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How to achieve UNSC reform

by Ramesh Thakur

One of the most cited quotations is Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again in the expectation of a different result each time. I though of that on reading in The Japan Times (“Japanese envoy presses for UNSC entry,” June 3) that Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa had said Japan should logically be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as the second biggest financial contributor to the U.N. budget (10.8 percent). Japan joined the U.N. in 1956 and has been elected to the UNSC 10 times for two-year terms.

Japan’s ambition for permanent membership was first expressed by Foreign Minister Yohei Kono in 1994 in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly. More than a decade ago Japan joined Brazil, Germany and India in the so-called Group of Four (G-4) in a major push for UNSC restructuring. This faltered in the 2005 U.N. reform effort against determined opposition from some existing five permanent members (P-5) and many regional rivals of the aspirant states.

Japan is not alone in keeping the dream alive. In his first address to the General Assembly last September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated India’s claim. He brought up the subject again during his trip to China in May. Modi is yet to grasp, if only to shed, a distinctive pathology of Indian foreign policy: it is typically aspirational without being programmatic. Consistent with that pathology, the G-4’s claims to status and recognition as permanent members of the UNSC are articulated as national entitlements when they should be based on political strategy.

A bumper-sticker slogan is no policy. The quest for UNSC permanent membership is a political contest that will produce losers as well as winners, hence the strong resistance it encounters. Therefore, it can only be realized by mobilizing the necessary resources, adopting the most effective strategy, building coalitions with other potential winners, and co-opting enough of the rest to neutralize their opposition.

One essential criterion of permanent membership is the capacity and will to play hardball diplomacy. China and the United States demonstrated this in their firm rejection of the G-4 campaign a decade ago. They disguised their opposition by the diversionary tactic — the very familiar one of divide and rule — of saying they could not vote en masse for the G-4. Whatever the reason, they would not budge.

The U.S. is the strongest refusenik on the UNSC in shielding Israel from any punitive consequences of decades of defying U.N. resolutions. But China and Russia too have proven their hardball credentials in vetoing draft resolutions on Syria since 2011. Those not prepared or able to engage in hardball diplomacy do not deserve permanent membership.

The G-4 campaign came tantalizingly close to achieving its aims in 2005. Unfortunately, there are no consolation prizes for coming close to but not crossing the finishing line. Yet, seduced perhaps by the memory of how the prize was snatched from their overreaching grasp at the last moment, the G-4 seem to be reprising the same tactics. This is a triumph of misplaced hope over bitter experience.

The UNSC is long overdue for a major overhaul of composition and procedures. By any yardstick, the G-4 countries are among the leading contenders for permanent membership. The longer that reform is thwarted, the less authority the council will command in the real world and more and more countries and leaders will take to defying it openly. The veto-wielding P-5 can safeguard their privileged and exclusive status indefinitely, but only at the cost of making the UNSC increasingly irrelevant. The exclusion of the deserving countries from permanent membership diminishes the UNSC more than them.

How then might the G-4 escape from the Einstein trap? First, by recalling the great success of Gandhi’s noncooperation strategy that did, after all, defeat the mighty British Empire. And second, by recognizing that the UNSC is not the forum of choice for the idealists of the world. Rather, it is the epicenter of geopolitical realism where hardball tactics rule the roost as the different powers jostle furiously and use sharp elbows liberally in pursuit of hard interests.

Combining the two, the conclusion is obvious. The G-4 countries should engage in a deliberate and combined campaign of noncooperation. This need not take offensive form. As Gandhi showed brilliantly, passive noncooperation is a very cost-effective strategy to force the issue against closed minds.

To begin with, they should refuse to take part in the elections to the nonpermanent seats. By participating in the process and taking two-year turns as elected members, they effectively legitimize the UNSC’s current structure. Conversely, the likes of all four of them not serving on the council for a decade or more would thoroughly delegitimize it.

The G-4 need to realize that in this case, the good — winning elected seats — is the enemy of the best — becoming permanent members. Besides, if other countries can look forward to largesse from candidate countries every four years or so, it is in their self-interest to stay with the present system rather than have the generous benefactors seated at the top table permanently.

Nonparticipation in UNSC elections will not be enough. To drive home their conviction that the present council is illegitimate, the G-4 countries should refuse to vote for referring or citing any country for bad behavior, such as noncompliance with nuclear nonproliferation obligations, to the UNSC.

Again, they need not be overly aggressive about this. They do not have to support or speak up in defense of Iran’s nuclear policies. Nor do they have to campaign against the referrals of international outlaws to the UNSC by others. But they can politely remind everyone each time that as they do not believe that the council is fully legitimate, they would feel hypocritical in subjecting others to its compulsory coercive authority. Therefore they will abstain.

Third and finally, since all U.N. peacekeeping missions are authorized by the UNSC, they should refuse to contribute troops, civilian personnel or funds to U.N. operations until such time as the council is reformed. Once more, they do not have to oppose the establishment of such missions. But they should let others provide the necessary personnel and, since peacekeeping operations are funded by voluntary contributions, they should refuse to volunteer any funds. Where the U.S. has led in showing the effectiveness of purse diplomacy, they should follow.

These three steps will register the depth of their anger and resentment, throw a monkey wrench in the U.N. system and force the membership to tackle the thorny issue instead of the preferred posture of permanent procrastination. China has shown the way in how reform-proof international financial institutions can be circumvented by creating alternative banks.

Or, of course, they can continue to prove Einstein right.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.