Five to Rule Them All : The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World

Nov 2, 2009

What has been, is, and should be the role of the UN Security Council? Bosco chronicles its history--its successes and its failures—and concludes with some positive suggestions for the future.



Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you for joining us.

As I look out at the audience, I know that many of you are familiar with the United Nations and are well-versed about what goes on behind the closed doors of the Security Council. Nonetheless, as our speaker opens the doors to this chamber, you may be surprised to discover something about the Security Council that you didn't know before.

For the rest of us, when this hour comes to an end, you will have all the information you will need to describe the Security Council to anyone who asks and talk about what it is, what it does, and even debate its successes and failures.

This is all made possible because our guest today, David Bosco, is here to talk about Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World. As the title implies, this book is about the history of the UN Security Council.

In Five to Rule Them All, our guest provides the inside story of 60-plus years of international crises and conflicts from the vantage point of the UN body which was created to manage them, the Security Council. Drawing on extensive research, this book chronicles political battles and personality clashes that have peppered the goings-on of this principal organ of the United Nations.

Although most of the UN structure insists that member states are equal, the Council, by contrast, grants 15 countries, the permanent five plus ten rotating members, special rights and privileges.

From its beginnings, the Security Council was based on the assumption that five of the strongest nations who were the victors in World War II—the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China—should and could preserve peace worldwide. Even so, Professor Bosco writes how achieving consensus among the Council's five veto-wielding permanent members is rarely easy.

In describing the Council's work, Professor Bosco defends its utility, yet writes about the two distinct and sometimes competing visions of its role. First and foremost, the UN Charter gives the Council the responsibility to maintain international peace and security. But there is also another underlying concept, which is to help prevent conflict between the great powers.

As our speaker describes the key moments in the Council's history, he also talks about the tensions that the Security Council has encountered, for example:

  • What should be its overall size and composition?
  • How should the Council operate, meaning whether debates should be open or closed?
  • Finally, whether the Security Council should be viewed primarily as a political body or as a legal instrument.

Professor Bosco writes that, regardless of the arguments, criticisms, and debates that swirl around the United Nations and the Security Council, since 1946, the Council has helped the world to avoid conflicts between nuclear armed powers. As the international community debates the role that the Council should play in the future, it would do well not to forget the services it has offered in the past.

That being said, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest, David Bosco.

Thank you for joining us.


DAVID BOSCO: Thank you very much, Joanne, for that introduction, and thank you to the Carnegie Council for inviting me to this wonderful space and wonderful forum.

I might say a word or two initially about how it was and why it was that I decided to spend the last three years researching and writing what is essentially a history of the Security Council.

I think it, in many ways, was the product of my own background, which is, in a sense, mixed between law and journalism. I'm trained as an international lawyer. I have worked as an international lawyer and yet have operated, actually, as a journalist for a good amount of my career. I think the legal side of me looked at the Security Council and said, "This body is incredibly powerful." When you look at it from the perspective of international law, the body has enormous powers and enormous authority.

I would just remind people that every country that has signed on to the UN Charter—which means almost every country out there—has signed a contract, basically, which says, "We delegate to the Security Council responsibility for maintaining international peace and security." More than that, "We acknowledge that the Security Council acts on our behalf, that when the Security Council takes an action, it does so on behalf of the international community."

This is a remarkable delegation of power and authority to what is a very small, elite body, and, especially when you look at it from the standpoint of traditional state sovereignty, it is a remarkable thing that the Security Council has done. It's really a remarkable diplomatic creation, and I think it's something that could never be negotiated today. You could never negotiate these kinds of powers to the Council. It was the product of a very unique historical situation.

So there is this remarkable delegation of power. Then, if you look at the UN Charter in terms of what the Security Council can do with that delegation, again you're bowled over by the powers that it has. Once it finds that there is a threat to the peace or a breach of the peace or an act of aggression, it can impose blockades, it can cut off diplomatic relations, and it can use force. It can wage war, essentially, in the name of the international community.

One of the interesting things, from a legal perspective—and I think it's actually very foreign, particularly from the American context—there's no real check on the power of the Security Council, from a formal legal perspective.

