November 11, 2002
12:51 PM   Subscribe

This Oct. 16 Christian Science Monitor article works as an entry point. And here's a proposal for modification of the Security Council veto that limits but doesn't eliminate its use.
posted by mediareport at 12:58 PM on November 11, 2002

Great links - I was wondering about this just the other day. Elimination of the veto would be nice - having five nations hold sway over the rest of the world in perpetuity seems to fly in the face of common logic - but the chance of any of the permanent members voting to strip themselves of power is slightly less than that of the proverbial snowball.

The cynic in me says it'll take 50-100 years before one of the permanent members has waned sufficiently in power to make it obvious that they shouldn't have a veto. Whether they'll be stripped of it at that point or whether the U.N. will tear itself apart over it is anyone's guess, but I know which one my aforementioned internal cynic would favour.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:16 PM on November 11, 2002

Lots of people already think France's veto should be yanked {including onetime MeFite SDB}. Compare some later comments {quasi self-link} in the same vein.

There was some non-trivial talk after the XSSR breakup that Russia was no longer a superpower, but with Putin at the helm that has died down: far more than Yeltsin, he understands their particular role in the world.

France is an obvious candidate for simple reasons of international power projection, but the replacement isn't obvious. Germany and Japan have the economic position, and post-unification, Germany is arguably more representative of (and more central to) the European experiment. But the US point of view doesn't -- at least under a Republican administration -- extend to replacing a diffident ally with an obstinate one. The US would like Japan to play a broader role, but its every move forward is accompanied by a half-step back.

India makes sense, again on a great-power-club basis, but would never be let in by China (nor probably gain US backing), and virulently opposed by any Arab states with influence. Africa has only Egypt and South Africa as logical candidates. Brazil makes sense economically, or perhaps Mexico, but neither plays a leadership role in Latin American politics.

But then perhaps the veto should be eliminated entirely -- certainly not in the ineterests of any extant members. The veto, of course, is recognized as a much more powerful tool than merely having a vote, and all resolutions by the council are modelled around the question of the veto's exercise, whether expected or not.

I have argued in the past that there is a particular irony here. The liberal point of view is that the UN is the most multilateral institution, the ne plus ultra of what cooperation and consensus can achieve; and yet the UN is the most reductively realpolitik entity on the planet, where countries have a single vote (in any body) despite their population or political leadership, and where that vote is expected to be used to vote that country's enduring interests rather than its democratic will. The General Assembly is not a representative legislature, the Security Council no deliberative Senate. It's more like a political caucus than anything else.

The veto and the question of Security Council reform are, in the end, red herrings. They will not change, at least not in the short-term future, because of questions of sovereignty. The UN remains wedded to the idea, the apotheosis of nationalism, however much it may appear to embody transnational or post-nationalist hopes. Stateless peoples have no representation: Chechens, Kosovars, Armenians or Kurds. Only when the UN's interests coincide with weakening or dis-assembling a sovereign state, member in good standing or not, will those peoples' aspirations be rewarded. Only when states parties are in mutual agreement will UN mediation have value. And, to the chagrin of those who misunderstand its structure and role, only when member states choose to use force or the ultimate threat of force (however remote) to ensure compliance will its jaw-jaw resolutions be attended.

There are often proposals in a Rooseveltian Four-Freedoms vein (or a Kennanesque Cold War alliance vein) which resemble a "United Democratic Nations", i.e. those nations with a full-on democratic system and political and civil freedoms. But the UN itself would still need to exist; if it didn't, we would have to invent something like it. It's just too damn useful to one or the other government, as cover for action or inaction, as a venue for impotent protest, as a false front of power and peer acceptance. A UDN, once constituted with enforceable provisions, could go its own way and embarrassingly eject certain members (e.g. the US, on death penalty or electoral college objections), which would severely limit its own utility to member governments. And in any case, entities like NATO and the G-7 came close enough to embodying whatever practical value such a UDN might have.

In the middle term (out to 2050 or so), I see regional trade blocs such as the EU or ASEAN having more and more importance. In the longer term, experiments such as the somewhat unlikely African Union will lurch precipitously toward collapse or constitutional federation. I don't know that I would bet on a one-world government at this point.
posted by dhartung at 11:53 PM on November 11, 2002

Dhartung, great response. But...


Brazil makes sense economically, or perhaps Mexico, but neither plays a leadership role in Latin American politics.

Sorry, beg to differ. Those are in fact the two leading political powers in Latin America. Mexico yes has been frustrated with Bush's sudden change of focus post 9.11, but still is working under Fox to move past its historic Estrada doctrine (non-intervention) to play a much more dynamic role in regional affairs. For example, hosting the Hemispheric Security Conference (OAS) next year...

Brazil is perhaps even more proactive internationally (regionally more than anything), having been the driving force behind the establishment of MERCOSUR and now playing the counterweight to the U.S. in FTAA discussions...

posted by Kneebiter at 7:21 AM on November 12, 2002

Nice analysis, dhartung; love the complete absence of romanticism. :) Yes, the colonial nationalist ideal at the heart of the UN *is* outmoded, or soon will be, as large-scale economic alliances take center stage. But the blocs won't all be defined regionally; the US-Caspian bloc now in its early stages will probably end up wielding a lot of economic weight.

That said, I don't think the security council veto issue is the "red herring" you made it out to be (i.e., something that draws attention away from the central issue). The veto sits right at the heart of the realpolitik inherent in the UN's structure. How *do* we create a world body that's representative of population, values democracy over despotism *and* takes into account the problems (including stateless peoples) left to us by colonial map-makers? Is such a thing possible? Is it valuable?

I don't claim to have the answers, but the current three-tier system does seem to me to be a not-very-effective way to organize a group whose stated purpose is promoting peace, progress and respect for international law and human rights. I'm sure the conflict resolution and management literatures are full of possible solutions that aren't rooted in the structure of the world as it was 50 years ago. *shrugs* Exploring those possibilities doesn't seem like poking at a red herring to me.

And btw, I think it's blatantly obvious that the "remote" threat of force - including, I'd suggest, economic force - is what gives UN resolutions whatever power they have. I don't see how anyone could possibly disagree with that, nor have I ever seen anyone try.

One last thing re: population trends. One source I read recently claimed that if you use the number of citizens to determine Security Council membership and limit each continent to only one permanent seat, by 2050 the 5 members with veto power would be the US, China, the EU, Brazil and Nigeria. It's impossible to predict what the world will look like in 2050, of course, but a Security Council like that doesn't seem to me a whole lot worse than the current one.
posted by mediareport at 12:02 AM on November 13, 2002

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