The Security Council Elections and Paul Kennedy’s Commentary

by Kenneth Anderson

Paul Kennedy, distinguished Yale historian and author of many works, including most recently his history of the United Nations, The Parliament of Man, had a striking opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on October 17, 2008, “Weak States and Scofflaws Have No Business on the Security Council.”  At issue was which countries would take up the rotating memberships on the Security Council; pretenders included both Iceland and Iran; in the event, both lost.

Kennedy’s core argument is that the Security Council was framed to be a collection of great powers, in keeping with the understanding of the Charter’s drafters of what went wrong with the League of Nations in collective security.  This requirement was enshrined in the Charter itself:

The wording of Article 23, section 1, makes this clear when it states: “. . . due regard being specially paid, in the first instance to the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization . . . .”

If the governments of the world wish to take those words seriously, they should pay no attention to some of the more preposterous campaigns being waged by a couple of this year’s Security Council wannabes. The most egregious of all is the bid by Iran; just how a country in defiance of Security Council resolutions can push for membership of that same body suggests either complete ignorance of, or great contempt for, the charter. In a rather different but equally silly way, there is the bid by Iceland. Actually, it is not its current state of national bankruptcy that should disqualify it from serious consideration. It is, rather, its obvious incapacity to contribute in a meaningful way to the maintenance of international security. Either you can do that, and are credible; or you can’t, and shouldn’t try to bid.

Kennedy notes – this is indeed highly relevant, as the Iraq war votes showed – that the “big boys,” the P5, are not entirely free to act on their own, because the procedural votes do include the non-permanent members.  It can matter whether those non-permanent members include, say, Iran.  Or Syria, to recall the President of the Security Council at the time of lead Iraq war votes.

The problem with this, however, is that the Security Council is not what the Charter envisions – a seat of collective security for the united nations of the world.  The Charter’s framers tried and failed to bridge two different conceptions of the Council, and of collective security.  In the one, the Council is the talking shop of the great powers – sometimes none of them will have deep interests, and so will not stand in the way of some kind of collective security arrangement.  But much of the time, and more so in a more competitive multipolar era, the great powers will have conflicts that lead to deadlock; in a more multipolar environment, great powers will discover that even apparently unrelated situations create interests in exercising ‘holdup premiums’ concerning unrelated matters.  In the other, the Council really is about collective security through the United Nations, and the maintenance of international peace and security.

Is there a way to bridge these two visions of the Security Council?  The traditional leap has been a leap of faith; the apparently irreconcilable visions are reconciled by having the first gradually morph into and give way to the second.  The talking shop today eventually becomes the seat of global governance for collective security tomorrow.  Why this should be is never clear (even after repeated readings of Tennyson’s Locksley Hall); it is the triumph of hope over experience.  What I have elsewhere attacked as Paul Kennedy’s ‘platonism’ about the UN, that is.

3 Responses

  1. ==just how a country in defiance of Security Council resolutions can push for membership of that same body suggests either complete ignorance of, or great contempt for, the charter.==
    Well, if defiance of the SC resolutions and contempt for the charter are the criteria for being denied SC membership, then consistency in the argument demands to kick out the current permanent members of the Council at once. 

  2. I agree with the argument that substantive consideration should be given to the credibility of a state’s commitment to Charter principles, and particularly international peace and security therein. I also think military capacity is relevant – though I don’t buy into Anderson’s binary schema of it being a choice between a self-identified talking shop or an anti-democratic world government. But I don’t think the latter consideration should be determinative too much over consistency in geographic rotation. I see predictable diversity as a good thing.

    Now, I’m not sure of Mr. Anderson’s precise position on the Iraq War, but I sense he may have in mind a slightly more oblique salutary lesson about the importance of rotating positions than the mere arithmetic of procedural voting requirements.

    Personally, I take it as a vindication of the 2003 Council that it was able to demure from the Bush Administration’s extensive lobbying effort to pass a draft UK-Spain-US resolution, to the extent that not even a simple majority was possible.  That was the correct position to take.

    If we move too far away from consistent rotation, towards a normative test, and it isn’t seen as inclusive, I worry that the Council is never going to admit voices from non-aligned states, etc., and be further open to horse-trading amongst geopolitical spheres of influence. That’s inevitable to a certain extent, but an inclusive rotation, even to weak states, forces the Council to have a desirable spread of views. Middle powers can still do this, of course, too.

    Also, the article should have mentioned Australia’s bid in 2012 as a counter narrative. Or is it simply impolitic to mention a labour-based party’s agenda in the op-ed pages of the WSJ in a positive light?

  3. This is great info to know.

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