There have been a few countries in the history of the United Nations that have tried to challenge some decision of the Security Council. Libya did at one point. Bosnia actually did during the Balkan Wars. They tried to say the Security Council was acting illegally, acting beyond its authority, and they actually took these challenges to the International Court of Justice. The reaction from the International Court of Justice was, "We want nothing to do with exercising judicial review over the Security Council." So the one body, in essence, that could serve as a check on the Council has decided not do so.

That means that the only real check on the Security Council is its own divisions. The political divisions within the Security Council are the most effective check on its authority. But there's no formal legal obstacle to the exercise of its power.

So that fascinated me, from the legal side. How did we come to create such a powerful institution in international law?

The journalist side of me wanted to tell the story of this body. You take representatives of some of the most powerful countries on the earth, you put them in a room together, and you say, "Gentlemen, ladies, please maintain international peace and security." I thought, from a journalistic perspective, I would very much like to know and would like to tell the reader what goes on in this room as they do that, as they attempt to maintain international peace and security together.

So the result of these two sides of me is a historical narrative of the Security Council that obviously cannot be comprehensive. The Council has done too much for too many years to attempt, at least in the space that Oxford University Press was willing to give me, to tell the whole story of the Council. But I try to look at certain episodes, try to stitch together the narrative of the Council, how it has developed over time.

I think I should say a word, without giving you that whole historical narrative, about the Council's beginnings and how the Council came to be.

Many of you will know that it was really not at the San Francisco Conference but, instead, at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in the waning days of World War II in Washington that the Council was, in essence, created. That was a meeting of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, with China playing a peripheral role. So it was a small group of great powers that essentially created the Security Council and created the entire United Nations structure.

It was a given at those meetings at Dumbarton Oaks that there needed to be within the United Nations a special place for the great powers, that they deserved and needed special authority within the body, special responsibilities, and a special place. That, of course, became the Security Council. The General Assembly, then, was conceived of as the place where everyone could have a voice, although its powers were quite limited.

I should say, this was the Big Three of World War II that were meeting at Dumbarton Oaks. You might ask yourself, how did the Big Three become what we see today as the Permanent Five?

That's kind of an interesting story that I explore in the book. France's presence on the Security Council is very much because of Winston Churchill. Churchill insisted that France, after World War II, be revived, essentially, as a great power, and he wanted them to have a seat on the Security Council as a way of acknowledging that they once again would become a great power.

Interestingly, we come to see China on the Security Council because of Franklin Roosevelt. In the face of opposition from Churchill and Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt insisted that China should have a seat. Now, this came across, in the context of the times, as quite comical to Churchill and Stalin, because they looked at the China of 1944 and saw a country that was partially occupied by the Japanese, that was, in essence, fighting itself, as Mao's forces battled the Nationalist forces, and they couldn't conceive of why Roosevelt would want to put China on the Security Council, a country that could barely govern itself.

Yet Roosevelt was so determined, and the role of the United States was so predominant and the influence of the United States was so predominant, that he was able to get his way and have Churchill and Stalin acquiesce to China being on the Council—a very important change, a very important development when we look from today's perspective, having China on the Council.

This book is Five to Rule Them All. As we know, there are 15 members of the Security Council. At Dumbarton Oaks, it was agreed that there would be actually six rotating members initially. The feeling was, "Much as we would like to keep this body just for the great powers, we have to let the rest of the world in somehow. We at least have to give them the sense—even if it's illusory—that they are involved in what the Security Council does." That was why they created these six rotating seats.

Throughout this book, I certainly talk about the nonpermanent members of the Security Council, but I focus on the five permanent members. I do so for a couple of reasons.

First, they're always there, and their permanence on the Council gives them unusual influence. Just by virtue of being there all the time, they can have a control over the Council's agenda, working procedures that the nonpermanent members cannot.

Secondly, of course, they have the veto power. They have the veto power and the nonpermanent members do not. That gives the Permanent Five special weight within the Council.

