Unlocking the UNSC: Navigating Historical Legacies and Norm Dynamics for Global Governance Reform

The UNSC’s failure to take substantial action during critical moments, such as the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict has underscored the urgency of reform.

The UNSC’s failure to take substantial action during critical moments, such as the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict and the escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine, has underscored the urgency of reform. Some politicians and academicians argue that the current structure, dominated by the P5—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—hinders the Council’s ability to respond effectively to contemporary global challenges. The President of the General Assembly, Dennis Francis, emphasizes that without structural reform, the Council’s performance and legitimacy will continue to suffer, leading to paralysis in addressing international peace and security.

In the complex arena of global governance, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) stands as a pivotal institution, tasked with the weighty responsibility of maintaining international peace and security. As we embark on a journey through history, we uncover the roots of the UNSC, examine the challenges of equitable representation, and scrutinize the dynamics of norm evolution in the quest for meaningful reform.

Tracing Historical Foundations and Contemporary Challenges

Understanding the emergence of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) requires delving into its historical context. The UN, and consequently the UNSC, came into being after World War II (WWII) through the efforts of the superpowers and their allies. Once wartime allies, the USA and the USSR emerged as the two dominant world superpowers after jointly overcoming Germany and Japan in 1945. The founders of the UN aimed to establish an international order through an institution that would address the shortcomings of its predecessor, the League of Nations, by promoting increased multilateralism among dominant international actors.

The League of Nations, established at the end of World War I (WWI), served as the precursor to the UN. It was the first intergovernmental organization dedicated to maintaining international peace, with objectives similar to the UN’s. However, the absence of the US weakened the League of Nations, contributing to its inability to prevent WWII. Towards the end of WWII, the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington proposed the creation of the UN and, consequently, the UNSC. The Dumbarton Oaks Proposals underwent revisions and reformulations at the San Francisco conference in 1945, marking the official establishment of the UN.

The UNSC’s composition was deliberately kept small to facilitate quick and effective decision-making, especially during international crises, without interference from the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Two distinct groups were involved in the negotiations: the great powers, leveraging their industrial and military strength, and the more minor powers, focused on upholding the law and justice in the Charter. Unsurprisingly, the great powers secured the privilege of shaping the political norms and rules within the Charter. Additionally, the five great powers of WWII – the USSR (until 1991, now Russia), the USA, the UK, China, and France – were granted permanent tenure, earning them the title of the Permanent Five (P5) or Permanent Members (PMs) of the UNSC.

The P5’s second privilege came as a veto provision, giving them greater voting power than other UNSC member states. A single negative vote from any P5 member could effectively veto substantive matters. The rationale behind granting veto rights to the P5 was to prevent smaller UN member states from overpowering them. However, the veto provision and the special status of the P5 have faced considerable criticism, especially in the context of UNSC reform. Any reform of the UNSC necessitates amending the Charter, a process requiring the ratification of the P5 members. The challenges in reforming the UNSC have sparked ongoing debates and discussions on its structure and functioning.

Navigating Power and Representation

While the foundational principle of the United Nations (UN) is the equality of sovereign states, the UN Security Council (UNSC) reflects a significant imbalance in sovereign state representation. The disproportionate influence of the Permanent Five (P5) members, primarily situated in the Global North, especially in decisions related to intrastate conflicts and decolonization, highlights this disparity. Despite the expansion of UN membership since the 1960s, the UNSC has yet to evolve to ensure a more equitable global representation.

Recognized as the most powerful organ of the UN and a preeminent global supranational institution, the UNSC faces a legitimacy crisis due to its perceived anachronistic nature. The restructuring of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is a complex and multifaceted issue involving addressing various challenges to better align the institution with contemporary global realities. Some of the significant problems in UNSC reform include: (1) Veto Power: The veto power wielded by the P5 remains contentious. Calls for its abolition or limitation clash with the interests of established powers, while others argue for a more nuanced approach to prevent the abuse of this privilege. (2) Membership Expansion: Proposals to expand the number of permanent and non-permanent seats on the UNSC, particularly from influential groups like Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan (The G4), encounter resistance from those wary of altering the existing power dynamics. (3) Regional Representation: The African Union (AU) and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) advocate for enhanced regional representation, emphasizing the unique challenges faced by Africa and the Caribbean. However, this focus on regional concerns may clash with broader proposals for global restructuring. (4) L69 and Uniting for Consensus (UfC) Dynamics: The L69, comprising developing nations, seeks increased representation, while the UfC opposes the expansion of permanent seats. These differing stances highlight the diversity of opinions within the broader reform discussion.

