The Security Council Elections and Paul Kennedy’s Commentary
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.