What was agreed to at Dumbarton Oaks was not the formal creation of the United Nations. That had to wait until the San Francisco Conference. An interesting feature of the San Francisco Conference was that there was a mini-revolt on the part of some of the small and medium-size states against the powers of the Security Council.

I tell the story in the book of the Australian delegation at San Francisco, which played a special role in trying to challenge the powers of the Security Council, saying to the rest of the world, in essence, "Are we sure that we want to give this much power and authority to this body?"

The Australian delegation became a thorn in the side to the Permanent Five during the San Francisco Conference, and eventually they summoned the head of the Australian delegation up to the penthouse suite in the Fairmont Hotel, where the Permanent Five were working, and they said, "Look, either you accept the special powers and responsibilities of the Permanent Five or there will be no United nations." That was, in essence, how it was presented. Given that choice, the rest of the world decided to acquiesce to the remarkable powers of the Security Council.

The dominance of the Permanent Five and their special powers survived the San Francisco Conference and survives to this day.

The Security Council was born into the Cold War. It began operations on January 17, 1946, and it did so in an environment that was becoming increasingly hostile between the West and the Soviet Union. The first veto in the Security Council occurred February 17, 1946. So less than a month after the Security Council began operating, the first veto was cast, by the Soviet Union.

This came as a shock to the West, which had envisioned the veto as a safeguard that would be there in extremis. Should there be some kind of unusual circumstance where the permanent members just couldn't get along, couldn't figure out how to work things out, the veto power would be there. Instead, the veto power was used almost immediately and on an issue, actually, of relatively minor significance. It was a resolution about Syria and Lebanon that was the occasion for the first veto.

But this very much characterized the first several years—and, in many ways, the first several decades—of the Council's operation. It was a forum for public political theater, for clashes, very public clashes, between the two sides of the Cold War. You had a flurry of Soviet vetoes. You had long and acrimonious speeches by the ambassadors against each other. You had very dramatic walkouts from the Security Council.

The Soviets pioneered this technique. You would have the Soviets at various points in the debate say, "Gentlemen, we're done." They would gather up their papers and walk out of the Security Council meeting. Sometimes they would stay away for a day. Sometimes they would stay away for a week.

There was intense public attention to what the Security Council was doing. I think this may be sometimes hard for us to recognize now. The Security Council obviously flits into the public consciousness now from time to time. But these early meetings of the Security Council were often televised. They were regularly covered on the front pages of major newspapers. So when I say it was political theater, it was political theater that a lot of people were watching, that, in essence, people were consuming.

One of the early and most famous dramas that the Security Council was the forum for was during the Korean War. I have mentioned the Soviet walkouts. They had the misfortune of walking out a couple of months before the Korean War broke out. Once North Korea invaded South Korea, the question became, would the Soviets return to the Security Council?

As American and British and French diplomats were trying to strategize in the hours after the North Korean invasion of the South, they decided, "Let's try to get stuff through the Security Council with the Soviets gone." So they convened a meeting of the Security Council, not knowing whether the Soviets would show up. It turns out that the Soviets didn't show up, and they passed a flurry of resolutions that then paved the way for the UN response to North Korean aggression.

Now, the Soviets learned from their mistake. They did not do that again. They returned to the Council several weeks into the Korean conflict. That became probably the most famous sustained clash between the West and the Soviets. You had televised debates, where the Soviets would accuse the West of having been responsible for the Korean War and the West would accuse the Soviets.

One of the stories I tell in the book about this period of the Korean War on the Council is the saga of Gladwyn Jebb, who was the British ambassador at the time. Gladwyn Jebb, I think, was kind of a quintessential British diplomat—professional, tended to shun the limelight, liked to work on text resolutions, kind of a master of the procedure of the Security Council, but certainly not what we would consider a politician and not a media star.

During these very public debates on the Korean War, he found himself essentially becoming the voice of the West against the Soviet Union. In part, he found himself in that position because the American ambassador at the time was an aging former senator from Vermont named Warren Austin, who, I think it is fair to say was beyond his best days and not quite able to keep up with the Soviets in terms of rhetoric on the Security Council. Gladwyn Jebb, with his wonderful British accent, stepped into the breach.

