The limits of the United Nations have been exposed again recently as the organisation has failed to take any effective measures in response to the crises in Syria and Myanmar. In both cases, a member of the Permanent Security Council has used their veto to ensure that the entire international system is held hostage: Russia has vetoed any initiative concerning Syria, while China has been consistently opposing measures against the authorities in Myanmar.
The fundamental problem is that in the current geopolitical climate where talk of a new ‘Cold War’ is increasingly justified, just about any global crisis is taking on a geopolitical dimension, where at least some members of the Permanent Security Council take every given opportunity to play out their respective global rivalries.
America’s veto means nothing will ever be done about Israel and the Occupied Territories, Russia’s veto means that Putin can throw his weight around as much as he wants in the former Soviet sphere of influence, while China’s veto means that Beijing’s Silk Road commercial interests will always take precedence over any humanitarian concerns all across in Asia.
At the very least, the system needs to be reformed such that measures on mass atrocities or genocide, like those concerning the Rohingya of Myanmar, or the ongoing civil war in Syria, would require two Permanent Members to jointly issue a veto. Though it is likely that even such modest reform would be opposed by all the major players.
As things stand, however, there is simply no way of getting around the fact that the UN has long since stopped being representative of the world we live in and its geopolitical realities. The entire continents of Africa and South America are not represented. The UK, France and Russia have their seats and their vetoes, but India, Brazil or Germany do not. There is no logic other than the historical for the current setup of the UN. But history has moved on.
Our collective failure to tackle existential crises
The consequence of this is that the UN is simply incapable of representing the international community as a collection of states with a joint stake in the governance of the world, and in global peace and security. And this institutional lack is a contributing factor to the growing instability we see everywhere around the globe, and our collective failure to tackle existential crises such as climate change, global migrations, and the proliferation of failed or failing states.
Everything we need to do to meet the global challenges of this century will require a great deal of consensus. But nothing will get done if every last decision requires absolute consensus amongst global and regional powers with entrenched rivalries and historical axes to grind.Azeem Ibrahim
If international collective action is to become possible again so that we may try to address these ever more acute challenges, a new institutional order will be required. And that new institutional order will neither happen, nor would be effective if it did, so long as the powers that be insist on Permanent Memberships and Vetoes.
Everything we need to do to meet the global challenges of this century will require a great deal of consensus. But nothing will get done if every last decision requires absolute consensus amongst global and regional powers with entrenched rivalries and historical axes to grind.
Perhaps suggesting the rebuilding of the global institutional order in the age of Trump and Putin seems naive, even misguided. How would such an initiative even get off the ground when the erstwhile pillars of the global order have so thoroughly abandoned the idea of a rule-based world?
But China, the world’s fast-rising power, does recognise the value of an international rule system. And it has positioned itself as a defender of the international order. This is promising. What is more, there are benefits for both Putin and Trump’s America to accepting international institutional constraints on their power-plays. Doing so would lower risks of direct confrontation and possible nuclear escalations, it would make the strategic calculations of each side far more predictable, and would most likely lower the costs of play at the geo-strategic poker table.
There are reasons why the big players might consider moving in this direction. And the need is very pressing indeed, as the global situation becomes more and more acute. Whether the current crop of world leaders have the foresight to do so, or whether we will be lucky enough that circumstance will force them into doing what needs to be done, remains to be seen. But the direction in which we need to be going is quite clear: Security Council Permanent Memberships and Vetoes must go.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj 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
What justifies Russian veto against Iran’s supply of weaponsThe Security Council voted for a resolution that prevents Iran from providing the Houthis with weapons, but Russia vetoed this resolution. This ... Middle East
After Russian veto, US, allies condemn Iran over missiles to YemenThe United States and three European allies condemned Iran on Tuesday after the United Nations found Tehran had violated the arms embargo on Yemen by ... Gulf
Russia vetoes UN draft resolution pressuring Iran over YemenRussia vetoed Monday a UN draft resolution presented by Britain that would have pressured Iran over its failure to block supplies of missiles to ... Gulf
After US veto, UN General Assembly to meet on Jerusalem statusThe 193-member United Nations General Assembly will hold a rare emergency special session on Thursday at the request of Arab and Muslim states on US ... World News