The United Nations Security Council and the international system of multilateralism are in a predicament. The Council’s structure ensures dialogue between the geopolitical powers and excludes Global South actors from the same dialogue. While this dialogue decreases tensions between big powers, most UN member states increasingly oppose the Council’s inadequate adaptation to current geopolitical realities. There is widespread agreement about the need for reform, mainly to increase Global South representation on the Council. However, the path to reform is complicated by opposition from the Council’s permanent members and disagreement among the primary advocates for increased Global South inclusion. While the prospect of reforming the Council to alter the current geopolitical imbalance significantly is bleak, progressive actors should work to set aside policy differences and unite behind reform proposals that press the issue of increasing Global South inclusion.
The Case for Reform
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) consists of five permanent members (the P5: China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the US) and ten non-permanent members elected by the General Assembly for two-year stints to ensure regional representation on the Council. This system, however, does not incorporate Global South countries in the power and privileges that come with permanent membership, including the veto prerogatives, access to exclusive internal relationships, and ensuing economic benefits associated with the P5. In a discussion about increasing global equality, China is omitted from the Global South category vis-á-vis its geopolitical power. The so-called “inequity argument” for increased Global South presence in the UNSC proposes that the current permanent membership reflects the geopolitical aftermath of World War II instead of current geopolitical realities, that is, the rise of countries like Brazil, India, Nigeria, and South Africa to geopolitical power.
The issue of UNSC reform is both straightforward and complicated. Besides the unequal representation showcased by a lack of permanent representation from the Global South, there is an obvious need for a more effective UNSC. The wars in Syria and Ukraine exemplify how the veto system balances the Council’s peace and security efforts towards power politics instead of humanitarian-oriented multilateralism.
The flipside of the need to increase equality by expanding the permanent membership and reforming the veto system is that the current institutionalized dialogue between the P5 prevents big-power conflicts and that the privileges afforded to the big powers ensure their continued interest and participation and hedges against a dissolution like that of the League of Nations.
Despite well-grounded reasons for pessimism, the all but universal support for reform could trump the concerns for adverse consequences. Unreceptive actors like the P5 and the Chinese-supported coalition of states known as Uniting for Consensus (UfC) can block reform progress for only so long. Eventually, calls for reform will again become “too loud to ignore” like in 1963, which led to the expansion of the non-permanent membership from six to ten in 1965.
The Problems of Reform
While a reform will likely materialize eventually, specific issues raise doubts about its potential to significantly amend the Council’s current unequal representation and ambiguous performance.
The opposing positions concerning a reform of the veto system prevent progress in the official intergovernmental negotiations about reform (the IGN). The P5 countries have no interest in losing or sharing their prerogative and can veto reform proposals. Further, there is a disagreement between two prominent reform proponents concerning a reform of the veto system. On one side is the African Union (AU), which vehemently calls for veto rights to new permanent members—as long as the veto system subsists. The AU proposes a UNSC of at least twenty-six members, including two permanent and five non-permanent seats for African countries. The AU, with its fifty-four member states, is a powerful actor in the reform debate. This is mainly because changes to the UN charter require a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly (129 out of 193), so a block of fifty-four votes is close to indispensable. The AU’s power also resides in the universal recognition of historical injustices from colonization. Accordingly, reform efforts seeking to amend the inadequate Global South representation must include increased African representation. On the other side stands The Group of Four (G4: Brazil, Germany, Japan, and India), which proposes the addition of six permanent and four to five non-permanent seats. The G4’s power lies in its members’ embodiment of rising influence, the Global South status of two members, and it being the most vocal proponent of the urgency of reform. The coalition claims to have broad support, but the scope is hard to verify since no votes on reform proposals have been held since 1963. The G4 seeks permanent seats for G4 countries (albeit this is not explicit in their proposal) and two permanent and two non-permanent seats for African countries.
The G4 is flexible on the veto question; the AU is not. The G4 could turn to support the African insistence on veto expansion, but that would increase the reactionary pressure from the P5. Alternatively, the AU could soften its veto insistence and approach the G4’s position. The AU trod this path in late September 2005 but ultimately remained insistent on its position, and the US and China also intervened to prevent significant progress. The P5-G4-AU triangle of opposing agendas gridlocks the UNSC reform process.
