The Security Council's exclusive makeup and its voting procedures are entirely anachronistic
David Cameron's remarks at the G20 summit suggesting that the supporters of a military strike on Syria bypass the UN Security Council have once again cast a harsh light on the workings of a body founded in 1945 with the avowed aim of keeping the world's peace. If the prime minister has identified a problem, his solution is the worst imaginable.
Confronted with a period in which Russia has reverted to tactics reminiscent of Andrei Gromyko's use of the veto, which earned him the nickname "Mr No", the Security Council has become increasingly sclerotic and unworkable. It is not only Russia that is a repeat offender in this instance. The consistent use by the United States of its veto to protect Israel from any criticism has also attracted opprobrium.
But the answer is not, as Mr Cameron seemed to suggest, to sideline the council but to reform it. The reality is that its makeup and voting procedures are entirely anachronistic. Indeed, when dozens of foreign policy experts were asked by Foreign Policy magazine what would make the biggest improvement in the UN's effectiveness the answer was: Security Council reform.
That view is shared both by the US's new UN ambassador, Samantha Power, and by President Obama, who, three years ago, suggested that India be added as a permanent member. As Power pointed out in an article in 2004, while the permanent five once spoke for 40% of the world's population, these days they speak for only 29%. The obvious solution is enlargement and the replacement of the veto system with majority voting first introduced to avoid the conditions that led to the failure of the League of Nations.
The issue is not a new one. Even at the San Francisco conference that drew up the UN charter, there was disquiet among delegates that special roles were being reserved for then powerful states, harking back to the 19th-century Concert of Europe, devised by Metternich.
As some analysts have pointed out, the exclusive makeup of that body made a mockery of the charter itself, which proclaimed "the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members".
Since then, the five permanent members have largely resisted any meaningful reform apart from an increase in 1966 of Security Council membership – including non-permanent members – from 11 to 15. The self-serving objection of veto-wielding members has often been that expansion and a change to voting practices would make the Security Council less, not more, efficient. Despite pressure for a more democratic and representative Security Council, which has been growing since the widening of UN membership that began with decolonisation – and in the aftermath of the cold war – paradoxically, no clear mechanism exists to push forward reform, with P5 members assiduously protecting their special status.
Another complicating factor is that Russian foreign policy is heavily invested in its seat on the P5 precisely because it sees the Security Council as presently configured as an effective foil against US ambitions. It is for this reason that the threat to ignore the Security Council is seen in UK and US foreign policy circles as a nuclear option, because it threatens to undermine a key plank of Moscow's influence in international affairs.
Cameron's intervention, and to a lesser extent that of Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, ironically makes the case for reform more powerful, exposing what is obvious to many: that the permanent seats of two fading middle-ranking powers – Britain and France – are a stark anomaly, while the vetoes of the US, Russia and China have as often been employed against human rights and keeping the peace as in service of them.
Given the difficulties in reaching consensus on an issue as important as Syria, even in two years and more of pointless wrangling, it is hard to see how an expanded and more representative body would make a worse fist of maintaining international peace.