Critics have long assailed the UN Security Council for failing to end the Syrian war, for intervening disastrously in Libya, for doing little to end North Korea's nuclear program, and for generally falling down in its duty to bring peace to the planet. So the question arises: of what use is the UN Security Council today?
The Council originally came into being as part of the UN Charter drafted at the 1945 San Francisco Conference. It grew out of the failure of the League of Nations. The League had performed disastrously as a security body after its establishment in 1920 due to three singular factors -- every member-state within it possessed the veto, so a single rogue nation could block any action by the League; no League edict was binding on any country, meaning that cooperation was entirely voluntary; and the U.S. never joined it. All three features doomed the institution.
The notion of a successor organization began to take shape under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had been an ardent supporter of the League, as a member of President Woodrow Wilson's cabinet, when he served as deputy secretary of the Navy. Once elected in 1932, Roosevelt sought ways to resurrect it, but, because of strong isolationist sentiment during the 1930s, he did not have the political cover to do so. However, once the second world war began, he secretly instructed his State Department to write a new draft charter.
Roosevelt focused on one concern -- that the planet needed security, security, security. Two catastrophic global conflicts -- the first and second world wars -- in which over 90 million people had died, confirmed in his mind that a universal security body was the only way to guarantee peace in the future.
But he believed the new organization had to be different than the old League. The new institution had to be grounded in real politick -- which meant designing a Security Council which would make all decisions on war and peace, and whose resolutions would be binding on all member-states. This meant that once a country joined the UN, it had to follow the dictates of the Council. But, beyond that, to make the Council militarily effective, Roosevelt felt it was imperative that the successful anti-Nazi wartime alliance of Great Britain, the USSR, China, the United States and France run it. These five nations would, in his view, serve as the primary enforcers for all UN Security Council resolutions. He did not believe that any other states on the planet had the strength to handle such responsibilities.
Thus he gave the five allies (P5) permanent status on the Council and veto power. Such an approach, he thought, would assure a forceful, potent and swift response by the UN on all of its enforcement actions. But why the veto? Roosevelt felt strongly that, since these five nations would be risking the lives of their own soldiers in UN missions, or, in any case, might have other national interests at risk, they should have the right to terminate any military operations they opposed. In short, the Council could only succeed if the P5 acted collectively. But, for him, there was a deeper agenda in play. He knew he could not obtain the backing of the U.S. Senate to ratify the UN Treaty or even gain the allegiance of the Soviet Union to join the organization -- without the veto.
The veto power he sketched out was considerable: the P-5 could enjoin UN missions, prevent amendments to UN Charter, make the final recommendations on whom would be Secretary-General, shape most discussions on the Council and keep new nations out of UN (and, later on, decide on whether cases should be sent to the International Criminal Court).
The veto's appearance caused a furious uproar among the smaller states at the San Francisco Conference. However, in the end, those nations acquiesced in the deal when they realized that the US and USSR would otherwise walk out of the conference and leave the UN.
Today the smaller countries continue to protest the primacy of the five permanent members. They argue that the Security Council can no longer be seen as a legitimate body since the power realities of 2016 are so plainly different than those of 1945 -- for example, in excluding such rising nations as Brazil, Japan, Germany and India. They have sought repeatedly over the years sought to restructure the Council, though with no success.
Roosevelt's concept of the Council still continues to hold sway despite its limitations. At best, the world now has a semi-active Council that does, on occasion, accomplish some goals of peace and security even while it overlooks others. For example, it passed 64 resolutions alone in 2015 whereas in 1959, it passed one. And the Council has authorized some sixteen peacekeeping operations; sent UN peace emissaries to Syria, Libya, Yemen, North Korea, and elsewhere; and helped end wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia and rebuild their societies.
But the Council's achievements are not enough to persuade the smaller states to abandon their crusade for change. Indeed, their anger is growing over the lack of any response. In the second decade of the new century, it now appears that if there is no serious movement on reform this year, the General Assembly may take more dramatic action this Fall. The Assembly, which, on its own, vetted candidates for this year's Secretary-General election, may now take the unprecedented step of rejecting the Council's recommendation for a new UN leader. Such a rebuke would throw the organization into chaos. While nobody wants that to happen at the UN, the continued backsliding by the P-5 on reform may guarantee this outcome.