Something strange happened to Gladwyn Jebb. He became a bona fide celebrity in the United States. Fan mail poured into the British mission to the United Nations. He was recognized on the streets. He was the subject of a cartoon in The New Yorker. He really became a celebrity. One of the amusing things that I uncovered in the research was documents within the British Foreign Office from other British diplomats complaining that it had all gone to Gladwyn Jebb's head and that he would get into his office in the morning, he would check his ratings on American television, and if he had slipped, he would be in a foul mood for the rest of the day.

So Gladwyn Jebb, the quintessential quiet diplomat, becomes a media star. That is, in many ways, because that's what the Council demanded at that time. It was public political theater, and you needed actors.

There have been many other such incidents in the Council's history. During the U-2 incident in 1960—now, this was a case where the Soviets decided, "We should try to use the Council as political theater." Normally the Soviets would respond to the West, but it was the West that was proactively attempting to use the Security Council. The Soviets, after the downing of the American spy plane, decided, "We'll make use of the Council." They called a special Council meeting. They flew in Andrei Gromyko from Moscow to make the Soviet case. They thundered away about the dangers of American imperialism.

They didn't count on the American penchant for theatrics. Henry Cabot Lodge was the U.S. ambassador at the time. During the third day of debate on the U-2 incident, he brought with him a prop. He pulled out from under the Security Council table a huge wooden seal of the United States, the Great Seal of the United States, which he explained to the Council had been presented to the United States Embassy in Moscow by the Soviets as a gesture of friendship. In front of the whole Security Council, he took out a pair of tweezers, reached into the Great Seal of the United States, and showed how the Soviets had inserted an electronic bug deep into the wood.

This had nothing to do with the U-2 incident, but it was great theater. It was great theater. It distracted attention from the very damaging accusations against the United States.

Probably the most famous moment in Security Council history in terms of public theater was during the Cuban missile crisis. This is the iconic moment where the Council becomes the world's political theater. Of course, it was the Adlai Stevenson challenge to the Soviet ambassador, where he says, "Mr. Ambassador, do you or do you not have missiles in Cuba? Don't wait for the translation. I'll wait here until hell freezes over for your answer."

The interesting back story—I talk quite a bit about the back story to this incident—Adlai Stevenson had to be convinced by the Kennedy team to make the case at the United Nations, because he had been badly burned a few months earlier, during the Bay of Pigs crisis, when he had gone before the United Nations, held up photos that the CIA had provided to him that purported to show that the United States was not involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion—that, in fact, it was just Cuban defectors attacking the Cuban government, and that the United States had no role.

Of course, a few days later it emerged that the United States was deeply involved. Adlai Stevenson was humiliated—almost resigned, actually. So he came to the Cuban missile crisis as a reluctant gladiator. But he ultimately was convinced and made the case, as we know, fairly effectively.

That Adlai Stevenson moment at the Security Council embedded itself in the American diplomatic psyche. Americans thought, "This is a way that you can use the Security Council to dramatically change world opinion." I myself think they tended to exaggerate the effect of the Adlai Stevenson presentation. I think most countries had made up their minds about the Cuban missile crisis well before Adlai Stevenson's presentation. Nonetheless, it became burned into the American diplomatic memory as a good use of the Security Council.

If you go back and look at the Bush Administration deliberations in the run-up to the Iraq War, 2002 and 2003, they very explicitly said amongst themselves that they wanted an Adlai Stevenson moment. That is what they wanted to try to convince the world of the danger of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That led them to the dramatic Colin Powell presentation, of course, that we know about now, where he briefed the Security Council on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The problem, of course, for the Bush Administration was that they had the wrong Adlai Stevenson moment. They had the Bay of Pigs moment in many respects rather than the Cuban missile crisis moment.

This thread of the Security Council as public political theater is an important one. It's something I follow throughout the book. I try to debate, in a sense, the merits of using the Security Council in this way.

