Odds are high that in the next few weeks or months the United Nations Security Council will consider action against Syria, Iran or North Korea.
Odds are higher still that Russia or China will use the threat of a veto to water down any sanctions or condemnation to the point of irrelevance.
This illustrates why the veto for the five permanent members of the Security Council has become an increasingly dangerous anachronism that, as part of larger reforms, should be given up.
To hear Harry Truman tell it, the proposed veto power for the permanent members of the Security Council was the most contentious issue at the UN’s 1945 birth in San Francisco. Small countries said it cut against the planned institution’s democratic values and left them at the mercy of larger powers. The U.S. said the founding states would only support the UN if they believed that it safeguarded their interests, and a veto was essential for that purpose. Indeed, senators such as Arthur Vandenberg worried that the UN would send U.S. troops to fight other countries’ wars. (The Soviet Union even wanted veto power extended to decisions about what the UN could discuss -- a demand that the U.S. succeeded in thwarting.)
Since then, members of the P5 -- as China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. are known -- have used the veto nearly 200 times on complete draft resolutions. During the Cold War, the veto reinforced a geopolitical stalemate, with the USSR saying “nyet” 90 times. The U.S. -- with 57 solo vetoes, the next biggest user -- has used it 42 times since 1970 on Middle Eastern issues, mostly to beat back resolutions critical of Israel.
More recently, however, a troubling trend has emerged: China and Russia, acting alone or together, using the veto to protect autocratic regimes such as Myanmar (2007), Zimbabwe (2008) and Syria (2012). That doesn’t include the many times P5 members have used the threat of a veto to scupper planned resolutions before they hit the table. In particular, as a high-level UN panel put it in 2004, the council has not “acted consistently or effectively in the face of genocide or other atrocities.”
Several reform efforts have called for abolition or curtailment of the veto. It remains one of the biggest obstacles to expanding permanent membership to Japan and Germany (the former Axis members that are now democracies and the world’s third and fourth biggest economies), India (a nuclear power that is home to one-sixth of the world’s population) and Brazil (the world’s sixth biggest economy, which Franklin Roosevelt wanted as a permanent council member back in 1945). And, as Russia and China increasingly look to restrain U.S. influence, deadlocks will force the rest of the world to pay a growing price in peace, stability and freedom.
We think the U.S. should lead the way by calling for the abolition of the veto and the expansion of the council’s permanent membership to Japan, Germany, India and Brazil. There are other ways of safeguarding its interests -- requiring supermajorities, for example, in the council for resolutions calling for the use of force, or mandating a majority of permanent members’ votes for a veto. Such new rules would be more in keeping with professed U.S. values and would play to what should be its diplomatic strong suit: the force of right, not might.
We’re not naive enough to think that these changes will necessarily happen. In fact, because the UN’s charter specifies that any such reforms can only occur with unanimous P5 consent, these probably won’t. But U.S. endorsement of them would win plaudits from aspirants to permanent membership and put the onus of obstruction where it belongs. That would be a diplomatic coup in itself.
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