It is important to note that the positions and conflicts of interest between the various groups involved in the UNSC reform debate are complex and multifaceted. The G4 nations advocate for an overhaul of the UNSC to include themselves as permanent members, which clashes with the interests of existing permanent members and those who fear upsetting the established power balance. The AU prioritizes increased representation for African nations, leading to potential conflicts with proposals that focus on broader geopolitical shifts rather than region-specific concerns. CARICOM nations seek a model that addresses the Caribbean region’s unique challenges, which may create tension with proposals prioritizing more sweeping global changes. The L69, representing developing nations, seeks more significant influence, challenging the status quo. This position conflicts with those advocating a cautious reform approach to prevent unintended consequences. The UfC opposes an expanded P5 but supports reforms that enhance non-permanent member representation, creating conflicts with the G4’s ambitions for a more substantial restructuring.

These positions and conflicts of interest reflect the complex dynamics and divergent agendas among various coalitions and regional blocs involved in the UNSC reform debate, contributing to the ongoing challenges in achieving meaningful changes to the Council’s structure and functioning.

Norm Dynamics and the Evolution of Global Governance

Four P5 members predominantly represent the Global North, maintaining their special status in the international system. This situation poses a considerable challenge to the legitimacy of the UNSC. While some influential actors such as G4, AU, CARICOM, and L69 advocate for change, others seek to uphold existing governance norms. The emergence of powerful new actors from the Global South emphasizes the imperative to reform the current norms of global governance embraced by the UNSC.

Since its inception, exploring normative issues and their impact on political actors and international interactions has been a central focus in International Relations (IR). Scholars in IR have consistently questioned the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ recognizing their influential role in shaping human behavior. This analytical journey is exemplified by historical figures such as Aristotle and Plato in the 4th century BCE and, more recently, E.H. Carr’s 20th-century analysis of the interplay between political action, morality, and power. He contended that within the framework of realism, there is no moral aspect, and the criteria for determining right or wrong are based solely on the measure of success. In this perspective, actions that prove successful are considered right, while those that meet with failure are deemed wrong. However, the realist perspective, exemplified by Carr, has been critiqued for excluding crucial elements such as moral judgment and emotional appeals in politics.

In contrast, constructivism argues that the global system is socially constructed through the interaction of actors with specific identities, values, and beliefs. According to constructivism, norms emerge from the interactions of international actors, who work towards creating new norms based on shared values and interests. These norms can have consequential effects on the international community, and they become more deeply ingrained in the global system as they gain acceptance and spread among international actors. The constructivist approach also emphasizes the context and history from which international institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), emerged and the impact of changing political norms on their effectiveness in achieving multilateralism. In the case of UNSC reform, constructivism provides a framework to understand the challenges arising from the changing political norms of global governance, including those adopted by the UNSC. The emergence of new independent power contenders from the Global South has led to calls for further expansion and reform of the UNSC. The constructivist approach seeks to understand how norms emerge, cascade through the legal framework, and face resistance to their internalization. Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink’s norm life cycle is utilized to illustrate actors’ roles in pursuing UNSC reform. This life cycle unfolds through three stages: norm emergence, norm cascade, and norm internalization.

