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Learning to Live with a Limited Security Council
Learning to Live with a Limited Security Council
General view of the UN Security Council room during a meeting over the situation in the Middle East on 18 December 2017, at UN Headquarters in New York. KENA BETANCUR / AFP
Commentary / Global

Learning to Live with a Limited Security Council

The UN Security Council has passed through periods of inaction before, but in recent years it seems unusually restrained. Major power politics are only one reason why. It may be time to accept that the body – while still useful – has built-in limits.

Over the last half-year, both the UN Security Council’s potential and its limitations as a channel for crisis management in an era of major power rivalries have come into sharper focus. From 2017 to this January, former President Donald Trump’s administration created a good deal of confusion in and around the UN: under Trump, the U.S. veered between ignoring the Council over many crises and taking a deliberately disruptive stance over others. This mercurial approach frustrated U.S. allies, encouraged China and Russia to take a tougher line in debates over difficult situations, such as in Syria and Venezuela, and made it hard to think clearly about the Council’s longer-term future as a mechanism for addressing conflicts.

By contrast, President Joe Biden promised to restore Washington’s credibility at the UN, and his administration has succeeded at least in restoring discipline and order to U.S. diplomacy in Turtle Bay. Council members note with relief that their U.S. counterparts are vastly more civil and better organised than in the Trump era. The U.S. has probed China and Russia’s willingness to compromise on problems from the war in the Ethiopian region of Tigray to humanitarian assistance to Syria, dropping the confrontational rhetoric that marred UN debates in 2020.

Council members’ collective ambition to play a significant role in crisis management appears to be shrinking.

The U.S. re-engagement has allowed observers to discern how far the major powers in the Council are willing to go to make the body work. The results have been at best mixed, reflecting deep-seated divisions among the body’s members that cannot be bridged through atmospherics or professionalism alone. The U.S. and its rivals can still work together on crisis management through the Council, but the space to do so is narrow. Council members’ collective ambition to play a significant role in crisis management appears to be shrinking for reasons that go beyond big power friction, with diplomats often investing a lot of energy in debates over issues – such as whether to make press statements on particular crises – with low-stakes outcomes.

A Push for Products

Despite promising that “multilateralism is back”, Biden and his ambassador in New York, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, have remained circumspect about what Council diplomacy can achieve. During the presidential transition in late 2020 and early 2021, U.S. planners worked up ideas for a bold set of early initiatives at the UN, including a broad Council resolution on coordinating international efforts to combat COVID-19. Once in office, Thomas-Greenfield and her staff put these aspirations aside. While the U.S. held the rotating Security Council presidency in March, it laid out a modest agenda with few flagship events on global issues other than one on conflict and famine (perhaps because the ambassador’s nomination was delayed in the Senate, complicating planning, and because the UK had already convened discussions of the coronavirus and climate security in February).

Instead, the new U.S. team has focused on the Council’s response to specific crises, such as those in Myanmar and Tigray. On arriving in New York, Thomas-Greenfield seemed keen to secure as many “Council products” (UN parlance for statements and resolutions) about these emergencies as possible. The Trump administration had little time for such multilateral verbiage. Thomas-Greenfield, by contrast, seems to see negotiating such products as a way to show that the Council can function effectively. In February and March, the U.S. backed British efforts to hammer out with China a series of Council statements challenging the coup in Myanmar. Thomas-Greenfield also made producing a press statement on the worsening humanitarian situation in Tigray – first floated by Ireland – a personal priority, telling her counterparts that this case is a test of whether or not the Council genuinely cares about African lives.

In less emotive terms, the emphasis on negotiating Council products has also been a test of how far China and Russia – both notoriously loath to make statements they see as interfering in other countries’ internal affairs – are willing to go in finding common ground with the West. The Chinese and Russians have played along, but only up to a point. Beijing and Moscow agreed to sign off on UN statements on Myanmar in the immediate aftermath of the 1 February coup, when the situation on the ground was unclear. But China often distanced itself from these statements after the fact, while Russia openly courted the military authorities in Naypyitaw. The two powers also grudgingly responded to Thomas-Greenfield’s push for a statement on Tigray in April, though they insisted that it omit reference to key factors in the conflict, such as Eritrea’s role in the fighting.

