interest and nationalism were key roadblocks. Increasing the UNSC’s size or adding more permanent members, such as the G4 nations, was not in the self-interest of either the current P5 or regional competitors of the G4.

Germany, Brazil, Japan and India have long proposed the number of permanent seats be increased by six seats – for themselves and two African nations. (Nigeria and South Africa are sometimes proposed.)

But the proposal is not supported by their regional rivals – Italy and Spain in the case of Germany, Pakistan vis-à-vis India, Argentina in the case of Brazil, and most evidently, China in the case of Japan.

“President Trump may be harshly criticized for his nationalistic policies of Making America Great Again, but every other country continues to act in within their own self-interest and the UNSC members are no exception,” said Kleinsmith.

He said there were other complicating questions too.

“Shall future membership be based off of economic or military might, or relative size of a nation’s population?” he asked. “What about membership into the nuclear club? In the latter case, only one G4 country – India – would be allowed, but so would Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and eventually Iran. The other three G4 nations - Japan, Germany, and Brazil would be excluded.”

Article 109 of the U.N. Charter states that a complete membership review should have occurred ten years after the world body’s formation, but the process has been on indefinite hold.

At the U.N. General Assembly a fortnight ago, G4 members again complained about slow progress on reform, saying a few critics were casting a "dark shadow" over the process despite an overwhelming majority calling for reforms.

Tanzanian ambassador Modest Mero said the two proposed permanent seats for Africa should include the right of veto, something rejected by both the U.S. and Russia.

Global Security Review editor Joshua Stowell agreed that reform wasn’t in the P5’s perceived interest, but said failure to do so risks damaging its future credibility.

“Many no longer wield the influence they did in the decades immediately following the UN's establishment,” he said.

He said the U.S., which he argued was less powerful today in relative terms than it was 20 years ago, would be best served to push for UNSC reform sooner rather than later, and so shape a future council “in a manner favorable to its interests.”

A Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) spokesperson said the U.N.'s structure has not evolved in line with social, economic and political transformations.

“Since the U.N.'s founding, several processes, particularly decolonization and globalization, and subsequent wars have reshaped the globe, altered geopolitical power dynamics and informed global conceptions of good governance,” she said.

A GCF report last month featured, among other things, a working group proposal exploring the possibility of replacing the UNSC with a 24-member Executive Council elected by the General Assembly for a term of four years. The P5 veto would fall away.

The working group which made the proposal believed the proposed structure would alleviate some of the operational paralysis brought about by veto power, the spokesperson said.

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