United Nations Security Council chamber
Margaret Thatcher once said that to be powerful is like being a lady: if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. How power is projected is telling, and the Cold War proved that the threat of using force is often as potent a strategy as the actual usage thereof.
With the emergence of a dynamic new world order, analysing power dynamics is more pertinent now than ever before. The United States remains the dominant global superpower by virtue of its powerful economy, advanced military, and far-reaching political and technological influence, but the successor to the USSR is still being determined. As the obvious successor to the late bi-hegemonic system, China is in many ways filling this power vacuum.
The bipolar world that marked the second half of the 20th century has evolved dramatically and the game’s players have changed, both in nature and number. In 1961, when the Non-Aligned Movement was officially founded, the United Nations recognized 104 members. Today, that number has increased to 193. Throughout the 20th century, the world was divided into the first, second, and third world, but models like these no longer work. A new group of nations with significant regional diplomatic clout is emerging, characterized by “significant military and diplomatic capacities.”
According to the IMF, 2013 marked the first year in which emerging markets made up more than half of the world’s GDP. Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neal coined the term BRICS in 2001, arguing that Brazil and Russia would supply most of the world’s commodities, and India and China most of its manufactured products, by 2050. Unsurprisingly, this economic importance has been paralleled by both a struggle for and an acquisition of greater global leverage. The North Atlantic no longer has the lion’s share of the world’s economy, and with that, there has been a call for reducing its share of political power.
Power has been diversified, and will be heavily contested at the regional level. Herein lies the true value of measuring and detecting power, be it by the Thatcherite standard, or by any other. In today’s world, dozens of countries deserve a “middle power” status. In this context, the question of what power is, and who has it, becomes particularly relevant — and Thatcher’s insight becomes only one of the many lenses through which to look for an answer.
Nowhere have the struggles for power become more evident than in the United Nations. With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the world would no longer be divided into three blocs — pro-US, pro-USSR, and “everything else” — and what Charles de Gaulle once called the third world is no longer at the periphery. Some believe that to institutionalize that reality, the Security Council should be reformed to include “third world countries” via what is called “regional representation.”
Regional representation is often argued for in ways that downplay the importance of both regional tensions and national self-interest. After all, if Germany felt represented by the presence of the United Kingdom in the Security Council, it would not be calling for a seat of its own. This is coming from a region that has conscientiously renounced its past of armed conflict, in favor of full political and economic integration. Like Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America tend towards regionalism, but the Indian Subcontinent and the Pacific do not.
Judging by military might alone, South Korea and Japan deserve a middle power status: South Korea has the world’s 6th largest air force and the 9th largest army while Japan has the 10th largest air force, even when limited by a constitutional peace clause. Regional politics, too, have acquired greater complexity, with tensions clearly bubbling under the surface. After all, historically, relations between Japan and Korea have been anything but smooth and it comes as no surprise that South Korea has opposed a Japanese bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council.
Amongst the more regionalist parts of the world, there are other kinds of divides. Latin American countries are joining one of two trading blocs that approach trade differently while Peru, Colombia, Chile and Mexico became the founding members of the Pacific Alliance, which favors reducing trade barriers and creating a common market. Conversely, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Paraguay founded Mercosur, a bloc opposed to limiting trade barriers.
The G4 — Brazil, Japan, Germany and India — have called for permanent seats, given their similarities with the current permanent members. If the bids of any of these four countries become a tangible possibility, it is probable that regional tensions would surface. Turbulent relations between India and Pakistan, as between India and Nepal, are so often cited that mentioning them has become almost trite.
Only African nations have explicitly united behind regional lines. The African Union issued three stipulations regarding Security Council Reform in 2005, calling for no less than two permanent seats, and five non-permanent ones. Although opposed to the veto power, the African Union believes that so long as it exists, it should be granted to all permanent seat holders. And if or when the permanent seat is assigned, the African Union wants to decide the allocation of the permanent seats.
In a speech only a couple of weeks ago, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa argued — rightfully — for the inclusion and representation of one billion Africans in the Security Council. Three countries, President Zuma argued, represent the geographically and demographically smaller European continent. It is time, he said, for the world to start treating Africa for what it truly is. “We are no longer colonies,” President Zuma said. “We are free, independent sovereign states.”
Zuma powerfully and eloquently articulated the entire reality in one paragraph, but left many of the most pressing questions unanswered. Which African nation is to fill a Security Council seat? Doubtless, President Zuma would not be sponsoring reform without tacitly endorsing South Africa’s candidacy. Zuma met with former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to deny suspicions of a potential rivalry for a Security Council seat. However, it is much easier to take diplomatic routes when the conflict is hypothetical.
Addressing the challenge faced by Zuma’s South Africa, or even Jonathan’s Nigeria, is daunting. The very rationale of their candidacy is that it would break new ground by giving a voice to those that haven’t had one. Thus, they must receive a vote of confidence from the General Assembly — the weaker UN body. Unfortunately, that puts them at risk of not receiving the Security Council’s approval, without which a permanent seat is but a pipe dream.
Although there is disagreement among Security Council members about which countries deserve a permanent seat, there seems to be some consensus about the characteristics necessary to occupy one. Indeed, many disagreements stem from historical rivalries, as with China’s veto of Japan. Larger militaries, which entail the capacity to exert influence by force, aren’t necessarily the characteristics that would win the support of the General Assembly. The Security Council is made up of military giants, and the call is for reform — not expansion. In acting like global powers, they lose that which makes them good representatives and undermine the very essence of their candidacy.
By virtue of larger economies, populations, or militaries, and — critically — of larger regional geopolitical sway, some countries either self-appoint or are designated as being appropriate candidates — India being the archetype. President Obama has cited India’s contribution to the United Nations’ military operations as a qualification for a permanent seat. Contradictorily, in its official statements, India has strongly emphasized that it represents the developing world, a group that has suffered at the hands of colonizers’ military and political strength.
It would defeat Mr. Zuma’s purpose — democratization and equalization — to appoint “third world” countries that are attempting to act like traditional powers. The current Security Council is oligarchical. Increasing the number of permanent seats is to increase the number of oligarchs. The game’s players have changed, and regional dynamics have become too complicated to assign a single seat to one region.
There is something contradictory about playing by the rules of the old game while pretending to represent a new one. Larger economies, larger militaries, and unrivaled regional influence were the characteristics that led to the self-appointment of the current SC permanent members. They should not be the only criteria for 21st century appointments. As the number of the game’s players and the nature of the game itself changes, its quintessential rules should change too.
Alejandra Traslosheros is a sophomore at Earlham College, where she is majoring in Economics and Politics.
Image Attribution: “Security Council” by AnToonz, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0