While making minor concessions on these files, China and Russia have made clear that they intend no deference to U.S. wishes to be the natural leader at the UN. When President Biden held an online meeting with Security Council ambassadors in March, the Russian permanent representative pointedly did not participate. China used its Security Council presidency in May to hold a series of far-ranging debates on issues including the nature of multilateralism, peacekeeper safety and the causes of conflict in Africa. Like most thematic debates in the Council, these were for the most part forgettable. But in packing the agenda in this way, Beijing signalled that it has its own intellectual and normative agenda for the UN, regardless of what Washington’s positions might be.

A Place for Pragmatism

Despite this diplomatic posturing, the Biden administration’s pragmatic approach to negotiations has delivered concrete results elsewhere, notably over Libya and Syria.

The Libyan file had become particularly toxic in the Security Council in 2019 and 2020, as the U.S. and Russia traded barbs over the role of Russian private military contractors in the conflict. After UN mediators unexpectedly succeeded in crafting a ceasefire among the Libyan factions in October, Council members released a press statement welcoming the news but chose not to negotiate a resolution endorsing the agreement, which could have become a diplomatic quagmire. By contrast, the Biden administration pushed for the rapid adoption of a resolution authorising a ceasefire monitoring mechanism in early 2021, temporarily putting the military contractor issue to one side. Council diplomats who had sat through the previous years’ grinding talks about Libya described a certain shock at this new U.S. pragmatism.

Council members also testify to a step-change in U.S. diplomacy over humanitarian issues in Syria between 2020 and 2021. For the last two years, Russia has been pushing for the Council to terminate a mandate established in 2014 for UN agencies to deliver aid to rebel-held areas of Syria without permission from Damascus. While European members of the Council fought to keep at least elements of the mandate alive, the Trump administration invested little in the issue. By contrast, the Biden administration launched a full-court press to keep the humanitarian arrangement alive.

At first, Biden’s team seemed inclined to take a confrontational approach to the issue. While UN agencies have been able to use only one crossing into the rebel enclave of Idlib since mid-2020, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Council in March that the U.S. wanted two more checkpoints opened. Some European diplomats fretted that Russia would counter this move by vetoing the aid mandate’s renewal in July.

In reality, the U.S. was again willing to look for compromise with Russia. In the run-up to Biden’s summit with President Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June, U.S. and Russian officials hashed out a draft deal endorsing two crossings – one into Idlib and one into north-eastern Syria – that U.S. diplomats hoped the two leaders might accept on the spot. They did not do so (it remains unclear if the Russians were genuinely undecided on their final position at that time or if U.S. officials were simply too optimistic). Washington eventually had to settle for a one-year renewal of the Idlib crossing, conditional on a report from the UN Secretary-General on aid issues in January 2022. If the administration had hoped for more, this result was better than the humanitarian regime’s complete collapse, which many UN officials and Council diplomats had thought quite likely at the start of 2021.

Russia and China are still willing to parley on some prominent crises through the Council.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield framed this outcome as proof positive that Russia and the U.S. can still cooperate through the UN. Putting the Syrian process alongside the Council’s discussions of Tigray, Myanmar and Libya, it is possible to see a diplomatic pattern emerging. The Biden administration and its allies have found that Russia and China are still willing to parley on some prominent crises through the Council, though they are open to only minimal compromises in most cases.

Red Lines and Restraints

In parallel, the Biden administration has demonstrated that its own willingness to work through the Security Council has limits.

The U.S. refused to let the Council make even a pro forma statement of concern during the flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence in May. While Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield was reportedly keen to get a statement out as the conflict escalated – and China, Norway and Tunisia tabled a series of drafts – the White House insisted that the Council stay quiet while Egyptian and U.S. officials worked for calm behind the scenes. Council members say this episode dented the new administration’s credibility, making it a little harder for U.S. diplomats to argue for further products on crises elsewhere.

In some other crises, the U.S. has taken an ambivalent approach to the UN, aiming to harness the organisation’s diplomatic capabilities without getting bogged down in difficult Security Council debates. Such is the case in Yemen – where the U.S. pledged to offer enhanced support to UN peacemaking soon after Biden’s inauguration, without referring to the Council – and in Afghanistan. In the latter case, Washington asked UN Secretary-General António Guterres to appoint a representative to help with regional diplomacy aimed at saving the faltering Afghan peace process. The U.S. again saw no need for the Council to endorse this proposal, perhaps wishing to avoid tricky discussions with India, China and Russia in New York.

There are, therefore, limits to both the Biden administration’s commitment to the Security Council and other powers’ commitment to working with Washington. In many ways, this situation is business as usual. The U.S., like other powers, has always taken a selective and instrumental approach to the Council, and it has never been able to rely on the body’s automatic support. Even in the immediate post-Cold War period, when Washington’s dominance at the UN was uncontested, Beijing and Moscow – and, at times, allies like Paris – were unwilling to back U.S. positions on Kosovo and Iraq. Today’s UN debates on the Middle East are in fact less heated, and less consequential, than those that split the Council over Syria and Libya a decade ago.

