The New Power Dispensation at the UN Security Council

Changes are afoot in the way power works in the world. New axes of power are emerging.
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Changes are afoot in the way power works in the world. Oft-predicted (by Parag Khanna, among others), new axes of power are emerging.

At the UN Security Council, where power is (sometimes) made visible, a statement is this week under preparation to react to the trial of Aung Sung Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader. Do not cling to the naïve illusion that such statements are drafted and prepared by all 15 members of the Council, permanent and non-permanent alike. This has rarely if ever been the case. Traditionally, it is the "P5" or the five veto-wielding permanent members who rule the roost in that secretive, closed but revered body. They will tend to draft and agree texts among themselves, to present these fait accompli to the rest of the Council. These non-permanent or "elected" members, as they prefer inaccurately to name themselves (since most of them are elected by rote not by proper election), are, with rare exceptions, mere witnesses to the real power in this diplomatic show.

But things are changing, I learned recently. The Burma statement is being negotiated exclusively by the US and China. In other words, the remainder of the P5 - the UK, France and Russia - have in effect recused themselves from the negotiation, leaving it to the two powers who will together determine what the Council can or cannot agree to utter. My source on the Council tells me that the "P2", as the US-China grouping is known, are privately discussing what they might together agree to in the statement. We shall see what results (late post: the press statement from the Council was issued on 22 May: you can see it here).

In olden days on the Security Council, when I worked there for instance (1998-2002) as part of the UK delegation, China was the least forceful voice in the P5. Resolutions and statements would often be drafted by the P4 (ie Russia, US, France, UK) and China would only be consulted, politely of course, late in the day. Today, China is often the determinative voice in deciding what the Council may or may not decide. The other P5, including of course the Russians, still matter, and can make things very complicated for instance when Georgia is under discussion. But the emergence of China is a new 21st century phenomenon, and the P2 axis is, as my source put it, the shape of things to come.

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