Circus tricks

By Paul Kennedy (THE GUARDIAN, 16/09/06):

With the dust now settling across southern Lebanon, yet another Middle East conflict has come to an uneasy close. But as an international peace-keeping force belatedly moves in, the spotlight focuses once again on the world body created six decades ago precisely to deal with this sort of international emergency. What will the United Nations do? What can it do? Why cannot the theoretically all-powerful UN security council flex its muscles? Why does it act so slowly over Lebanon, but also Sudan, and Srebrenice, Rwanda and earlier catastrophes?

These are questions that deserve a proper answer. If, in 1945, the world community purposefully created an organisation to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, then it is perplexing that it does not seem more fit for purpose. How are we to explain, to indignant national politicians and the angry public, the frequent paralyses within the UN’s most powerful – and most contentious – institution, the security council, or the byzantine diplomatic manoeuvres that follow to facilitate some watered-down compromise?

The question acquired an urgency this week as heads of states and governments around the world made their way to New York, to deliver their addresses to the UN general assembly and to elect a successor to Kofi Annan as secretary general. The latter task has immediately focused attention on the political horse-trading that takes place inside the security council.

While the foreign minister of South Korea, Ban Ki-Moon, emerged as the frontrunner in the race for the secretary generalship, member states gathering for the UN 61st annual assembly were promised a package of reform proposals. These schemes, designed to improve the way the UN works, include measures to cut waste, bureaucracy and the possibility of corruption, streamlining of procedures, and plans for an overhaul of the body’s shaky finances. All of which is important, but none of it excites the general public – or is even a priority for those governments most likely vote for such changes. The only topic guaranteed to grab the attention is the one that has stirred member states ever since the UN was established in San Francisco in 1945: the demand for reform of the security council itself.

The process of electing a new secretary general throws into sharp relief the intrinsic imbalance of the security council’s composition. Mr Ban was reported to have won the support of 14 of the council’s 15 members in the latest ballot, putting him comfortably ahead of his closest rival, India’s candidate, Shashi Tharoor. Only one thing may now block Mr Ban’s selection by the security council for the endorsement of the general assembly – and that would be if the one contrary vote had come from one of the permanent five members with veto powers, (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the US).

The proposals for reforming the security council take a twin track: given the power conferred by the veto, the idea would be either to increase the number of states who would enjoy permanent veto status, or to reduce the scope of veto privilege or eliminate it altogether. These are rather contradictory demands, but either would bring a dramatic shift in the balance of power at the UN and, say its advocates, make it more effective.

Neither proposal, in fact, is likely to go far, as all such moves run into the well known catch-22 “trap” of the UN charter. In 1945, the five victor powers gave each other the right to veto, and then froze that privilege in a constitution that they and all other member states pledged to respect. Thus, any future attempt to alter the status of the “high table” powers, or to increase or decrease their number, could only succeed if the veto was not wielded. Any one of the permanent five can, and would, bring a proposal for change to a grinding halt.

The 1945 settlement was driven by the historical “lessons” that the Allied planners drew from the interwar years, and the failure of the League of Nations to halt fascist aggressions. The first of these lessons was that, in a world of international anarchy, small nations such as Belgium, Finland and Thailand were inherent “consumers” of security; that is, they could not protect themselves if a larger neighbour attacked them.

By contrast, the lead nations of the Grand Alliance were “providers” of security, not because of any inherent virtue but because they alone had the muscle to deter or defeat future aggressors. (These planners actually gave serious thought to the revival of German and Japanese military power by the 1960s.) It would be the forces of the British empire, the US and the Soviet Union that would be responsible for quashing any future acts of aggression. It was only proper, therefore, that these countries should have a permanent seat and a veto on a body that was being given so much authority in matters of war and peace.

The second compelling lesson was that it was vital to keep all the big elephants inside the circus tent; that is to say, America and Russia had to be part of the UN. This was a particularly British obsession, derived from bitter memories of the League of Nations: the US was never a member, the Soviet Union only entered in the 1930s (to be turned out after it invaded Finland in 1940), and Japan, Germany and Italy walked out. But if neuralgic American senators and the even more suspicious Josef Stalin were to stay within the tent, they had to be assured that they could block any UN threats to their national interests. Hence the veto, disguised in subtle charter language (Article 27, para 3) that voting on substantive matters by the security council requires “the concurring votes of the permanent members”. And just who decides what is a substantive issue? The permanent five, of course. Voila!

