Analysis: U.S. seeks to expand developing world’s influence at United Nations

The United Nations headquarters is seen during the 75th annual U.N. General Assembly high-level debate, which is being held mostly virtually due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in New York, U.S., September 21, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

The Biden administration is developing plans for overhauling the U.N. Security Council, an initiative that U.S. officials hope will restore confidence in the world’s preeminent governance body by recognizing today’s diffuse map of global power.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President Biden’s envoy to the United Nations, is consulting with diplomats from the organization’s 193 member states to solicit feedback about a potential expansion of the powerful council ahead of world leaders’ annual gathering in New York this fall.

The evolving U.S. proposal, which is expected to include the addition of up to six permanent seats to the council without granting those nations veto power, reflects Biden’s desire to acknowledge the developing world’s growing clout and to address widespread frustration with the council’s current members and their inability to stanch global conflicts, particularly the war in Ukraine.

Since the creation of the United Nations after World War II, the United States, France, Britain, China and the Soviet Union – later Russia – have wielded veto power on issues of war and peace as the Security Council’s five permanent members. The council’s rotating membership element lacks such authority.

Biden is pushing for reform despite established powers’ reluctance to cede their traditional sway and although Washington faces acute challenges in forging any consensus in an increasingly fractured world. The stakes are high as his administration seeks to ensure that the United Nations remains a central tool for preventing wars, even as doubt grows about its ability to do so.

Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, said the Security Council has fallen short of its mandate. “But the more the U.N. declines,” he said, “the more fragmented, the more regionalized and the more competitive the world will become.”

Biden announced his support for adding new permanent seats to the council, including spots for African and Latin American nations, at the U.N. General Assembly gathering in September.

“The time has come for this institution to become more inclusive,” Biden told assembled leaders. He also called on fellow permanent members of the Security Council to limit the use of their veto power to “rare, extraordinary situations.”

His message came at a moment of spiraling criticism over the United Nations’ response to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, as Russia used its veto power on the council to block measures that would have required the withdrawal of its forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose country has long maintained that Russia improperly inherited its Security Council seat after the collapse of the Soviet Union, called for the United Nations to restrain Moscow or be dissolved.

Since Biden’s declaration, officials have scrambled to develop a detailed proposal they can use to advance his objectives.

A senior U.S. official, who like others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomatic discussions, said the administration, led by Thomas-Greenfield, is trying to “forge some consensus on a sensible, credible proposal that could actually succeed and achieve reform.”

U.S. officials have linked the effort to a broader attempt to modernize what they see as unwieldy global bodies, including financial institutions such as the World Bank, and promote more effective management not only of security issues but also of challenges including climate change and global health threats.

“We want these institutions to work so that we can debate and try to resolve international conflicts,” the official said. “We have to be clear-eyed about the success or lack of success that we’ve had over the years, but there’s no question that we’re better off with these institutions than without them.”

The Security Council’s power rests in its ability to approve resolutions that are binding, unlike those passed by the U.N. General Assembly. In addition to the five permanent seats, the council includes 10 nonpermanent members elected to two-year terms.

Leading developing nations including Brazil and India have long sought changes to the council because, they argue, it fails to represent the views and interests of the Global South – Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Ronaldo Costa Filho, Brazil’s outgoing ambassador to the United Nations, said the council’s problems go far beyond those that have been evident since the start of the Ukraine war, a destructive event he called a “symptom of a process of fragmentation of the international order.”

“We all have a vested interest in ensuring that the institutions of multilateralism, which have served us really very well over the past almost 80 years, do not fall by the wayside,” Costa Filho said. “Reform of the council, to me, is key in ensuring that the Global South feels it has a significant stake in preserving the system.”

As Thomas-Greenfield conducts her quiet consultations, the Biden administration has yet to put forward a specific proposal for reform. But Washington has previously signaled support for adding Germany, Japan and India as permanent members, officials say. France and Britain have meanwhile advocated permanent seats for Germany, Japan and India, plus Brazil and at least one African nation.

Left unsaid as Biden heralded U.S. support for council expansion last year was the fact that, according to U.S. and U.N. officials, the United States does not back granting veto power to any new permanent members. That position ensures that if reform is achieved, it would grant additional countries the clout of permanent council seats without diluting current members’ veto power.

“Any reform of the Security Council may well reduce the weight of the West. So this is a reality,” a U.N. diplomat said. “And the question is, are we really pushing for that now? Is it just nice rhetoric that we want to do this, or are we really serious when we say we want to do it now?”

The proposal comes as the war in Ukraine, along with increasing challenges from Russia and China, illustrate the changing nature of U.S. ties with the developing world. While Biden has boasted of building a Western coalition that has imposed sanctions on Russia and funneled weapons to Ukraine, some nations, including Brazil, India and South Africa, have maintained economic or military ties with Moscow, and many smaller developing nations have stayed on the sidelines.

While there is broad consensus that the Security Council must be changed, there is sharp disagreement on how. Since its inception, the council has been altered only once, when four nonpermanent seats were added in the 1960s. More recent attempts to modify the body have foundered.

Barbara Woodward, Britain’s ambassador, said now is the time for reform. “We must respond to Russia’s egregious use of the veto to protect itself, and update the council’s membership to give a wider, more diverse range of countries a voice,” she said.

Nicolas de Rivière, France’s representative to the United Nations, said his country’s position was clear. “We need to have a body which is the strongest governance institution in the world, which reflects the world of today, not the world of yesterday,” he said.

Any update would require approval of at least 128 of 193 member states and, because it would entail changes to the U.N. charter, ratification by all permanent Security Council members. That would mean sending the changes to the U.S. Senate for passage, where, in Gowan’s words, it would “perform about as well as a snowball in hell.”

The Biden administration also must navigate a host of competing proposals that illustrate the complexity of global coalition-building for any cause. A “Uniting for Consensus” proposal – backed by countries including Italy, Argentina, South Korea and Pakistan that could lose out to regional rivals in the French- and British-supported plans – would add nonpermanent seats but no new permanent members.

“This is undemocratic; it is unequal; it is contrary to the principle of sovereign equality of states which is part of the [U.N.] charter,” said Munir Akram, Pakistan’s representative. Pakistan particularly opposes the appointment of its adversary India as a permanent member.

“We don’t think that it is a good principle that you put a country permanently on the Security Council, because then it is not held accountable for the way it behaves,” Akram said.

Such countries point out that economic and political dynamics continue to evolve, meaning that the Global South countries that carry the biggest weight today may be different in the future.

African nations, which make up nearly 30 percent of U.N. members, have demanded two permanent seats with veto rights for the continent but have not identified which countries those would be.

Russia and China also have voiced nominal backing for expansion, although analysts say that Beijing, hoping to block Japan’s bid for a seat, is unlikely ultimately to provide the required support. The Russian and Chinese governments did not respond to requests for comment.

Gowan noted that the council, where Washington has also faced criticism over its repeated veto of measures critical of ally Israel, had remained a key venue for decisions such as those enabling aid deliveries in Syria and voicing global opposition to the Taliban’s restriction of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.

Diplomats say that not even Security Council reform, if it can be achieved, is likely to quell mounting calls from developing countries to address historical inequities, including their demands that major industrialized nations, which have been most responsible for global warming, increase their funding for climate remediation in the Global South.

“It’s very difficult to explain to [developing nations], ‘We’ll move on everything except on your priorities,'” the U.N. diplomat said. “So we need to move on everything, including – and maybe starting with – the Security Council, because otherwise it’s unfair.”



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