This week (even if getting a bit of a late start) the blog turns to the shape of international institutions and organizations looking ahead to 2030. This first post starts with a consideration of the future of the United Nations Security Council, while subsequent discussion will examine other institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank. I look forward to a robust discussion.
The Shape of the Security Council in 2030
By William Burke-White
Following the approach of the Global Trends 2030 Report, let us consider three possible scenarios for the Shape of the Security Council in 2030. The first, Stasis, assumes that, in light of the background trends presented in the Global Trends Report, the Council remains essentially unchanged over the next 18 years. The second, the most optimistic but perhaps least likely scenario, termed Reform and Reinvigoration, considers the possibility of meaningful reform of the Security Council and a new role it could play in the global order. The final scenario, termed Crisis and [Reform] or Collapse, explores the possibility of Council confronting or, perhaps, failing to confront, a global crisis and either reforming or rapidly losing its legitimacy and effectiveness.
Assume for a moment that the membership of the UN Security Council, with the US, UK, France, Russia, and China as permanent members and a rotating cast of non-permanent members remains unchanged. In the short term, such stasis is actually relatively favorable to the United States, given both the US veto power and the relative ease of finding 8 concurrent votes when needed to pass a resolution. As a result, the US will likely continue to look to the Council as the primary institution of global governance, at least in the security area. Today, the Council is relatively effective in part because it is still seen as legitimate in the eyes of most states due to its legal grounding in the UN Charter and, in part, because it is able to, at least some of the time, deliver results. Active US commitment, along with support from European states, can maintain the Council’s role for some time, though not indefinitely.
In light however, of the diffusions of power, the rise of regional institutions and groupings, and greater role asserted by newcomers to the tables of global influence – all explored in detail in the Global Trends 2030 report—both the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Security Council will likely decline over time. Without meaningful reform of membership and operating practices, by 2030 the number of states that respect the Council’s decisions as legally binding and authoritative is likely to decline. Neither the political bargain of 1945 nor the Charter’s legal status can carry that legitimacy indefinitely. While lack of reform will, obviously, challenge the Council’s legitimacy, so too will it undermine the Council’s effectiveness. With a diffusion of economic and military power to new states and non-state actors, an ever smaller share of global power, influence, and economic might will be represented on the Council, limiting its ability to deliver results. Simultaneously, the growing role of regional organizations and new regional groupings and the potential of the G20 (at least in the international economic arena) or other ad hoc coalitions of states suggest the likelihood of the continued rise of alternative fora for the coordination (if not legitimation) of global or regional action. And if not embraced by new powers, an active US commitment to the Council could well lead to a backlash from states seeking greater voice at the highest tables.
In this context, stasis will likely lead to an ever shrinking role for the Security Council by 2030. The Council would, of course, continue to meet and would, presumably, carry on a relatively robust agenda. But, the weight of its resolutions would decline and the Council’s ability o deliver on its promises would wither. Under the stasis scenario, by 2030, we would likely see a Security Council that is little more than a “talking shop” in New York, ever-more disconnected from political realities and certainly not the source of solutions to collective global challenges.
Reform and Reinvigoration
Today’s Security Council is, obviously, a product of the 1945 world order. With the Council’s membership and authorities embedded in the UN Charter itself, change is difficult—some might even say impossible. Amendment of the Charter presents a rather extraordinary political and legal challenge. For every state with a claim to a permanent seat on the Council, there is another with equal, if not stronger, opposition. Notwithstanding President Obama’s statements in India and Brazil over the past two years, supporting both countries’ claims to a permanent seat on the Council, there is a dearth of global political leadership driving Council reform forward. Moreover, even if an international agreement on Council reform were reached, the domestic politics of ratification of such an amendment (particularly, though not exclusively, in the United States) make reform all the more unlikely.
Setting aside clear and, perhaps, overwhelming challenges (a subsequent post will consider a possible political path toward reform), lets assume for a moment that reform were possible. What would the shape of such a reformed Council look like? Presumably, the Council would include as permanent members Brazil, China, India, Japan, Russia, the US, one or more European states, and one or more African states. Various formulations have been put forward for the exact allocation of those seats, the status of the veto, and changes to the Council’s non-permanent members. Whichever such formulation is ultimately adopted, the inclusion of these new rising powers will be essential to the Council’s effectiveness.
The inclusion of rising (or, by 2030, fully risen) powers as permanent members of the Council may not, however, be sufficient to preserve or reinvigorate the Council’s legitimacy. With political and economic power continuing to become more diffuse, an ever-greater number of states—far more than could reasonably be accommodated even in an enlarged Council—will demand (and likely have a valid claim to) global voice. The processes of non-permanent membership in the Council will have to come to reflect that diffusion of power.
Perhaps even more critical will be the inclusion of global voice beyond the nation state. As showcased in the Global Trends 2030 report, power and influence will continue to reach above and below the nation state by 2030. And while the UN is, and presumably will remain, the exclusive domain of states, reform will have to include new ways of reaching out to and partnering with a growing array of non-state actors—individuals, NGOs, INGOs, regional organizations, and cooprations. Their inclusion, not as members of the Council themselves, but as key partners in its work can go far to addressing the democratic deficit so well documented in the Global Trends report and to enhancing the Council’s effectiveness as its work within states, rather than just between them, continues to grow.
Ultimately, for the Council to ensure its long-term survival as the primary institution of global political governance, new states – beyond the US and Europe – will need to turn to it in times of need and as their roles in collective problem solving expand. Similarly, it will have to develop new-tools, likely rooted in partnerships beyond just with states, to respond to global threats and challenges. Such reinvigoration is only possible with a reformed Council that reflects new power distributions among and beyond states.
Crisis and [Reform or] Collapse
A third possibility for the Security Council by 2030 is crisis followed by collapse or, perhaps, reform. Should a crisis of extraordinary magnitude come to the Council and the Council fails to address it, the UN may face a true test of its legitimacy and effectiveness. As we saw so evidently in 2008 and 2009 when the global financial crisis gave rise to the G-20 as the preeminent forum for international economic cooperation, such moments present opportunities for institutional reform, but can also serve as the death-blow to institutions whose ineffectiveness is exposed for all to see. Given the challenges of Security Council reform, it is likely that a crisis of extraordinary magnitude may be necessary to galvanize the political will to actually drive Council reform forward.
Yet, while in the most optimistic scenario, such a crisis could be the catalyst for reform, the Council’s failure to respond to such a crisis or, equally likely, the unwillingness of states to follow the Council’s decisions in such a crisis, could well lead to its collapse. With limited legitimacy from emerging powers and other states excluded from the Council and only relatively weak or imperfect tools available to it, a crisis which truly exposed the Council’s lack of representativeness or limited effectiveness could well spark a broader and potentially rapid turn away from the Security Council as an meaningful institution for global political governance. In short, the Council could wither away quickly as both its legitimacy and effectiveness were called into question in the wake of crisis and failed response.
There is, unfortunately, little reason for optimism as to the Council’s shape in 2030. Given the challenges of reform and in light of the trends outlined in the Global Trends 2030 Report, Stasis seems the most likely outcome. Yet such stasis will likely involve a gradual withering of the Council with an ever more diminished role – and hence expanding governance gap – by 2030. Perhaps the best hope for the Council’s future lies in a crisis that prompts reform, rather than collapse. While waiting for such crisis and hoping for an outcome of reform is a high-risk gamble, it appears most unlikely that the political will can be found to take a more activist approach to Council reform without the imperative and urgency a true crisis could create.