There's another reality, another thread that I follow, and that is the Security Council as a smoke-filled backroom, where, away from the lights, away from the cameras, away from the public, the permanent members and the rotating members sit down and try to reach compromise, try to work out their differences.

This is an increasingly important role for the Security Council. In part, it's an increasingly important role because of architecture. The United Nations went through some renovations in the late 1970s. They built, with funding from West Germany, actually, a room just a few steps away from the Security Council chamber called the Consultation Room.

The public is not allowed in the Consultation Room. There are no cameras there. It basically has become the place where the Security Council does its work. That is where the Security Council meets on a regular basis. The way the Security Council operates now, anytime they go to the formal chamber, they have already worked out, in essence, what they're going to do in the formal chamber in the consultation room.

One of the people I interviewed for the book was a former American ambassador, Donald McHenry, who served as a U.S. ambassador in the late 1970s. He was there shortly after the Consultation Room went into operation. He tells a story that he thinks encapsulates the value of this for the Security Council's work.

He said that one day the Security Council members all filed into the Consultation Room. It's a very small room, very crowded. They were all sitting there. The meeting began. I believe it was Bulgaria that was on the Security Council at this time as a rotating member, Bulgaria, of course, being a close Soviet ally—sometimes more Soviet than the Soviets. The Bulgarian ambassador apparently launched into a classic kind of communist propaganda speech about the dangers of Western imperialism. It went on for a couple of minutes.

The Soviet ambassador, a guy named Troyanovsky, leaned over to his Bulgarian comrade and said in perfect English, "Mr. Ambassador, we don't speak that way in this room." He made it clear that in the consultation room they were supposed to speak to each other as professional diplomats—of course, defending their national interests, but there was no need for the kind of propaganda speeches, the histrionics, the vitriol that often dominated the formal chamber.

McHenry thinks that really encapsulates the value of the Consultation Room as a quiet place where the Security Council can go to try to work out some kind of compromise.

There have been some wonderful personalities that have served on the Security Council over its more than 60 years of operation. I try to detail some of them in the book. The frequent use of the consultation room now has really forced those personalities to deal with each other in a very, very intense way. They are often in meetings together for hour after hour. I talk in the book about some of the odd couples that there have been in the Security Council history.

Back during the Suez crisis, Pierson Dixon was the British ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge was the American, and during the Suez crisis, they had, in many respects, a personal falling-out, as well as the political falling-out that happened between the United States and Britain.

During the 1990s, you had David Hannay and Madeleine Albright, both very forceful personalities, but very different kinds of diplomats. Hannay was a professional diplomat, a Foreign Office veteran. Albright was really more of a political operator, in some respects. They clashed over and over again on the issue of Bosnia, where the United States and Britain had very different positions. Hannay got so frustrated often with Albright that he took to calling her "Half-bright" behind her back.

I talk about some of the other personalities that have served on the Council recently, including Sergey Lavrov, the current Russian foreign minister, who was Russia's ambassador on the Security Council for a long time. He, in many ways, embodied the Russian attempt after the fall of the Soviet Union to recover its diplomatic bearings.

For several years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians were, I think it's fair to say, diplomatically lost. They would often take their cue from the West. They didn't really seem to have an independent diplomatic profile. Sergey Lavrov brought that back, and obviously others in the Russian Foreign Ministry. He was a very dominant, forceful personality in the Security Council, often challenging the West.

He also had a softer side, though, which I talk about in the book. He would sit for hours in Security Council meetings with his head down, doodling. People assumed that maybe he was taking notes. He certainly was paying attention. He would be listening to the translation. He was one of those people who has this remarkable ability: He could be speaking in Russian, listening to the English translation, and he would correct the interpreter if he felt that they hadn't quite captured his meaning in English. But he would sit there with his head down.

Slowly, other diplomats on the Council realized that he was actually drawing caricatures of other Security Council members, little sketches about what the Security Council was debating. He was phenomenally good at this. So the other Security Council diplomats, rather sheepishly at first, would start circulating behind his seat to pick up whatever little scraps of paper he had left behind.