Underneath the disagreement about reform of the veto system lie the problems of geopolitical and regional rivalries. China, Russia, and the United State’s true preferences concerning new permanent members are unclear, although all three publicly support reform and increased Global South representation despite being known to oppose the expansion of both the permanent membership and the veto system. China opposes veto reform while emphasizing the essentiality of an AU-supported reform. China’s position is contradictory given the AU’s demand for veto expansion, and is likely meant to stall progress. The US and Russia both oppose veto reforms and want a maximum of five to seven added seats, but support expansion in both membership categories. While the United States emphasizes candidates’ proven ability and willingness as factors for membership(mirroring the G4’s position), Russia is moving towards the UfC’s agenda of a so-called consensus-based approach. Measuring countries’ capabilities and seeking broad consensus are not mutually exclusive positions, yet, the United States and Russia’s alignment with the G4 and the UfC respectively is also likely to stall progress. The United Kingdom and France keep low profiles as they are aware of the questionable legitimacy of their seats in the eyes of several UNSC reform stakeholders. In addition to P5 power politics, the emerging powers that many see as candidates for permanent seats in a reformed council have their staunch regional opponents. Neither Argentina nor Mexico is interested in Brazil’s establishment as the Latin American power. China’s stance on Japan is ambivalent at best, and Pakistan is heavily invested in preventing India’s ascension. In Europe, Spain and Italy oppose the German candidacy. The four most potent African countries; Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt; scramble internally to maintain their positions as favorites for permanent African seats.
The Precondition and Potential for Reform
Progressive stakeholders in the UNSC reform debate should continue their agency based on the following realizations.
The AU’s veto insistence is unmaintainable; the P5 will not allow for a reform of the veto system and there are internal disagreements in the AU about whether to maintain the position or move on to achieve progress. With the AU principally opposed to the veto system, this paradoxical stance presents a crevice of potential.
Accordingly, the G4 should increase diplomatic efforts to soften the AU’s demand for veto rights via official and institutionalised negotiations. The G4 and the AU have continued working to align their positions, but the United States and China labor successfully to halt this process. The G4 can support the pursuit of convergence by building up trust and agreeing to formal dialogue with the African countries that are not favored for permanent seats. This could appease their worries about other African countries’ ascension and unify the AU. Amending the internal African disagreements would make P5 opposition the only roadblock to progress and increased Global South representation—a position the P5 wants to avoid. Less powerful African countries would be connected to a future reformed council through relations with new council members from the AU and the G4. In the same way, Brazil must intensify its work to appease its regional neighbors in order to be seen as a representative of Latin America instead of an actor with regional-hegemonic ambitions.
China’s increased connection to certain African countries must be factored in as well, not the least because this connection is not as one-sided and neo-colonial as it is often portrayed. Perhaps China would be open to support expansion of the permanent membership if given influence concerning the choice of AU favorites for the two permanent seats without veto rights, which is the number suggested by the G4.
The resurfaced East-West antagonism may well stall any progress for a time, albeit the IGN debates continue. Still, negotiations might advance if stakeholders turn their focus to the only feasible corridor toward a reform. The potential lies in the AU’s legitimate demands for permanency and the coalition’s principal opposition to the veto. Accordingly, the AU most drop its “maximalist position” on veto expansion, and pursue permanent seats without veto rights. This move would unify the AU and the G4 and appease the P5’s apprehensions about an AU-G4 alliance, because their veto-exclusivity would not be questioned. The path forward lies neither in abandoning reform efforts all together nor in utopian beliefs that the current veto holders will accept changes of this system. The nonnegotiable aim is substantial Global South permanent representation. To sub-power countries from the G4 and the AU permanent presence matters more than veto. Moreover, expanding the veto system will not prevent another scenario like Ukraine 2022 and abolishing the veto will only lead powerful countries towards de-prioritizing the UN.
To utilize the mentioned potential, those who want to see a reform should hold the powerful actors accountable to their own words of support for reforms that increase Global South inclusion. The most influential stakeholders—the AU, the P5-countries, the G4, and the UfC—must be pressured continually to explain how their reform stances aim to promote international equality. The AU concerning its contradictory veto position, the P5’s feet dragging, and the UfC’s position that the majority of UN member states disagree with. Currently, they present reform proposals that promote power politics and the national agendas of the respective coalitions’ most influential members. China continuously calls for democratic debates about UNSC reform but opposes the inclusion of voting to determine the level of proposals support. The G4 promotes the need for influential countries as representatives for the Global South, and the UFC opposes expansion of the permanent membership even though most member states want to see it. In doing so, all coalitions weave in notions of how they promote democracy and equality.
It is not a given that an increase in permanent membership enhances the Council’s effectiveness. However, it would strengthen the body’s legitimacy, leading to increased performance based on ensuing upsurge in support from more UN member states. The permanent presence of African countries would likely improve approaches to peace missions on the African continent and align Global North/Global South norms concerning global governance through the UN. In the final analysis, the combined agency of the AU and the G4 could permanently add four Global South countries on the Council (two African, Brazil, and India). This end will not come easy, but it is essential to keep “agitating for reform” and utilize the fact that advocacy for increased inclusion of Global South countries is an established norm in the debates.
Bjarke Zinck Winther is a researcher and lecturer in international relations and discourse studies at Aalborg University’s Department of Culture and Learning and a lecturer and fellow at the University of Southern Denmark’s Center for War Studies. His research and teaching concern international relations, international political organizations, social relations in diplomacy, and qualitative research methodologies. He has been published in Discourse & Society, The Chinese Journal of Global Governance, and The German Yearbook of International Law, among others.