The South African government is enthusiastically trumpeting its election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council – together with Germany, India, Columbia and Portugal. These five new members will replace Austria, Japan, Mexico, Turkey and Uganda on 1 January 2011. The other five non-permanent members, Bosnia, Brazil, Gabon, Lebanon and Nigeria, will stay on the Security Council through the end of 2011.
The results of this election, together with Brazil’s presence for the second year of its current term and China and Russia’s permanent membership on the council, bringing all the Bric and Bric-wannabes on to the council, is giving rise to some irrational exuberance – certainly in South African government circles – that a fundamental restructuring of the international order is now at hand. It is not.
Of course, this election may provide the emerging powers with a chance to strut their stuff globally, even as it may become an interesting diplomatic challenge for the US and other permanent members. New members India and South Africa, as well as current member Brazil, disagree with the US on the use of economic sanctions to rein in Iran’s nuclear programme as well as over the relative importance of human rights in international affairs – although that may well change. When an earlier campaign led by Brazil, Germany, India and Japan to enlarge the council stalled, these countries turned their attention to building a case for permanent membership – over the long term – by making a real contribution as non-permanent members.
Steve Groves, a researcher at the right-of-centre, Washington-based Heritage Institute argues: “I would hope the US takes this as an opportunity to say, ‘OK, Brazil, India, and South Africa, you are among the rising powers of the world and want to play a bigger role, let’s see how responsible you are now.’ When the question is Iran or North Korea, will they act with international security in mind or follow the same regional and parochial interests? Let’s see if they really want the responsibility (of UN SC membership).”
Historically, the Security Council was first designed as a World War II victors’ club – the US, the Soviet Union and the UK, with the Republic of China and France added to the mix by the time the UN Charter was drafted and signed. By the end of the 1940s, the government of the Republic of China had been driven off the mainland and into its Taiwan refuge, but it held on to its Security Council seat, especially once the People’s Republic of China entered the Korean War on the side of North Korea – against the UN’s own defence of South Korea.
Ironically, the Security Council was able to respond to the Korean crisis in 1950 as the Soviet Union was boycotting Security Council debates because of the very dispute over who should hold the China seat on the council. (That particular issue was resolved when the PRC gained the China seat on the Security Council nearly 30 years ago and Taiwan headed towards a growing formal diplomatic isolation.)
The original hope was that the Security Council would function like a council of wise elders, but that died as the Cold War grew in intensity. Throughout the Cold War, the Security Council became ground zero for the struggle between East and West. The apogee of this conflict was the riveting debate between Adlai Stevenson and Valerian Zorin during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when “the world stood on the brink of nuclear war”, as the headlines always read. That was then; this is now.
After South Africa was elected to its second two-year term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, the department of international relations and cooperation was making its case that the Security Council – finally – this time around – was now broadly representative of both the world’s older and newer powers. Just before being elected, the department had commented: “South Africa will be guided by its commitment to multilateralism, advancement of the African agenda and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.”
Photo: The United Nations Security Council meets at U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 23, 2010. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi.
Colin Keating, a former New Zealand diplomat who now heads the Security Council Report, a Columbia University-affiliated think tank, argues: “We’re probably going to have the strongest Security Council in history. It’s a huge opportunity for those guys who have been arguing for 15 years that the Security Council isn’t [representative of] the modern world. All of a sudden, they are all there. Now, what use do they make of their presence – that can make a convincing case that being there makes a difference.” Indeed, to what use?
Meanwhile, India’s UN ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri promises, “Naturally, all of us will try to use the time we have during this two-year tenure to also give our partners a sense of confidence and build trust so they are comfortable with our membership of the Security Council on an extended basis. We bring the voice of one-sixth of humanity. We have 63 years of experience in nation building and I think that’s what the UN can use.” Given the fact that so much of the council’s agenda now deals with African conflicts, this should make this term’s version of the Security Council with South Africa in place the right stuff to focus more closely on such issues.
Others have made the case for expanding the UN Security Council in the past, of course. But it has been made most strongly on economic, not on geographic or military grounds. The Japanese and Germans, the nations defeated by the Allies in World War II – and thus the rationale for creating the UN in the first place – were obviously not founding members of the organisation and only became members years later. But, after their great economic expansion – and especially after a merged Germany was created out of West and East Germany – the logic of including what were the world’s two largest economies still not permanent Security Council members became that much stronger. However, the very fact that neither Germany nor Japan have yet become permanent members is itself a demonstration of the difficulty in making such a change.
Of course, if a rationale for permanent membership was just a bit more flexible, the case for India and Brazil as permanent members becomes more plausible as well. Moving beyond those nations, even cases for Nigeria, Egypt, Indonesia and South Africa as potential regional leaders might be made as well.
But this diversity of potential claimants makes it harder to justify one nation over another. And regional rivalries can hold back potential claimants as well. Brazil’s great continental rival, Argentina, is unlikely to champion Brazil’s membership. And China, from its position as a permanent member, may also have issues with advocating India’s transformation to a permanent member status – they’ve fought a war within the past half- century, after all. And this doesn’t even include Pakistan’s almost 100% pathological opposition internationally to any new, more-exalted status for India.
