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A Moment for UN Security Council Reform

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
November 8, 2010

A Moment for UN Security Council Reform - a-moment-for-un-security-council-reform


U.S. President Barack Obama's surprise announcement of support for India's permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is a bold foreign policy stroke. Beyond deepening the U.S.-India strategic partnership launched by the Bush administration, it may help break the logjam that has kept the UNSC's permanent membership mired in the world of 1945.

The rationale for India's candidacy is obvious. The world's largest democracy with more than 1.2 billion people, India has a dynamic, fast-growing economy, the world's fifth-largest navy, and an impressive army with a distinguished role in international peacekeeping. India is increasingly at the forefront of efforts to police the global commons and combat transnational terrorism and, although not a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime, has established a strong record over the past decade in combating nuclear proliferation. India, simply put, has the assets to become a bulwark of world order.

Indians, who have long regarded permanent UNSC membership as the holy grail of Indian foreign policy, are naturally ecstatic. What Obama did not provide, however, was any strategy for bringing UNSC reform about. The president should follow up on his dramatic announcement by launching a comprehensive plan for Security Council enlargement, based on clear criteria for permanent membership.

The rationale for expanding the UN Security Council's permanent membership is powerful. To be effective and legitimate, the world's premier watchdog for international peace and security must reflect the contemporary distribution of power, so that it enjoys the political support (and draws on the resources) of the world's most capable states. The current list of "permanent five" members--the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France--is notable for its omissions.

The United States has geopolitical interests in expanding the UNSC's permanent membership. The time for a globally dominant state to cede some power to rising ones is when it can still dictate the terms of the shift. As noted in a recent CFR workshop in New Delhi, the United States can help relieve its strained resources (PDF) by sharing some of the privileges and burdens of global leadership.

Because immediate UNSC enlargement would be a gamble, Obama should declare U.S. support for a gradual approach to expanding UNSC membership, based on clear criteria for membership (advocated in a forthcoming Council Special Report I co-authored with Kara McDonald: UN Security Council Enlargement and U.S. National Interests). These criteria would include a demonstrated capacity to contribute to international peace and security, including contributions to the UN and membership in good standing with major international security regimes.

Based on these criteria, the most logical candidates for permanent membership, in addition to India, would be Japan, Germany, and Brazil--four great democracies. By setting such criteria, and winning support among the veto-wielding P5 for their application, the United States can help ensure that candidates for UNSC permanent membership are prepared to accept not only the privileges, but the weighty obligations of membership.

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