There is now—I tell you this seriously—a black market among former Security Council diplomats in Sergey Lavrov doodles. I actually managed to get one of them for the book. It's reproduced in the book from an anonymous UN source, who will remain anonymous.

But these are several of the threads that I like to follow in the book—the Council as political theater, the Council as smoke-filled backroom.

I do have an argument about the utility of the Security Council, and I would like to make that for you very briefly.

There are basically, as Joanne mentioned, two ways of seeing the Council. The first way is what I call the governance function, the governance vision. In this vision we have the Security Council here. We have external problems out there that the Security Council is supposed to solve. So we have nuclear proliferation, we have crimes against humanity in Darfur, we have piracy off the coast of Somalia, sexual violence in eastern Congo. You can go on and on with the problems that the Security Council is supposed to solve.

And it's supposed to solve them because that's our idea; that's the Charter's vision for what the Security Council should do. It should maintain international peace and security, and maintaining international peace and security in our world today means so much more than just repelling interstate aggression. It means dealing with intrastate conflicts, civil wars, really trying to go out there and assertively manage international peace and security.

The Security Council has struggled, particularly since the end of the Cold War, in trying to do this. It has developed all sorts of new tools. It has launched war-crimes courts. It has set up sanctions committees. It has imposed arms embargoes. It has launched a flurry of peacekeeping missions. Yet I think, if one is honest, one has to say that the Security Council is a failure when it comes to maintaining international peace and security.

I'd be interested in discussing that with you, but I don't see how one can give the Security Council anything other than a failing grade when it comes to that, over the course of its history. And I don't see any signs that it's dramatically improving its performance.

That, I think, is where a lot of conversations about the United Nations and the Security Council end, particularly here in the United States. They say, "The Council has failed. The Council is useless. It may even be counterproductive."

But I argue that there's another vision for seeing the Security Council that leaves me with a more sanguine view of the Council. That is what I call the concert function. The focus here is not on the external problems that the Security Council needs to solve and how effective it is at solving them.

Instead, the focus is on how serving together on the Security Council affects relations between the major powers, between the permanent members. Does sitting down in a room together day after day, working on all of these issues, affect U.S.-Russian relations, U.S.-Chinese relations, British-French relations? That is the vision that I think yields a much more positive view of the Security Council. I'll just give you a couple of ways in which I think the Security Council is useful as a tool for the major powers in managing their own relations.

First of all, serving together on the Security Council increases diplomatic contacts and deepens linkages, particularly between the permanent members. I wanted to try to kind of quantify this, so I went back and looked at where U.S. secretaries of state have traveled since 1990 on official trips. I compared how many times they have traveled to the territory of the other members of the Permanent Five versus how many times they have traveled to other major powers that aren't permanent members of the Council, such as India, Brazil, Germany, and Japan. I found that U.S. secretaries of state have traveled twice as often to the territory of other members of the Permanent Five.

This is obviously not conclusive evidence, but it's suggestive that serving together on the Security Council deepens the linkages between the permanent members.

I had an interview with a former German ambassador on the Council, Gunter Pleuger, who I think was in a rather unique position to assess this, as an ambassador of a major power that is not a permanent member. His view was that the permanent members, the P5, treat each other differently than they treat other countries. They treat each other differently because they need each other on the Council all the time, on a variety of different issues. They are constantly working on six, eight, ten different issues on which they need each other's votes. That affects their relationship, I argue.

Secondly, there is a habit of compromise between the P5 that the Security Council helps to foster. What you have in the Security Council is essentially senior diplomats working over and over again, day in and day out, to fashion compromises on whatever resolution or presidential statement or press statement the Security Council is working on. Many of these resolutions or press statements are of little value, speaking frankly. But they go through the process of negotiating them day after day.

When you combine that with the fact that countries generally send their diplomatic stars to represent them at the United Nations and on the Security Council, what you have, in essence, is a training ground for senior diplomats in the art of great-power compromise. You have people like Madeleine Albright learning how to compromise day after day on the Security Council. She then goes on to become secretary of state. Sergey Lavrov does this for seven or eight years at the Security Council and becomes Russian foreign minister. So it embeds a habit of compromise.