These rivalries would probably be repeated should South Africa succeed in its effort to be the continent’s logical permanent member, versus Nigeria or Egypt. Nigeria is much larger in population than South Africa and Egypt represents a “two-fer” – being both a major African nation and the traditional leader of the Arabic world as well.
But as the Cold War has receded from its earlier position of centrality in global politics, global and regional economic issues have grown in importance in its place – and that’s the key. The UN is, in fact, less and less the focal point for international negotiations that really matter. Trade issues get a detailed hearing in the G8/G20 meetings, while the actual rules and regulations for world trade get hammered out in those extended negotiations such as the Doha World Trade Organisation’s Round (and all its predecessor negotiating rounds). Now we’ll concede that the WTO is descended from General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, and GATT was established as one of the triad of new institutions for the post-World War II world, but the WTO runs essentially without reference to the UN. And the economic disputes around the Pacific Rim increasingly end up being hashed out at the periodic Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings – again not a UN thing.
Or consider nuclear proliferation issues. Major nuclear discussions such as the recent non-proliferation meeting in Washington similarly took place outside the ambit of the UN. But wait – what about the recent Copenhagen climate conference? That was a UN meeting, right? But the essential inability of that conference to reach any sort of firm agreement because of some real disagreements between China and the US and Western Europe, or between the West and the rest, points to the real issue – the relative lack of UN impact on many key global issues.
In fact, straightforward inclusiveness is actually no real substitute for broader agreement on general international principles. The Security Council is often just a venue for discussions where there is already prior agreement that a particular issue can be discussed by the Security Council in the first place, even if agreement on what is to be done doesn’t exist. Case in point: The presumed North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions. But even here the real discussions take place beyond the council – with contact groups like the Quartet or the Group of Six or whatever. This argues that the council, especially if it grows in size, may actually become more unwieldy and problematic.
The fact that so many Security Council questions are African – Somalia, Sudan, the Great Lakes regional conflicts, the various West African collapsed states – actually argues for the kind of South African activism the country has been reluctant to exercise. Partly this is a holdover from concerns that post-apartheid South Africa would be exercising an overwhelming, unseemly ambition on the continent and partly from some very real disagreements between South Africa (and presumably the African Union) and nations like the US over what the right courses of action should be on Zimbabwe or Somalia.
The real challenge for South Africa in its second bite of the apple will be to offer some tangible continental leadership on Africa’s issues, but without annoying the other 50-some African nations and in a way that brings the big guys on board as well.
Local legal scholar Nicole Fritz commented on this in Business Day: “But does SA have any plan to leverage its seat to enhance its facilitation role in Zimbabwe, where a proposed referendum on a new constitution and elections are likely to coincide with the term of SA’s seat and come up for council deliberation? Or will we see a reprise of the 2008 position, when SA seemed intent only on ring-fencing Zimbabwe from Security Council scrutiny? How will SA square its refusal to contribute troops to the AU’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia with an ascendant role in the security council seized with this issue? Then there are impending elections, potential fire- starters, in trouble spots such as Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone.”
In the post-1994 era, South Africa’s initial effort to lead through a moral foreign policy foundered against Sani Abacha’s corrupt, venal Nigerian regime. And its first turn on the Security Council (2007-08) saw a South African foreign policy that tried to apply an awkward, formulaic, fiddly technical approach to the crises in Zimbabwe and Burma and the effects these regimes have had, and continue to have, on their respective regions. The common ground on both questions was a strange unwillingness to focus the power of the UN on just such odious regimes, in spite of the ANC and other liberation groups’ efforts to bring just such UN power to bear against apartheid South Africa a generation earlier.
Rather than adding chairs and nameplates to the curved table in the Security Council, the real challenge this time around for South Africa’s two years should be to focus increased world attention and UN weight on African issues that are difficult precisely because major nations are no longer involved in them. Concurrently, South Africa should endeavour to exert real leadership in steering the UN’s mechanisms, committees and specialised agencies towards more energetic and tangible efforts on climate change, desertification, water resources, innovative food security issues and the like. Maybe these topics are not as sexy as finally getting a seat with the big boys in the Security Council chambers, but they can have more real impact. This, of course, will mean bringing forward a tightly focused, cogent foreign policy that is not blinded by chasing the chimera of a full-time, permanent seat up at the head table. DM
Main photo: Police trainees demonstrate crowd control techniques and other skills during a visit of the United Nations (UN) Security Council at a UN-run training camp in the southern Sudanese town of Rejaf October 7, 2010. Greeted by cheering crowds, U.N. Security Council envoys arrived in southern Sudan on Wednesday for talks with leaders of the oil-rich African country aimed at staving off a new war. The government of semi-autonomous south Sudan is rushing to train thousands of police ahead of a January 2011 referendum on whether to secede from the Khartoum-led government in the north. Analysts worry that a renewed north-south conflict could erupt if the referendum is delayed. REUTERS/Louis Charbonneau
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