Troubling Turnover on UN Security Council

EDITOR'S NOTE: The newly-elected United Nations Security Council members may pose challenges to United States interests, says Kara C. McDonald, international affairs fellow in residence for the Council on Foreign Relations. For her full article, please visit the council's Web site. A few excerpts:

On October 15, the UN General Assembly was poised to elect five new members of the UN Security Council-Nigeria, Gabon, Lebanon, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Brazil-to two-year terms.

On the surface, each state's relatively easy path to election-all five advanced uncontested from their regional groupings-would seem to convey consensus on their worthiness to sit on the UN's most powerful deliberative body. But these choices pose challenges for U.S. interests on the fifteen-member council, including the ongoing process to check the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. The fitness of some of these countries to serve also raises questions about the selection process.

Tougher council deliberations

As for individual negotiations, the United States can expect a tougher environment that demands significant engagement with capitals of other Security Council members. Negotiating tactics in the UN Security Council often come down to the number of votes: Seven and nine are magic numbers. A country needs seven votes to block action on an agenda item, and nine votes with no vetoes to pass a resolution. In 2009, the United States could generally count on France, the United Kingdom, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Japan, Mexico, and Uganda on important votes, with Croatia and Austria often following suit. This alignment of council member interests was essential to recent council action on Iran and North Korea, and will be important to ongoing discussions on Sudan, the International Criminal Court, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Somalia.

The five new members were elected in a clean-slate election, meaning there was no competition, with only one candidate running per open seat. The ramification of a clean-slate election for UN Security Council dynamics is that regional groups, rather than the General Assembly as a whole, negotiate and decide which candidates to put forward, thus leaving the General Assembly little choice. This trend has increased the power of regional blocs in choosing members of the Security Council, and potentially undermines the selection of Security Council members based on the qualification of contributions to international peace and security as set out in Article 23 of the UN Charter.

With its regional interests and domestic political issues, the new council will be an environment less favorable to U.S. interests. How sharply these dynamics will affect the achievement of U.S. objectives in the council depends largely on the administration's ability to translate its stated "New Era of Engagement" into negotiated results.

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