The last two that I'll mention are things that I think we would normally see as vices, but I argue are actually virtues when it comes to managing relations between the P5.

The first is delay. The Security Council is exquisitely talented at delaying things. That is enormously frustrating from the governance perspective. If you want to stop atrocities in Darfur, if you want to respond to the genocide in Rwanda, delay is maddening; delay is the enemy. But if you want to manage relations between the big powers, delay can be quite useful.

Here I would cite the Cuban missile crisis, actually, as an example of this. Dean Rusk, who was Kennedy's secretary of state during the crisis, when he reflected back on the role that the United Nations played, said that the United Nations earned its pay for a long time during the Cuban missile crisis, just by being there, holding debates, stringing out the issue.

He said it's much less likely that countries were going to do things rashly, were going to take rash actions, because the Security Council slowed the pace of events. If you look back at the Kennedy transcripts, the transcripts of President Kennedy and his inner circle during the Cuban missile crisis, several times you see President Kennedy saying, "Well, they're debating up in the Security Council today. Let's see how that goes."

So, in essence, you have the Security Council acting as a brake on events, and that gives the major powers a little bit of time and space to work out some compromise.

Finally, ambiguity—a major source of frustration for people who are trying, on the ground, to interpret Security Council resolutions. If you are the commander of a peacekeeping force, you receive, faxed over from New York, the latest Security Council resolution, you look at it, and you say, "I don't understand this. What am I supposed to do? What are my powers? What are my responsibilities?" It's very frustrating, from an governance perspective, to have ambiguous Security Council resolutions.

From the perspective of managing relations between the major powers, it can be quite useful. Here I would cite the 1967 and 1973 Middle East Wars, where the Security Council responded with Resolutions 242 and 338, which are famous resolutions in the history of the Middle East peace process. They were explicitly designed to be unclear. They were designed to have different meanings to different audiences. The Americans could say to Israel, "We've protected your interests." The Soviets could say to the Arab states, "We've protected your interests."

So ambiguity, delay—things that the Council is very good at—can be a real value when it comes to managing relations between the Permanent Five.

I'm going to leave it there, because I want to have a conversation with you about this.

My final point, I think, would be that this leaves me in a somewhat unusual position when it comes to the United Nations and the Security Council, which is a passionate middle ground. I do not hold out much hope that the Security Council is going to become the answer to global security. That was initially the goal, to create a world security system that would prevent conflict, that would solve the world security problems. I have very little confidence that the Security Council will do that.

But I also believe that the Security Council is of major value to the major powers in managing their relationships. That is something that is very, very important on its own for managing international peace and security.

So I'll leave it there and I will very happily take questions, comments, criticisms.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: I fully agree with your point that the Security Council has failed. The Security Council is supposed to be the beating heart of the United Nations.

However, its design has been doomed to fail from the start. It's not so much the fact that there are five permanent states, but it's the veto which they have. We know, for example, just recently, in 1999, with the situation in Kosovo, as probably many of you know, the decision was taken outside the United Nations, outside the Security Council, because of the veto use.

Do you see throughout your research a hope that those big five powers will give up the veto? Or is there no hope?

DAVID BOSCO: There's no hope. I think there's very little hope that the veto will be formally removed.

One of the interesting features, though, of Security Council operations since the end of the Cold War is that the veto has, in a sense, gone behind closed doors.

Certainly the veto is used sometimes. But very often its presence is felt, it affects debate, but you don't see the formal use of the veto, in many respects, because of what I have talked about—the Security Council doing most of the negotiation in private consultation rather than in the formal chamber. So when the Russian ambassador says in the consultation room, "We can't accept this," everyone knows what that means. There's no need to formally exercise the veto. Instead, you just figure out another way to draft the resolution or you just kill the resolution entirely.

But I would argue that, historically speaking, as frustrating as the veto has been, it has played an important role in keeping the major powers in the organization. I think the Soviets and the United States would never have joined the United Nations without the veto.

