How the UN Security Council Can Reinvent Itself

The most powerful body of the most global organization has proved unable to address the world’s most pressing problems.

Illustration of the UN logo as an unfinished puzzle
Getty; The Atlantic

Seventy-seven years into its troubled existence, the United Nations Security Council confronts a consequential decision: Transform or die.

The choice was vividly illustrated in the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, when Russia’s United Nations ambassador served as the president of the Security Council even as his country committed a flagrant violation of the UN’s founding principles. That spectacle was soon followed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggesting that entities such as the Security Council are defunct and proposing a new “union of responsible countries” (dubbed “U-24”) to provide assistance within 24 hours of a country suffering an attack, natural disaster, or health crisis. Sure, he was short on details. But it was still a stunning suggestion to make in the throes of war—like proposing a rewrite of fire regulations while your house is burning down. Being failed by international institutions brings a certain clarity about their deficiencies and the urgent need to address them.

Even before Russia’s invasion, a deeply divided Security Council was struggling to act on many of today’s defining challenges, including mass human-rights violations and nontraditional security threats such as climate change and public-health crises. The most powerful body of the most global organization has been largely bypassing the world’s most pressing problems.

If the Security Council doesn’t make major changes to overcome its paralysis, it risks fading into obsolescence. But the body isn’t dead yet. Experts are debating intriguing proposals for how to overhaul it. And though all seem unlikely to be implemented, reformers can take heart from the fact that the Security Council itself is an unlikely invention.

When the Security Council was founded as part of the United Nations in 1945, it was built as “an extension of the powers that defeated Hitler and Japan,” and a way to “lock in place the Soviets, the British, and the U.S., along with France and China, as the world’s policemen,” Richard Gowan, the UN director at the International Crisis Group, told me.

The locking mechanism was to make these wartime allies permanent members and grant them the power to veto measures brought before the body, which enjoys unrivaled clout within the UN system as the only entity with the authority to initiate military action, institute peacekeeping operations, impose international sanctions, and issue binding resolutions.

But the policemen quickly turned on one another as the Cold War took hold. The veto, which once seemed like a reasonable price to pay for securing the buy-in of the great powers, started looking more like a poisoned chalice.

The Security Council was arguably even more dysfunctional and deadlocked during certain low points of the Cold War than it is today, not meeting for months at a time and passing just one resolution in 1959, then drifting for much of the 1970s and ’80s. After a brief, successful period  following the Cold War, the council again foundered. It failed to effectively respond to international crises such as the genocide in Rwanda, the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, the second Iraq War, the Syrian civil war, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and mass atrocities in the Sudanese region of Darfur and Myanmar’s Rakhine State, among others.

Nor has the council distinguished itself on contemporary challenges that pose serious threats to human security, broadly defined. It has been a bit player in the global response to COVID-19, taking months to pass a resolution urging warring parties around the world to abide by a humanitarian cease-fire during the pandemic—only for the measure to then go unheeded. The institution has also done little on climate change: Last year, Russia vetoed a rather anodyne resolution nudging the council toward tackling climate change as a threat to peace and security, despite 113 countries co-sponsoring the resolution—the second-highest tally for a draft resolution in the organization’s history.

The Security Council also suffers from a crisis of legitimacy stemming from the fact that its permanent members are a snapshot of the prevailing world powers circa 1945. It has, for example, no permanent representation from Africa or Latin America. Influential countries such as India and Japan are missing as well. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres told me in 2018, “the Security Council doesn’t correspond anymore” to contemporary geopolitical dynamics.

Now Russia’s assault on Ukraine has underscored just how ineffectual the Security Council can be when a permanent member assumes the role of attacker, using the body as a shield. In the early days of the conflict, even though by some interpretations it should have abstained as a party to the dispute, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution demanding that the Kremlin halt its illegal aggression and withdraw its forces from Ukraine. The measure’s backers therefore had to transmute the text into a nonbinding resolution that the UN General Assembly, to its credit, passed resoundingly. Moscow’s veto is also a big obstacle in the way of the Security Council referring Russian acts of aggression in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court. Ditto for economic sanctions, which have been levied against Moscow not by the Security Council but by an ad hoc coalition of countries.

The UN has not been entirely listless during the Ukraine crisis. The General Assembly has voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council; UN officials are investigating potential war crimes in Ukraine; and UN agencies are providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainians and assisting refugees.

And for all its flaws, the Security Council itself isn’t yet a lost cause. The institution has managed (for now) to continue conducting non-Ukraine business by, for example, reauthorizing an African Union mission in Somalia and extending a UN mission in Afghanistan. “We understand that behind the scenes the Chinese in particular are leaning on the Russians [and] saying: ‘Don’t let this spread. We have an interest in the UN remaining effective in places like Afghanistan and we don’t want you to blow this all up,’” Gowan told me. He thinks the council retains value as “a place where the big powers can hash out a certain range of security issues,” such as sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear-weapons program or the now-languishing international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

There are, moreover, plenty of ideas of varying practicality and ambition for reforming the Security Council, including the permanent members voluntarily relinquishing their veto in cases of mass atrocities or being deprived of their veto power on matters involving the existential threats of climate change, infectious disease, and nuclear weapons; making the Security Council more globally representative; and changing the way the secretary-general is selected so the UN leader is less beholden to permanent members. Russia’s war against Ukraine has already spurred one significant but modest change: A veto of a Security Council resolution now automatically triggers a debate on the subject in the General Assembly within 10 days.

