The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion U.N. reform is a self-defeating idea — literally

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers his address during the 77th General Debate inside the General Assembly Hall at United Nations Headquarters in New York on Sept. 24. (Peter Foley, EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Russia’s war against Ukraine exposed and exploited weaknesses in existing international systems, the most glaring of which could be the legal framework of the United Nations. One of five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N.’s highest peacekeeping authority, the Security Council, Moscow used that position to thwart measures such as global sanctions that might have helped rein in its aggression. This abuse of power, in the cause of destroying a recognized U.N. member no less, certainly made President Biden’s appeal for U.N. reforms during his Sept. 21 address to the General Assembly a timely one. The situation unfortunately also illustrates why the president should not spend too much more of his valuable time on this oft-stated but elusive goal.

In proposing that not just Moscow but all permanent Security Council members — including the United States, China, France and Britain — should avoid using the veto, and that they should express detailed reasons when they do, Mr. Biden was associating the United States with long-standing complaints from among the U.N.’s 188 other member states about the “P-5’s” undue clout. Ditto for his promise to support permanent membership for one country each from Africa and Latin America, as well as for other “nations we’ve long supported” — likely a reference to Japan and Germany.

This suggestion might help Mr. Biden curry a little short-run diplomatic favor with these nations, but any such plan is a nonstarter because — Catch-22! — China and Russia would veto it. No doubt Beijing and Moscow have their own ideas for new permanent Security Council members, but it’s unlikely Japan and Germany — with which they have warred in the past, and which are current U.S. military allies — are on the list. Maybe China would recommend its friend Pakistan instead of India, another frequently mentioned candidate. India is arguably deserving, given its vast size and nuclear arsenal — and arguably not, given its recent authoritarian drift and acquisition of those weapons outside of the U.N.’s nonproliferation treaty regime.

Better for the United States to focus on shoring up what still does work at the United Nations. Though not living up to its loftiest global-governance promises, the U.N. has real crisis management capabilities and can facilitate limited cooperation among warring parties — when their mutual self-interest dictates. Ironically, the same Russian aggression against Ukraine that demonstrated the U.N.’s incapacity to prevent war has demonstrated the U.N.’s capacity for at least some damage control: Its diplomats were instrumental in negotiating and implementing a deal between Russia and Ukraine to lift the former’s previous blockade and allow the latter to export more than 1 million metric tons of much-needed grain through the Black Sea. A U.N. body, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been providing a crucial neutral monitoring presence at Ukraine’s massive, Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

There is no ready-to-hand procedural fix for what ails the United Nations because its failures ultimately stem from substantive conflicts of interest among states, on the Security Council and in the body as a whole. If and when those conflicts can be lastingly resolved, institutional reform will become much easier — but also much less necessary.

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