The Three Modes of the Security Council

In my forthcoming book on US-UN relations (appearing this summer from Hoover Press), Living with the UN, I describe three different “modes” of the Security Council.  By this I mean ways in which the Security Council might function, for some given situation, in regards to international peace and security.  (An early version of this is found in this paper on the Security Council in a multipolar world at SSRN, and I will post a non-final-edited version of the chapter from the book to SSRN as well.)  The three modes are:

  • The Security Council as the “management committee of our fledgling collective security system.”  The phrase “management committee” comes from Kofi Annan, who used it repeatedly in his final months as Secretary General.  It refers to the Security Council as acting as a genuine “corporate” whole to make global determinations and take action regarding international security.
  • The Security Council as the “concert of the nations,” acting as the conduit great powers, or at least a sizable number of them, in concert toward some end that has at least some blessing or acquiescence or non-veto by the members of the Security Council.  The difference from the management committee is that the Council acts  functionally not as a “corporate” body but instead a group of great powers, an agglomeration and not an entity.
  • The Security Council as the “talking shop of the nations.”  In this mode, the Security Council is just that – a negotiating space for the great powers, in which one hopes they reach a modus vivendi with respect to themselves and others.

The Security Council in its history has almost never acted in the “management committee” mode, for at least two reasons.  One is the lack of shared interests among the great powers, particularly the permanent veto-bearing members.  The second is that even where they might share interests, or at least not have unalterable opposition, the UN’s collective security mechanisms suffer from deep and mostly intractable collective action failure issues.  It is held out as an ideal, but never really goes anywhere.  Where the Council is most able to take on this role is in genuinely consensus-based peacekeeping operations authorized by the Council – largely in circumstances where the great powers of the Council do not have sufficient interests at stake to cause problems.  In a world, however, in which resources in what used to be mere global backwaters are now an important concern for exploitation by China and others, the room for situations in which no one really cares enough to hold up collective peacekeeping risks shrinking.

As my paper and book explain, however, this broad “failure to launch,” as it were, leaves a question as to why the idea of collective security at the UN even continues to be bandied about. Why has it not simply disappeared as the League of Nations collective security system did, into the dustbin of history as the detritus of war?  The answer, of course, is that the leading players can pay lip service to an ideal while depending in fact for the rough conditions of global public security goods on the United States, as a loose and exceedingly undemanding hegemon that provides the basics of global order.

The question that looms today is what happens if the United States decides that it no longer will, or can, provide those global public goods.  Who steps in and what are the consequences?  This is one of the burning questions of multipolarity – but it is one created not as others step forward so much as when the United States steps back.  I will take up that question – the question of the US as “get-along, go-along” player, no longer acting as the hegemonic provider of global public order because it sees that as in its own interest and sufficiently as a matter of its ideals, but instead announcing that it is just another player in the UN collective security system.  There is, to start with, a question of trust, even by our closest friends and allies – when they understand the US to be acting within its own deep interests, which luckily happen to align more or less with their own, they will believe the US commitment.  When they believe that the US is acting merely as another large player in collective action, then they will wonder whether the US will not do as they might do, promise insincerely to undertake collective action, and then defect.  But I will leave that discussion to the book chapter and another post.

The Security Council as “concert of the nations” was most clearly on display in the First Gulf War.  Even in that Security Council action, it was a concert of nations – though a very wide one and with as close to “corporate action” by the Council as one could get – and an agglomeration of states that in fact acted.  In the current Libyan circumstance, the Council and the great powers have acted in this capacity – as a quite strong concert of nations.

In the Libya situation, the “concert” at the Security Council is buttressed by the US in its “parallel” security hegemon role, but the US can afford to take a back seat because there are enough other states with interests, and ideals, of their own to project.  Clive Crook raises an important question as to whether the US is redefining its security relationship with the world by being simply another go-along player; giving up hegemonic leadership in favor of being the “big guns” and yet not the “big leadership” in this collective security effort through the Council.  I have not finally made up my mind about this. A point I have been making in the academic literature for quite a while is that the US under the Obama administration seems deeply interested in stepping back from that role – “strategic withdrawal,” in other words, ironically under the name of “multilateral engagement.”  It is not as though I hold any brief for the Obama administration’s role in maintaining US global leadership.

However, in the relatively rare instance in which the great powers, or enough of them, and including the important actors of the Arab League, are able to form a “concert of nations” through the Council, then it is not clear to me that the US gives up any hegemonic leadership by stepping back and providing muscle but not the visible face of the effort.  I certainly do regard much of the Obama administration as being interested in doing so, but I am not so far persuaded that this kind of Libyan “concert of nations” response is evidence of that.  To see evidence of the US stepping back, rather than making a rational tactical calculation that its ability to exit and dump a likely intractable situation either of stalemate with Qaddafi or an unmanageable victory on someone else – the UN, in the traditional US playbook  – well, one would have to find situations in which there is a less obvious sensible reason for the US behaving as it has.  I regard “strategic withdrawal cum multilateral engagement” as being the Obama administration’s preferred foreign policy in fact, but I do not regard the Libyan situation, at least so far, as evidence of it.

Still, the conditions for “concert” are relatively rare, and depend very often on the pressure on the system from “outside” it by the threat of US action, merely acting unilaterally or with its closest allies as a coalition of the willing as in Kosovo.  Other great powers might be willing to accede to a “concert” through the Security Council that at least gives them some hold-up power and reinforces the notion of Security Council supremacy, if the alternative is that the US and its allies act from the outside, parallel, hegemonic security system of the US.  Hope springs eternal at the UN and among its liberal internationalist believers, and every instance of something by the Council that isn’t merely negotiation is taken as another slender reed to be grasped and then spun into some bigger trend that, alas, will only become clear long after we are all dead.

Finally, the third mode, the “talking shop of the great powers” – that is the most typical mode of the Security Council.  It is almost automatically disparaged by liberal internationalist-global governance enthusiasts, because it is by definition so very limited.  But that underrates the considerable historical achievement it represents.  It is, after all, much more multilateral as a discussion forum than most other negotiating mechanisms in the past, and although the Council’s most important business takes place in closed session, the fact that it has the full members in those closed sessions means that there is at least an opportunity for those voices to be heard, even if great power interests ultimately carry the day.  This multilateral negotiating system – so long as the great powers take part – is a considerable historical improvement on the usual alternative, parallel but ultimately bilateral negotiations taking place on several bilateral tracks at once.

Moreover, if the world is in fact becoming more multipolar, one might expect the Security Council to have fewer, not more possibilities, for being the “management committee” or the “concert of nations.” A multipolar world is more intensely competitive, not cooperative, as the bleakly astute David Rieff reminds us.  It tends toward the last of these three modes, not the first two.  The first two are mostly appearances that depend finally upon the outside guarantee of US hegemony, however counter-intutitive and finally ironic that might be.

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