Security Council Reform and the G-20

President Obama’s pledge of support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for India could easily be seen as an empty gesture. Clearly, he wanted to show that he considered India to be a “21st century center of influence” and strengthen Indo-U.S. ties, but making the pledge a reality will be exceedingly difficult. Security Council reform faces numerous obstacles and has been under consideration with varying degrees of seriousness but little progress for decades. Some countries, India included, have made gaining a permanent seat a key aspect of their foreign policy. Permanent membership on the council is seen around the world as the ultimate great powers insiders club. Interestingly, Obama’s expression of support has occurred in advance of the summit of the Group of Twenty (G-20), an international body that is everything the Security Council is not in its inclusion of rising powers, giving the proposal added bite.

Seen in the context of the upcoming G-20 summit, President Obama’s pledge might have been a shot across the bows of those who support the status quo in the international institutions created in the aftermath of the World War II. The Security Council, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund have governance and decisionmaking structures that reflect the global power configuration of the past and do not take into account the changed environment created by emerging powers such as India. The G-20, by contrast, is inclusive and provides a voice for “centers of influence.” If the older organizations were merely quaint relics of a bygone era, this would not be an important problem. But, each has an essential role to play in global governance that is weakened by its lack of representativeness. Each organization provides too great a voice to Europe, which is diminishing in clout, in particular in relation to rising Asian powers. Leaving significant voices out of international organizations lessens their legitimacy, which can reduce compliance with their decisions.

The five permanent members of the Security Council are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There are no African or Latin American countries among them. The membership structure of the council—which was last reformed in 1965 to expand the nonpermanent membership from 6 to 10—is heedless of the changed regional power environment of the early twenty-first century. States that have a legitimate claim to a larger role in the Security Council by dint of their regional significance, economic clout, and/or military size and prowess include India, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and South Africa.

The path to permanent membership for each is tortuous and opens a virtual Pandora’s Box of difficulties. Amending the UN Charter, which would be necessary for changing the Security Council membership, is not an easy process. Such a change would come into force when it has been adopted and ratified by two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly, including all of the permanent members of the council. Pakistan has already spoken out against permanent membership for India, citing the effect of such a change in status on “regional stability,” and China is not likely to greet one of its Asian rivals with open arms. Brazil’s membership would likely be opposed by Argentina and other Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, which would object to a Portuguese-speaking country “representing” them on the Security Council. Germany, which would be the third EU permanent member of the council, would likely fail because of the overrepresentation of Europe and the unwillingness of either France or the United Kingdom to give up a permanent seat. Japan, which has a complicated and not always positive relationship with China, would probably not receive China’s support for its candidacy. South Africa is considered to be a candidate for a permanent African seat on the council, but it would likely face opposition from Nigeria and Egypt, which also covet the seat.

It is important to recognize the potential shortcomings of Security Council reform. An enlarged body could be too big and unwieldy to operate effectively. The additional vetoes that new permanent members might receive could mean a greater possibility for deadlock. Not giving the new permanent members vetoes, which has featured in some reform proposals, would create two classes of permanent membership. The United States should understand that an expanded council will not necessarily be any more likely to support U.S. initiatives than the current one. For example, India and the United States differ sharply on the extent to which the United Nations should intervene in the internal affairs of member states. But the increased legitimacy and effectiveness that would come with reform would outweigh its possible disadvantages.

Next year, Germany, India, and Japan will join Brazil as nonpermanent members of the council. This will create an interesting dynamic as these states seeking permanent membership will likely look to exercise their growing influence.

President Obama’s assertion of support, during the week of the G-20 summit, puts into sharp relief the difference between the G-20 and the other leading international bodies. It presents a challenge to the other bodies to come into line with the G-20, which was effective in dealing with the international economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 because it brought to the table the largest economies, along with regional powers. Its membership accounts for more than 85 percent of the global GDP and 65 percent of the global population, and it includes leading advanced and emerging countries. The G-20 provides an example of how useful it can be for an international organization to have a membership that accurately represents the globe’s evolving power dynamics.

To be sure, the G-20 is not perfect. It is an informal grouping without legal authority. Decisions can only be taken on the basis of consensus, which can result in impasse or adoption of the lowest common denominator. Because it does not have a secretariat, it is not operational and must rely either on its members to take action or on the cooperation of other international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. It is not certain that the consensus of 2008–2009, which led to concerted action on the economic and financial crisis, will continue to characterize the G-20. It is certain that hard issues that divide the membership, such as Chinese currency undervaluation or the U.S. proposal to address trade imbalances, could easily lead to gridlock and inaction. While the G-20 has great potential, largely due to its informal nature and broad membership, it is important not to be unrealistic or overly optimistic regarding the role it might play in global governance.

Taken as a whole, the leading international institutions—the G-20, IMF, World Bank, and United Nations—can be viewed as providing a menu of multilateral options to policymakers. Each has a distinct and vital role that, in the case of the latter three, would be enhanced by reform. For example, only the UN Security Council can effectively and with legitimacy deploy peacekeeping troops to difficult places where the great powers would fear to tread alone.

While Security Council reform is unlikely in the near future, the G-20 might provide a gradual impetus for change. Along these lines, at last month’s finance ministers G-20 meeting, the membership reached agreement on changing IMF quotas (voting rights) to give a greater voice for emerging economic powers at the expense of fewer quotas for European states. Although the reform was limited and unsatisfying to all involved, it showed that the G-20 can be a venue for helping other institutions change. It is important to note that the participation of the emerging powers in the G-20 did not come about because of the benevolence of the advanced economies. Rather, in the face of the deepening economic crisis, those with seats at the table realized that the limited membership of the G-8—all advanced economies—was incapable of effective action. There appears not to be the same urgency among the permanent members of the Security Council to increase their number.

The Obama administration has in its first two years not shown great zeal for UN reform. It is unlikely to use what political capital it has to try to persuade China and other states with a stake in this issue to set aside their perceived national interests to agree to such a reform. Indeed, it is not clear that there is any bargain the United States could offer that would satisfy those that would otherwise block reform. But, President Obama has placed the question of Security Council membership front and center with his unexpected endorsement of a permanent seat for India. It remains to be seen where it goes from here. The G-20 might help to point the way to the future.

Mark Quarterman is director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author

Mark Quarterman