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Think Again: The U.N. Security Council

With a U.S. president chairing the world’s top security body for the first time, it’s worth asking: What does the U.N. Security Council do, exactly? The answer, it turns, out, is more than you think, and less than you might hope.

"The Security Council Is All Talk and No Action."

Not true. The 15-member U.N. Security Council (UNSC) that has responsibility for maintaining international peace and security has actually been very busy lately. In the last 20 years, its five permanent and 10 rotating members have authorized more than a dozen peacekeeping missions, imposed sanctions or arms embargoes on 10 states, and created several war crimes tribunals to prosecute those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity, including sittings heads of state. That makes the UNSC particularly important in desperate corners of the world -- think Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- where blue helmets, U.N. mediators, and humanitarian aid convoys help shape realities on the ground. And while some recent council decisions, including the deployment of peacekeepers to Sudan and the imposition of sanctions on North Korea, took months of debate to sort out, the UNSC moves at a much quicker clip today than it did during most of the Cold War, when animosity between the superpowers often crippled any hope of compromise. In comparison, the Security Council has been a beehive of activity since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

True, plenty of the council's frenetic efforts have required tortuous negotiation, but as it turns out, talk is an important aspect of what the council does. Achieving consensus among the council's five veto-wielding permanent members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China -- is rarely easy. Each power has a unique set of interests and relationships that it seeks to protect. Even when the permanent five (P5) members can agree, they have to convince at least four of the elected council members in order to take formal action. Frustrating though it can be, that process -- of the major powers talking to each other day after day -- is one of the council's principal contributions to international stability. Through sheer repetition, the Security Council has instilled a culture of great-power consultation and compromise that may be as important to international peace as any peacekeeping mission, sanctions regime, or war crimes investigation.

"Obama Will Rely More on the Council Than Bush Did."

Perhaps. Certainly the tone in New York has been quite different under the Obama administration compared with the last eight years. Gone is the feeling that the United States has contempt for the organization -- the prevailing perception when John Bolton represented Washington in Turtle Bay. Obama's new ambassador, Susan Rice, insists that the United States has learned that "stiff-arming" the organization is counterproductive and can have serious consequences for America's international image. Now, a repentant (if still resolute) Washington has taken several steps toward reengagement, including joining the U.N. Human Rights Council and signaling support for the U.N.-affiliated International Criminal Court.

That doesn't mean, however, that Washington is finding it easier to get what it wants from the other members of the P5. Moscow and Beijing are still resisting the type of pressure that Washington thinks may persuade North Korea or Iran to abandon their nuclear ambitions. On humanitarian questions as well, the Obama team may soon become frustrated by East River diplomacy. China has repeatedly provided diplomatic cover to Sudan's government and resists the expansive doctrine of humanitarian intervention that many of Obama's advisers support. For all the talk of abandoning unilateralism, it would not be shocking to see the Obama administration -- which prides itself on pragmatism--working around, not through, the Security Council in the next few years.

"Military Action Without Security Council Approval Is Illegal."

Who cares? The U.N. Charter requires that any use of force that is not self-defense be cleared by the Security Council. It was for that reason that so many voices around the world -- including then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- declared the U.S. invasion of Iraq unlawful. The critics may be right as a matter of law, but since the organization began operating in 1946, the charter's mandate has rarely been followed. Major powers (and plenty of minor ones) have taken military action again and again without the council's approval. Plenty of these actions have been misguided, but others have been necessary. The United States itself used force without council approval under the Bill Clinton administration when it launched airstrikes in 1999 to force Serbia to relinquish the disputed province of Kosovo. Earlier this month, President Obama sent commandos into Somalia to hunt down suspected terrorists without stopping to ask for a council debate and resolution on the subject. Certain purists may insist that all these actions were illegal and illegitimate, but the actual practice of international relations matters more than legal doctrine. The Security Council is an important avenue to international legitimacy, but certainly not the only one. Regional organizations like NATO, the European Union, and the African Union will often be alternatives. The Kosovo operation, for example, was endorsed by NATO rather than by the Security Council.

"The Council Would Work Better Without the Veto."

That's irrelevant. There would be no Security Council without the veto power, which is granted only to the P5. The three powers that wrote the first draft of the U.N. Charter -- the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States -- all wanted a veto (though they differed on its scope) and would not have joined the organization without it. At various moments during the Cold War, the veto was a critical safety valve that probably saved the organization from disintegration. Even in today's somewhat gentler political climate, it is very hard to imagine the permanent members shedding the voting power that the charter grants them.

Yet while the veto is here to stay, the formal use of it has actually decreased significantly in recent years. In contrast with earlier periods of the council's history, when loud, confrontational debates were common, most current debates occur in private. When the council's ambassadors are behind closed doors, they can test the limits of each other's policy positions and try out formulations without ever coming to a formal vote.  This reliance on closed-door consultation means that the five permanent members are much less likely than in the past to cast vetoes and more inclined to let the unspoken threat of the veto do the work for them. It's progress of a sort.

"Expanding the Council Would Increase Its Legitimacy."

Don't be so sure. It has become a constant refrain at U.N. headquarters that the Security Council is anachronistic. And in many ways, it is. Japan, the organization's second- largest financial contributor, deserves a permanent council seat, as do rising economic stars India and Brazil. In the near future, the British and French seats should be combined into a seat for the European Union, a change that would give a regular voice to Germany and boost the EU's aspiration for a common foreign policy.

These reforms would help the council more accurately reflect the world's power distribution. But reorganization alone would not greatly increase respect for the body worldwide. Many of the crises and conflicts that the UNSC confronts spring from either rogue regimes or uncooperative non-state actors for whom the council's composition is all but irrelevant. Tyrants in Burma, militias in eastern Congo, and Al Qaeda disciples won't be impressed by a revamped council. And in some cases, an expanded council would even introduce new legitimacy problems. Imagine, for example, a council with India as a permanent member that passed resolutions condemning Pakistan. From Islamabad, the new council would certainly look less legitimate than it does today.

Moreover, expansion of the UNSC requires the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly. Since small and mid-sized states often pool their votes, any reform package would have to compensate those blocs of power somehow. Most viable proposals for council reform envision adding five to 10 additional elected seats to compensate the broader U.N. membership for new permanent seats. All told, council membership might balloon to 25 states or more. Such a dramatic expansion could easily undermine the council's value as an important talking shop for major powers. A 25-member UNSC would often prove too large for the kinds of quiet, behind-the-scenes exchanges that have been one of the body's principal values -- and contributions to security.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

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