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Could Britain justify permanent UN Security Council seat after Brexit?

The position of France and the UK in the wake of them losing their empires has become progressively more difficult to justify

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

The Security Council of the United Nations was set up after World War 2 to oversee the international political development of the world in the post-war era, and it locked in the powerful position of the allied victors in that new world, by giving them each a permanent position in this Council. It was thus that the United States, the Soviet Union, China (originally the Western-allied Republic of China, Taiwan), France and the United Kingdom were designated as the most powerful countries in the world.

And in 1945, they most certainly were. France and the United Kingdom still held huge empires, the United States and the Soviet Union were the new, undisputed military superpowers of the world, and China, though in a politically very complicated situation, was then recognized due to rise to the heights it is now reaching.

But whereas China’s seat at the table was ultimately claimed by the ever ascendant continental People’s Republic in 1971, and they have since grown ever more into their role as a global leader, the position on the Permanent Security Council of France and the United Kingdom in the wake of them losing their empires has become progressively more difficult to justify.

One reasonable response these two countries have had in response to such criticism is that they remain militarily among the most powerful countries in the world, and that they retain a huge amount of political and cultural influence. But on both these counts, there remain problems.

When the leaders of the Free World need to call Europe, they will not be calling us anymore. They only need to call the German Chancellor’s office, if they want to know what Europe will do

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

As far as military power is concerned, both the UK and France remain in the global top 10, but on that basis it is difficult to see why Britain should be on the Permanent Council and not, say Saudi Arabia, which in the past year has had a 50 percent higher military spending than the UK, or India, which spent a similar amount to both the UK and France.

Saudi Arabia may not also be a nuclear power and much of its spending would have been inflated in the past year as a consequence of its involvement in regional conflicts such as in Yemen, but India? It is both a nuclear power, and matches France and the UK for spending even though it is carrying out fewer operations.

And on the cultural and political argument, the same can be said. Britain and France’s positions in the political heart of the European Union, the world’s largest economic block, has continued to put them at the forefront of global affairs. But India has a good 50 percent higher population than the entire European Union, and, even though it is still significantly behind economically, it is catching up with a vengeance. And the UK has just declared its intention to resign from the EU.

Flimsy grounds

Even if we were to concede that France will continue to be important in foreign affairs in virtue of its position in the EU, though by that measure Germany is much more influential, what about the UK? On what grounds could we now justify the UK’s position on the Permanent Council, against an Indian bid?

India is the world’s largest democracy, it is a nuclear power, it has the second highest population in the world, and it has among the highest rates of economic growth anywhere in the world – indeed, it is expected to become a bigger economy than the UK before 2020.

By contrast, the UK is a diminished, and diminishing presence on the world stage. It has enjoyed a seat at every high table of international affairs for centuries, in virtue of its imperial past and its continued global power and status. But with Brexit, it has also forfeited much of that power and status. In the wake of Brexit, the UK is no more than an average-sized country with an oversized past. Germany is currently more relevant in the world.

When the leaders of the Free World need to call Europe, they will not be calling us anymore. They only need to call the German Chancellor’s office, if they want to know what Europe will do. And if they want to know where the world is going, they will be calling Beijing, Moscow, Berlin, and soon, Delhi. In that order. After Brexit London will be sitting at the back of the queue.
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Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy, Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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