This made sense at the time, but the disadvantages are glaring today. By any objective assessment, India – and perhaps also Brazil and South Africa – ought to have a place at high table now. To critics, the claims of Britain and France to the continued privilege of veto is an anachronism. Finally, to independent-minded smaller nations such as Singapore, the right asserted by large countries to a veto is itself unjustified. Having five governments capable of freezing the international system is bad enough; why make it eight or 10?

But how is one to change this rigid, out-of-date system? It can only be by altering the charter. The terms of the 1945 system can be amended, of course, but only if the parliaments of two-thirds of the general assembly’s members vote in favour – and if the permanent five do not object, a crucial negative condition. Forget, therefore, any proposal to take privileges away from Britain and France; that will simply be vetoed. Forget, too, Japan’s prospects of permanent veto membership; China will not countenance it. Germany cannot muster enough votes and even Brazil may struggle for support, given the reservations of several Latin American states. By a process of elimination, therefore, the only viable contender for promotion is India. Its size, population, booming economy, remarkable track record of contributions to UN peacekeeping, and prominent place in global dialogues (WTO, Kyoto), all argue that way. It may even have enough general assembly votes. And, if it has, which of the permanent five countries is then going to veto? Even China would hesitate.

Apart from India’s candidature, though, there seems little prospect of significantly altering the composition of the security council. But there are some measures that might make that body appear – and be – more authentic, and more legitimate, than it is now. When the present total of 10 non-permanent members was agreed, there were only about 75 governments represented in the general assembly. Now that that total is up to 191, there is a case for a further increase in the numbers on the council. This need not be a drastic increase, but raising the non-permanent membership from 10 to 18 would give us 23 governments on the security council, which still seems quite functional. And serious thought should be given to abolishing the rule that a non-permanent member can serve for only two years before stepping down.

These modest changes would allow more countries to experience the workings of the security council, and make it more representative. And abolishing the “two years and out” principle might allow countries with a good record at peacekeeping and a significant regional weight (Brazil, India) the chance of being voted for a further term, without a break. Secondly, any change to the charter – and there has been none since the mid-1960s, when the number of rotating members was increased from six to 10 – would create a useful precedent, suggesting that the UN’s constitution was not set in stone.

Even so, critics retort, the big five would remain the big five (or six, with India), with their permanency and power of veto preserved intact. For all its unfairness, this is not a total disaster. The current arrangements act as a pressure valve for the permanent veto members, allowing them to exercise a negative control over what the world body can do. John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, might vent his irritation at the current inadequacies of the UN (as he sees them), but even the more isolationist voices in the American administration realise the advantages of remaining within the circus tent, where, after all, the US government cracks the biggest whip of all.

The veto and restricted permanent membership of the security council are not the only problems facing the UN. Just as great a challenge are international terrorism and “failed states”, neither of which were anticipated by the UN’s founding fathers. They focused on drawing up rules for how sovereign governments would behave towards each other, including the famous Article 2, paragraph 7: “Nothing contained in the present charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” This has been the safeguard of nasty regimes ever since, and a big source of frustration for UN secretaries general and others who have called for action to prevent internal genocides. And weak or collapsed states are easily penetrated by terrorist groups.

Even though the knotty question of what one does when society is rent by civil war and genocide would remain regardless of a particular clause in the charter, the existence of the veto often compounds this problem. But on many occasions the ability of the UN to take action on domestic conflict and civil rights abuses (Darfur, Palestine, Tibet, Chechnya) has been severely impaired because one of the permanent five threatens to employ its veto.

Given the present White House and US Congress, for example, it is hard to imagine any action Israel might take that would lead to a critical resolution getting through the security council. To some observers, then, the veto helps prevent the world body from going too far in a disputed issue. To others, the capacity of the permanent five to protect client states and head off condemnation of domestic abuses makes a travesty of the UN’s highest ideals.

Which brings us back to the current agonies in the Middle East. Every player in this drama knows that the UN must have a role here. But it has to be left to the unfolding of events, and then the hard negotiations of the major actors – Israel, the US, the rest of the security council, and neighbouring Arab states – to see exactly which functions the UN will be called upon to implement. A beefed-up blue-helmet force in southern Lebanon; emergency relief and further evacuations; slow rebuilding of civic infrastructure; delicate negotiations in Geneva; a further push towards a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine? All or any of the above? Just don’t expect too much, too soon.

So the UN will limp along, caught between the ambitiousness of its original design and the blunt fact that the world order remains one in which egotistical great powers still play a disproportionate role, especially in protecting their own interests. This was ever so. The best that can be hoped is that the veto-bearing members will see the need for working together.

For when the big elephants quarrel and stamp, no progress can be made, at least until they calm down. But even this frustrating process remains a better outcome than to have any of these large and often unpredictable beasts stampeding out of the tent and running away from the circus.