Why would states want or not want a seat on the United Nations Security Council?

October 19, 2013

The response to the decision by Saudi Arabia to reject the non permanent seat that it had just won has in most part been met with incredulity. Why would any state turn down the honor and opportunity to be part of the 15 states that together decide on the most pressing international security issues?

It is true that it is unprecedented for a newly elected state to say thanks, but no thanks. As I pointed out yesterday, however, this was also the first time Saudi Arabia even ran for a seat, which is highly unusual for a state of its prominence. Thus, it seems like Saudi Arabia had reasons before to be less than enthusiastic about asserting itself on the U.N. Security Council.

This begs the questions: What good is it to be allowed for two years to take a seat among the 15 states that make up the U.N. Security Council? And why might some states not be so interested in this privilege?

A first plausible reason for joining the club is policy influence. As I mentioned yesterday, the voting rules make it hard for non-permanent seat holders to affect outcomes. Moreover, there are regular informal consultations with powerful states that are not on the council. Yet, on the margins being on the inside probably helps a state shape the agenda and the content of resolutions somewhat. Still, few observers believe that policy influence is the most important reason for states to seek membership, although there are some exceptions where states have competed for a seat in order to promote a particular cause.

The most cynical rationale is that states simply want a U.N. seat in order to exchange votes for goodies. Research shows that states who become non-permanent members obtain temporary increases in U.S. aid and even favorable World Bank, IMF, and Asian Development Bank loans, although there is no evidence that aid-seeking states are more likely to win election (most seats are distributed via rotational principles).

For more developed states, prestige is the most frequently mentioned rationale for getting a seat. Prestige is not easily quantifiable but it is most relevant for the foreign ministries (state departments) of countries. Their budgets and tasks get significantly enhanced during periods on the Security Council. The foreign ministries of Japan and Germany have long sought a permanent seat on the Council but it took them decades to convince their respective prime-ministers to take on the issue. Even then, the executives in these countries have for the most part refused to play hardball and use their leverage as the second and third largest financial contributors. (Japan has done this a bit but not to the extent that the U.S. did in the mid 1990s when it got major concessions by withholding contributions). Ultimately, even a permanent seat confers limited real power and may not be worth the diplomatic price that it would likely require. Still, prestige is probably an important reason why governments seek access to the club and I suspect more than a few Saudi diplomats are quite disappointed.

Holding a seat on the Security Council also comes with responsibilities. For example, I show in a forthcoming article that states temporarily contribute more peacekeepers when they serve on the Security Council.  The graph below illustrates this: countries on average contribute many more peacekeepers during than just before and after their two-year terms. Presumably, this is so because it is harder to say no to requests for contributions when you have just voted to accept a peacekeeping mission. This can be costly as many peacekeeping missions are dangerous and involve casualties.


Graph by Erik Voeten

More important for the case of Saudi Arabia is the responsibility to publicly take positions on highly sensitive political issues. This is the reason that Mexico for a long time didn’t want to serve on the Council: it is one more opportunity to get into trouble with the U.S. The Mexican public often insists that the government take a stance against the U.S. even when the government has pragmatic reasons to to behave differently. Indeed, privately, I have heard from Mexican policy makers (those based in Mexico City rather than in New York) that they experienced their more recent two-year terms as burdens more than privileges.

I strongly suspect this is the reason why Saudi Arabia had never before sought a seat on the Security Council. We all know that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are strategic allies but this is not because they have converging preferences on most foreign policy issues. Rather, the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia because it has the world’s largest oil reserves and Saudi Arabia needs the U.S. for purposes of defense and to preserve security and stability in the region.

Given their fundamental clashes over human rights, Israel, and other issues, this relationship works best when diplomacy operates behind closed doors. If Saudi Arabia takes a public stand on a high profile issue against the U.S. perhaps the U.S. will respond with public scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record. This is why I suspect that the withdrawal of military equipment aid to Egypt may have had a sobering effect. Until recently, withdrawal of that aid was not deemed credible given Egypt’s strategic position. Now that this is in play, who knows what a potential public spat with the U.S. may lead to. Given that the relationship with the U.S. is a core interest of Saudi Arabia, I suspect they decided to better be safe than sorry.

Others have suggested that the Saudi decision may be part of a more sincere attempt to reform the Council. It could be but I am not so sure. Saudi Arabia has never before shown a real interest in this issue, preferring venues such as the G20 where they can negotiate behind closed doors. As David Bosco points out, Saudi Arabia is not a natural leader of a public fight to end the antiquated power structure embedded in the U.N. Security Council. Ultimately, I think the leadership simply got cold feet about abandoning their long and successful strategy of backdoor diplomacy.

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh Associate Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government.
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John Sides · October 18, 2013