Perhaps the most compelling idea I’ve encountered is for a change to the UN’s founding charter that would allow a supermajority of countries in the General Assembly (possibly with the concurrence of most permanent members in the Security Council) to override the veto of a permanent member.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who knows the UN system inside out as a former high commissioner for human rights, a Jordanian ambassador to the organization, and a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia, recently suggested such a solution. He argued that a three-quarters or seven-eighths vote in the General Assembly should be sufficient to override a permanent member’s veto. Former Turkish Economy Minister Kemal Derviş and former Colombian Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo, both also former UN officials, have proposed something similar: adding a provision to the charter enabling “a large double majority—representing, for example, at least two-thirds of member countries and two-thirds of the world’s population—to override a veto.” The international-relations scholar Anthony Pahnke has floated yet another variant: a veto override if two-thirds of countries in the General Assembly and/or four out of five Security Council members are in favor of doing so. We’re talking roughly the levels of exceptional international solidarity on display in the March General Assembly resolution calling for an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The giant roadblock is that any change to the charter would need to be approved by two-thirds of UN members through their respective constitutional processes for ratifying treaty amendments, including all Security Council permanent members. Russia and China would likely reject such a reform, as would maybe even France and the United Kingdom, which haven’t cast a veto since 1989—as well as the United States, which often uses its veto power to defend Israel against resolutions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An additional challenge is that seeking a specific modification of the charter could unlock a Pandora’s box on a global scale. Countries “have a long wish list of what they want in council reform,” Gowan explained. “The North Koreans occasionally pop up and say that the council should spend more time discussing Japanese war crimes in the 1940s. Everyone has a demand. So if you start opening up for reform, you’re not going to be able to keep it focused on a few narrow goals.” That’s the reason the charter has been amended only five times in its history, and not once since 1973.

We tend to forget how revolutionary it was for countries to voluntarily restrict some of their sovereignty by agreeing to be bound by Security Council decisions, including in matters of armed conflict. They did this in response to the extraordinary horrors of World War II and the preceding failure of the League of Nations. Karin Landgren, the executive director of Security Council Report, a nonprofit organization focused on making the Security Council more effective, and a former UN undersecretary-general, has observed, “If that was radical in 1945, I think it’s the stuff of fantasy today” amid fierce competition among the world’s big powers.

Gowan has noted that transformations in international institutions tend to stem from wars involving world powers, whereas more incremental tweaks to these institutions typically result from less severe crises. The war in Ukraine occupies an ever-shifting place somewhere in between these poles. “If the situation in Ukraine escalates to the type of major-power war that opens up the space for fundamental, multilateral reform, that’s great but we’ll all be dead” from nuclear war, he said.

But perhaps the long odds are fitting for an improbable creation like the United Nations, and today’s confluence of challenges presents an urgent impetus for change short of world war. If the United States and its allies want to preserve the international architecture they helped build, these desperate times call for drastic measures such as leading a bold initiative to reform the sclerotic Security Council and pressuring Russia and China to consent to it.

We live in an age of global intervulnerability to existential threats—and thus a period when it may be warranted to transfer some power (in the form, say, of a veto-override option at the United Nations) from the five top powers circa 1945 to the consensus of the majority of countries affected by the challenges associated with climate change, pandemics, and nuclear conflict.

In supporting an effort like this, the U.S. government could contend that it isn’t afraid of (and is in fact supportive of) the global consensus on the world’s defining challenges. And it could ask a related question: If Russia and China are opposed to such a change, what does that say about their disregard for the rest of the world? This could open a new front in the battle of ideas between Moscow and Beijing on one side, and Washington and its allies on the other.

As Derviş and Ocampo have argued in support of their proposal, “This is an ideal time for the world’s democracies, including the U.S., to propose such a change. By backing it, President Joe Biden’s administration could seize the moment and show its determination to create a more equitable and inclusive multilateral system. This would send a powerful—and widely welcomed—message that the U.S. is confident that its enlightened national self-interest will be in accord with the interests of a large majority of the world’s countries and people.”

If the Security Council fails to go big on reform, the future will likely involve countries forming flexible, pop-up security coalitions of the willing—with prime examples being the Ukrainian “U-24” proposal, or the countries that have rallied to support Kyiv with military, economic, and humanitarian assistance and sanctions against Russia.

Gowan has sketched a similar concept: an “emergency platform” that operates in parallel with the Security Council and includes a network of leaders from UN members, UN groups, and international financial institutions and aid agencies to mitigate the fallout from shocks to the global economy and international system. He envisions the platform functioning something like how global actors are currently joining forces to contend with the energy challenges and food crises resulting from the war in Ukraine.

“The future of multilateral cooperation,” Gowan noted, “is likely to be the quite informal, quite context-specific groups that get together on a case-by-case basis.” Unfortunately, he added, they will typically band together “because there’s a crisis and the existing structures cannot manage it.”