At a New Year’s Eve event, I was mistakenly granted access to a VIP skybox, replete with free drinks, a gourmet buffet and, most importantly, fancier party hats. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say, the party planner eventually realized his error and I was unceremoniously booted back down to the main floor. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded mingling with the general population, but I had had an intoxicating taste of unadulterated power and privilege... and I wanted more.
The United Nations Security Council is the ultimate boy’s club on the global politics scene. The fifteen members— five permanent and ten elected— are the only body of the U.N. capable of imposing legal mandates upon all U.N. signatory nations.
The permanent members— the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China— wield even bigger sticks.
While Security Council motions are typically passed with a simple majority of votes, a single dissenting vote from a permanent member vetoes the passage of any referendum.
Permanent membership on the Security Council, then, is a heavily envied power position for any nation worth its salt. With a single wave of your wand, you can negate U.N. action on any issue you find troublesome or problematic diplomatically.
It’s a power some permanent members have used sparingly— China has only used it five times in the council’s 60-year history, while France has invoked its veto 18 times. In contrast, in its first decade of existence, the Soviet Union nearly broke the bank on vetoes, sinking 79 referendums. The United States has been the veto king lately, responsible for 42 of the 61 vetoes since 1984, many on motions regarding the Israeli state.
While many U.S. lawmakers seem more concerned about reforms concerning Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s son and his involvement in the Oil For Food Program, the majority of progressives in the U.N. are concerned with insuring that the Security Council accurately reflects the current global balance of power. The five permanent members represent the primary victorious parties of World War II— poorly representative, developing nations say, of the current centers of influence. Many in the U.N., including Annan and several current permanent members, support the expansion of the permanent member population to more accurately reflect the state of geopolitics heading into the 21st century.
There’s some precedent for altering the Security Council’s composition. At its inception in 1946, China was represented in the U.N. by the Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, the ostensibly democratic faction engaged in a vicious civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. In 1949, Kai-shek and the ROC were forced to retreat the island of Taiwan and establish a “government in exile,” all the while continuing to claim sovereign rule of mainland China. The truth was, of course, very different— Mao and the communists had established total control over the mainland under the banner of the People’s Republic of China. Yet for 22 more years, it was the defeated ROC that represented “China” in both the U.N. General Assembly and the Security Council. It wasn’t until 1971 that, with the votes of the dozens of newly recognized independent Third World nations, the General Assembly passed a resolution officially replacing Kai-shek’s ROC with the PRC as the official representative of China on the Security Council.
Four nations— Germany, India, Japan, and Brazil— have emerged as front-runners for permanent member status and have, in fact, banded together to collectively support each other’s claims. They’ve styled themselves the G4 and each comes with a volatile and opinionated mix of both supporters and detractors.
Of the four, only Germany seems to have the scale tipped heavily towards the supporter side. Germany contributes the third largest portion of the U.N. budget and is a major European contributor of both supplies and manpower to U.N. peacekeeping forces. Three of the current permanent members— France, Russia and the U.K.— have explicitly supported German membership, while the United States has stayed oddly mum. The main opposition to the Germans comes from its European neighbors Italy and the Netherlands, who argue instead for a rotating European Union seat.
India is the only other nation which seems like a solid shoo-in. India contributes the second-highest number of peacekeeping troops to the U.N., drawing easily from its own army, the world’s second-largest. Similar to Germany, India has secured itself the solid support of France, Russia and the U.K, in addition to the tacit support of the United States. Relations have warmed significantly lately with its sometimes pleasant neighbor, sometimes mortal enemy, China, removing the last significant obstacle ahead of its confirmation.
Japan’s bid has split East Asia into pro and con camps— India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore pro; North Korea, South Korea and, significantly, China con. The United States is strongly in favor of Japan’s membership, as are France and the U.K.; Japan is the second-largest financial contributor to the U.N. China, though, is wary for reasons both past and present, while Russia is leery of the close Japan-U.S. relationship.
Brazil is the last member of the G4 alliance. With just over half the total South American population and a robust economy, it’s a heavy hitting geopolitical up-and-comer, a perfect spokesnation for the unrepresented South American continent. The wrench in Brazil’s plans is a linguistic one— a former Portuguese territory, it differs in state language from the rest of Spanish-speaking South America. Regardless, it’s garnered the support of both the United States and the Russians.
If you haven’t noticed, one continent remains ominously absent from the list, and the U.N. is well aware of it. Africa, with over 50 independent nations, represents the largest portion of the U.N. General Assembly, yet lacks a clear candidate for a permanent member position. Three nations offering themselves for consideration are South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria. Nigeria, with its resurgent economy and substantial population, seems like an extremely viable choice. Nigeria, with its Muslim-dominant population, could also represent that neglected Security Council demographic.