Alan Bloomfield argued that the genesis of norms is often attributed to norm “entrepreneur” and “antipreneur”. Norm entrepreneurs are actors who seek to change the existing normative structure to align with the norms and ideas they believe to be more appropriate. They play a crucial role in emerging new norms by framing problem areas to challenge the normative status quo. These actors may perform inappropriate acts, such as organized civil disobedience, to call attention to normative issues, even if these actions bring about legal punishment or social exclusion. Norm entrepreneurs are motivated by altruism, empathy, and ideational commitment, seeking to benefit others even at the detriment of their well-being. They also need some organizational platform to disseminate their new norm, often explicitly structured to promote the new norm, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Norm antipreneurs, on the other hand, are actors who resist the change and internalization of new norms in the international system. They play a role in contesting the emergence and internalization of new norms, and their resistance is influenced by the advantages they enjoy and the degree to which global norms are entrenched through institutions. Recognizing the role of antipreneurs is crucial for understanding norm contestation and facilitating a rebalance in the literature on norm dynamics, particularly in cases where norms are not reforming, such as global governance norms present within the UNSC.

The successful creation of new norms involves the agency of norm entrepreneurs and the platforms from which they operate. To catalyze normative change, these entrepreneurs must coerce or persuade state actors to endorse their norms and initiate norm socialization. Subsequently, in the norm cascade stage, emergent norms become institutionalized in international organizations and specific sets of rules, legitimizing them and propelling them toward a tipping point—the intertwined normative and legal processes.

In the discourse surrounding the reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the distinction between norm entrepreneurs and norm antipreneurs is evident. Initially, Kofi Annan played a pivotal role as a norm entrepreneur, catalyzing the emergence of the norm for UNSC reform. However, over the years, the state actors forming the three dominant reform blocs have taken on the role of norm entrepreneurs in advocating for UNSC expansion. The P5, benefiting from established global governance norms, wields considerable strategic advantages. Despite growing international support for UNSC reform, the P5 continues to resist expansion, mainly through delaying tactics.

The P5, adhering to institutionalized global governance norms, utilizes its veto power to maintain a strong position. In 2005, the USA employed various delaying tactics, opposing the G4 bid for veto rights and proposing limited additions to the Council. The P5 insists on an overall UN reform plan before supporting Council expansion. The veto power, rooted in historical-political rather than legal considerations, grants the significant blocking ability to antipreneurs within the UNSC, especially the P5.

The influence of antipreneurs, particularly the P5, is evident in their ability to impede institutional reforms. For instance, China’s veto threat against Japan’s bid for permanent UNSC membership highlights the power dynamics at play. The ongoing contestation over reform proposals and regional rivalries complicates UNSC enlargement efforts. Antipreneurs resist precedents that could empower new norms, further hindering reform.

While the UNSC is tasked with maintaining international peace and security, the veto power granted to the P5 has created inefficiencies in reform efforts. The P5, initially established in a post-war balance of power system, resisted relinquishing their veto power, aligning with realist political theory. The ever-changing global landscape and power distribution shape the behavior and norms of the P5, making UNSC reform a contested issue. Antipreneurs, in the form of the P5, play a crucial role in the norm life cycle by defending the status quo and resisting global governance norm reform within the UNSC.

The journey through the historical foundations, power dynamics, and norm evolution of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reveals a complex landscape marked by historical legacies and contemporary challenges. The UNSC’s structure, particularly the dominance of the Permanent Five (P5) and the veto power they wield, has become a focal point of debates on global governance reform. The tensions between norm entrepreneurs advocating for UNSC expansion and norm antipreneurs, notably the P5, resisting change, underscore the intricate dynamics shaping the norm life cycle within international institutions. As we navigate the path forward, the urgency for reform is evident, driven by the Council’s struggles to address critical global issues effectively. The call for a more representative and responsive UNSC reflects the collective realization that adapting to contemporary realities is essential for sustaining the Council’s legitimacy and enhancing its capacity to uphold international peace and security in an ever-evolving world.

Claudia Syarifah
Claudia Syarifah
Claudia Syarifah, One of the Winner of Many Languages, One World 2015. Currently serving as a Lecturer of International Relations at Wahid Hasyim University in Semarang. Teaching International Humanitarian Law, International Politics, Negotiation and Conflict Resolutions, and Foreign Policy Analysis.