The UN Security Council in the New Era of Great Power Competition
The UN Security Council in the New Era of Great Power Competition
US Administration official shows aerial views of one of the Cuban medium-range missile bases, taken in October 1962, to the members of the United Nations Security Council, at the request of Mr Stevenson (R), US ambassador to the UN. AFP
US Administration official shows aerial views of one of the Cuban medium-range missile bases, taken in October 1962, to the members of the United Nations Security Council, at the request of Mr Stevenson (R), US ambassador to the UN. AFP
Speech / Global 6 minutes

The UN Security Council in the New Era of Great Power Competition

This paper was shared at a symposium on “The Past and Future of the United Nations Organization” hosted by the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London on 30 May 2024.

Great power tensions are reshaping the UN Security Council, but it is not clear whether the Council will crumble or successfully adapt to the new era of competition. Some analysts believe that the Council is already “all but paralyzed” by tensions between the P5. This is not entirely fair, as the Council does still manage to sustain a variety of peacekeeping forces and sanctions regimes. But it is certainly true that the Council has failed to respond effectively to recent major conflicts including those in Myanmar, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Sudan and Gaza. These may be symptoms of a downward spiral, and that the Council will become increasingly divided and ineffectual.

An alternative reading of the situation is that, while great power competition inevitably narrows opportunities for cooperation at the UN, the Council may retain residual value as a space for the P5 to talk and bargain in the (limited) range of cases where their interests still overlap. As David Bosco has argued “the Council provides a mechanism through which the permanent members have slowed the pace of crises that might threaten their relations, used ambiguity to produce exits from potentially dangerous situations, and mitigated diplomatic humiliation”. In this vein I suggested in 2018 that the Council might gain “renewed geopolitical prominence” in a period of worsening international relations, as a venue of the last resort for the P5 to make compromises.

Recent Trends in P5 Relations

In the period since Russia’s all-out aggression against Ukraine, there has been some evidence that the Council can play this “venue of the last resort” function – but also signs that this will be hard to sustain. From February 2022 to approximately May 2023, it was notable that while Russia and the Western powers argued furiously over Ukraine in the Council and other UN forums, they also managed to find grudging compromises on most other files. Moscow only used its veto on two non-Ukraine related issues in this period. At times China appears to have played a moderating role, urging the Russians to avoid disruption. U.S. and Chinese officials also had frank exchanges about how to limit the fallout of the Russian-Ukrainian war on their relationship at the UN.

Since the middle of last year, however, Russia has become notably less willing to compromise – and the Chinese have been either less willing or less able to restrain the Russians. Since June 2023, Russia has (i) used its leverage in the Council to back a demand by the military junta in Mali that UN peacekeepers withdraw from the country; (ii) vetoed the continuation of a mandate for UN agencies to deliver aid to non-government-controlled north west Syria; and (iii) blocked the renewal of the mandate for a panel of experts monitoring the implementation of sanctions on North Korea. While Chinese officials expressed some concern in each case, they did little to alter Russia’s behaviour. In the North Korean case, the U.S., Japan and South Korea appear to have made a direct appeal to the Chinese for help, but the Chinese said they lacked leverage over Russia.

[Russia] is now using its veto for tactical reasons to help its friends and clients.

There are a variety of explanations for the shift in Russian behaviour. One is that it is now using its veto for tactical reasons to help its friends and clients – such as Mali, Syria and DPRK – as opportunities arise. Another is that Russia is systematically using its veto and the other tools at its disposal at the UN as a means to discomfort the West on issues where Moscow was once willing to compromise. Michael Kimmage and Hannah Notte note that, in addition to deploying the veto, “Russian diplomats have been creative in causing paralysis, tabling text to compete with Western resolutions and causing procedural hiccups”. A third analysis is that Russia, which long prized its status in the Council as proof of its great power status, is no longer convinced that the Council serves its interests. Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin warns that “the Ukraine war has come to dominate the UNSC’s agenda, turning the Council into a rhetorical battleground and propaganda platform, leaving little time and will to deal constructively with other global issues”.

China’s behaviour is also open to differing interpretations. One is that it would broadly prefer a decent degree of cooperation with the U.S. and its allies at the UN, but is genuinely struggling to influence an erratic Russia. An alternative take is that China is happy to see Russia challenge the West, but prefers to hang back itself, and that its recent passivity may be a matter of design.

Geopolitical tensions have also affected Council diplomacy over the war between Israel and Hamas. The U.S. use of its veto to protect Israel in the Council has frustrated the bulk of UN members, although it is broadly in line with U.S. behaviour at the UN over the Middle East in the post-Cold War era. Russia has exploited this opportunity – looking to force the U.S. into vetoes and hammering American representatives for “double standards” from early in the war – to a degree that has made Arab diplomats uncomfortable. While China has been less forceful in its criticism of the U.S. over Gaza, the Council currently looks less like a space for the P5 to “mitigate diplomatic humiliations”, and more like a stage for them to try to humiliate one another.

Despite the negative trends of the last year, it is worth noting that the Council does still transact business on other files where the P5’s core interests are not at stake. The Council passed nearly 50 resolutions in 2023 for all its apparent dysfunction, and has tried to innovate on issues including stabilising Haiti and establishing new arrangements for the UN to fund peace enforcement operations led by the African Union. China and Russia (and on Gaza, the U.S.) now often abstain on resolutions that they do not fully agree with. This weakens the political credibility of those resolutions, but can still be seen as a form of (minimal and ill-tempered) cooperation.

Future Scenarios

What comes next? It is possible to envisage three scenarios (I exclude, for the time being, a big power war, which would presumably wreck the UN and the prospect of Security Council reform, which is sadly marginally less easy to envisage than big power war). One option is that the Council’s current state is a sustainable “new normal” and that it will bump along overseeing a reduced but still significant portfolio of peace operations, mediation efforts and the like in areas where P5 interests are limited. A second is that Russia’s appetite for disruption will increase, with or without Chinese support, and the Council will struggle to maintain its current level of global activities. One likely side effect of the Council bumping along or declining further is for middle and small powers to look for alternative venues such as the General Assembly to discuss peace and security.

A third option is that P5 relations will stabilise and perhaps improve. Should Donald Trump win the U.S. elections, for example, and reduce support for Ukraine, there might be an opening for better Russian-American relations in the Security Council. This would, however, likely come at a severe cost to Ukraine and in parallel with the potential erosion of NATO.

The Council has gone through periods of profound P5 division before – starting in the 1940s – and nonetheless recovered. In the current environment, it would be unreasonable to believe that the Council will see the sort of great power cooperation of the immediate post-Cold War era. Many UN officials and diplomats expect the Council to return to something closer to its Cold War self: a space for sporadic but useful cooperation among the great powers. The P5 – and above all the U.S., China and Russia – have a choice. They can use the Security Council solely as a stage for political theatre, or preserve it as a safety valve that they can use, albeit intermittently, in a period of high tensions. We do not know which they will choose.

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