The fitful Palestinian approach to the U.N. Security Council will be, as all have known for a long time, stillborn. The near certainty of a U.S. veto in defense of Israeli interests has made the Palestinian gambit for statehood recognition more about ritual symbolism than any real process. This when, according to a BBC poll, the majority of global public opinion is firmly behind recognizing a separate, sovereign Palestinian state. The U.S. veto, wielded in opposition to a generally-held international consensus, is then perhaps the most unilateral gesture one can make at the world’s most multilateral institution.
Why in the 21st century should anybody still have the right to do this?
Sure, the veto came into existence in large part to persuade some of the 20th century’s great powers to commit to the United Nations and its structures. It made sure that countries as mighty as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could exert their muscle diplomatically rather than elsewhere—in the U.N.’s six decades of existence, the veto has been invoked almost 300 times.
But the world is far different than what it was at the end of World War Two and the U.N.’s major decision-making body—the Security Council with its five veto-wielding permanent members — is a reflection of a long-lapsed status quo. It’s possibly the most glaring anachronism in international affairs.
Do the U.K. and France—shorn of their empires, great armies and mired in debt-ridden Europe—really both deserve vetoes? If Russia is a permanent member now, why isn’t India, with its far larger population and more dynamic economy? And what about Japan and Germany, two of the world’s most important economies, still kept at arm’s length in this forum because of their being on the losing side of a war fought some seven decades ago. There’s no shortage of nits to pick.
But Security Council reform is hardly a new issue, and the U.N. itself has spent years wrangling over the process. The most realistic option, it seems, is to expand the number of permanent members on the Council, but not grant them the veto-wielding status. This opens a new can of worms. How large do you make the Council? And who gets to be anointed as a permanent member? In every single region, there would be claims and counter-claims. A bid by Brazil could be rivaled by Argentina. Primacy in Africa would be wrangled between South Africa and Nigeria, with a number of Francophone nations looking on nonplussed. That’s why the Obama Administration’s recent declaration of support for India’s place as a permanent member of the Security Council, while welcome in India, was something of an easy —if not totally empty — gesture to make. One can expect the Pakistanis and a number of other nations in the region to put up one hell of a fuss if such a proposal ever moved forward.
There’s a consensus that the Council must be reformed for the U.N. to not lose its legitimacy, but there’s a startling lack of will to get the process of reform into gear. And, ultimately, as long as the veto-wielding powers keep their vetoes, much of the underlying facts on the ground won’t change. Those who defend the veto argue that, without it, international governance would be far more unpredictable and chaotic. But with it the U.N. is becoming more and more irrelevant, with geo-politicking transpiring in other, more nimble multinational institutions and groupings like the BRICS or the G20. As many have already forecast, the coming decades will be all about how the world manages the effects of the ebbing Pax Americana that stretched across the 20th century into our present. Multilateralism and multipolarity will be the wonky watchwords of the day. It’s up to the U.N. to truly reflect that status quo, rather than one long consigned to the history books.