Indeed, the stakes have been notably low in much recent Security Council diplomacy. Some of the most sensitive debates of the last half-year have involved haggling over products, like press statements, that have no substantive force, such as over Tigray and Myanmar. Even the humanitarian regime for Syria, although a lifeline for millions, is only a conflict mitigation measure. The Council’s direct support for the Libyan ceasefire, involving the deployment of monitors, was quite modest. Council members’ collective desire to deploy the stronger tools at its disposal, such as arms embargoes and large new peace operations, seems to be in decline. In early July, when Haitian authorities called on the UN to send military forces following President Jovenel Moïse’s murder, Council members including the U.S. responded unenthusiastically.

Other Impediments to Action

There are a number of reasons for this apparent lack of drive, and they do not all stem from major power politics. Many Council members have, for example, grown weary of big blue helmet missions after watching UN forces struggle to stabilise tough environments such as Darfur and Mali. The Council is still working out if and how it can withdraw its forces from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo without sparking new instability (these processes occasionally create tensions in the Council, but rarely on the scale of Libya and Syria). Secretary-General Guterres, a peacekeeping sceptic, would like regional organisations such as the African Union to take on more of these security tasks while the UN retrenches.

Meanwhile, many members of the Security Council other than China, Russia and the U.S. have been keen to place restraints on the body’s engagement with emerging crises. While African members of the Council (Kenya, Niger and Tunisia) worked with Ireland on the Council’s statement on Tigray, they have been wary of exerting pressure on Addis Ababa. In May and June, these “A3” countries were even opposed to holding a public Council meeting on Tigray, infuriating their U.S. counterparts (the standoff was resolved when the Tigrayan Defence Forces launched an offensive that even recalcitrant members could not ignore). In Myanmar’s case, India and Vietnam joined China in urging a cautious UN response after the coup in February. The Council has committed to backing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ slow-moving efforts to address the crisis, halting discussions of stronger measures like an arms embargo against the military.

If the Council has not delivered much on many current crises, it has at least avoided making many worse.

Western diplomats sometimes grumble about the Council’s failure to take more decisive action but are also happy to minimise confrontation. French officials in particular cite the Trump administration’s approach to the Venezuelan crisis at the UN – which involved grandstanding that rendered substantive interaction impossible – as an example of bad multilateral diplomacy. If the Council has not delivered much on many current crises, it has at least avoided making many worse.

Major power rivalries are thus just one among a number of constraints on the Security Council. It does not help that leaders in every Council member’s capital are more focused on COVID-19 and domestic economic conditions than the finer points of UN talks. The lack of UN ambition on many crises has been a source of frustration to many observers in New York and beyond. The UN General Assembly has convened in 2021 to criticise the Council’s inaction over both Myanmar and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (although in the former case, Assembly members then got mired in a rambling months-long negotiation of their own over a draft resolution). Burmese civil society activists have vainly pleaded for the UN to authorise a military intervention to reverse the coup. Seen from afar, the Council’s investment in producing statements looks decidedly paltry.

It may be time for both the Council’s members and outside observers to accept its limitations. The body still has its important uses, whether as a space for the U.S. and its rivals to find devices to ease tensions over escalating crises or as a forum for agreeing upon humanitarian mechanisms for mitigating conflicts. In cases such as Libya, the Council can step up to endorse political deals made elsewhere. It is also a platform for states to boost international debate about emerging security threats. Estonia, an elected Council member in 2020-2021, has used its term smartly to focus on cyber-threats. There is a reasonable chance that, with U.S. support, the Council may pass a resolution calling on the UN to work harder on climate security issues later this year, although China, India and Russia need to be persuaded to support the draft or abstain.

But it is prudent to assume that the Council’s response to most significant new crises will be muted. This prediction may prove very wrong. The Council has swung between inaction and high levels of activity in the past, as at the end of the Cold War, and it may do so again. There is no shortage of escalating conflicts, from Ethiopia to Afghanistan, that the Council will have to tackle one way or another. In September, before the annual high-level session of the General Assembly, we at Crisis Group will publish our own list of situations where the UN can still make an impact. But the Council’s limitations are real and firmly rooted, and, despite the Biden administration’s re-engagement at the UN, there is no easy way to overcome them.