The British are a slightly more complicated case. First of all, they never would have joined, and at various points in the UN's history, particularly in the early 1950s, I think the Soviets were fairly close to pulling out of the organization. Certainly, had there been any attempt to remove the veto power, I think they would have.

So at that point, you have to ask—yes, the veto is frustrating from this governance perspective, this perspective of getting things done. But it's very valuable in terms of keeping the major powers in the organization. And that has its own value. If I look historically at the Security Council, I'm not sure that the veto hasn't been a good thing.

QUESTION: A follow-up question. You didn't address Security Council reform, which, obviously, is not going to happen tomorrow, but it's most important if we want the Security Council to work properly.

You mentioned national interests. As long as the five PMs, as we call them, will keep the role as it is now, there will be no way to act in a timely manner on any subject—regarding the protection of the civilians in conflict areas, for example, and so on. You will never talk about Chechnya in the Security Council because of Russia, or Tibet because of China, or Israel because of our country, the United States. These are only a few examples.

In my previous capacity, I used to be quite in touch with the Security Council members, including the nonpermanents. There was a lot of frustration with them. They were very open to talk about us, civil society, about their frustration and the lack of accountability. I will not cite the name of one of the very outspoken ambassadors in an off-the-record meeting with NGOs, but he was very disturbed about the fact that there was no accountability, and especially vis-à-vis the five.

DAVID BOSCO: I think you identify a very important element, which is that there's a great deal of resentment on the part of the broader UN membership about not only the Security Council's membership, but also how the Security Council operates in terms of transparency and, as you say, accountability.

I'm glad you mentioned reform. I do want to talk about that. My view of the Security Council, I think, leads me to a particular view of how the Security Council should be reformed. It actually makes me relatively skeptical of most current proposals for Security Council reform.

I think the Security Council is antiquated. I think particularly having the P5 that we do, without India, without Brazil, without Japan, is very antiquated. It also limits the effectiveness of this concert function that I identify. That could be extended to other countries, to other major powers, if you would expand the Council to include them.

If I had my fantasy Security Council, I would add India, Japan, Brazil. I might try to smush the Europeans into one European Union seat, although I don't think that will happen.

But the danger of Security Council expansion, from my standpoint, is that once you attempt to do it—and you have to get two-thirds of the General Assembly, of course, as you well know—the general UN membership will insist that if you are going to add permanent members, you have to add rotating seats. We may end up with a Security Council of 30 members. At that point I worry that the Security Council will no longer be a comfortable place for major-power diplomacy, which is, to my mind, its principal virtue.

So, not because I object to the idea of changing the Council membership, but because of the realities of amending the UN Charter, that makes me skeptical of Security Council reform.

The issue you raise, though, about the Council and what issues it will debate is an interesting one. I talk in the book about the debates at Dumbarton Oaks and at the Yalta Conference on this issue of what issues the Security Council can consider, what issues can be put on the agenda. It's interesting that the Soviets initially wanted the veto power to extend not just to substantive questions, but also to questions of procedure, issues of what would be put on the agenda. So their viewpoint was, "You shouldn't be able to debate anything that we don't want to debate."

Fortunately, I think, the Soviet view was overridden at Yalta, and we ended up with a Security Council that still can debate issues that major powers may not like.

The Security Council debates Israel. It debates issues that are inconvenient, often, for the major powers, even if the Security Council can't act on them.

I think that's something important to recognize, and historically it's interesting to note that there was a move to try to prevent even that level of discussion.

QUESTION: I talked to an Indian diplomat and it was his opinion that the United Nations is going to become less important and that they weren't really pushing to be a member, in his view, of the Permanent Five of the Security Council. He was emphasizing the growing importance of the G-20, and whether or not the G-20 is going to, in effect, become the vehicle that overcomes the deficiencies of the Security Council. I'd be interested in your reaction.

DAVID BOSCO: I think that is very interesting. We see throughout the Security Council's history that there have been, in essence, competing bodies out there—for a while, the G-7, the G-8, now the G-20. I am fairly skeptical that it will emerge as a full competitor to the Security Council, because, number one, international law privileges the Security Council. The G-20 has no status in international law. It's an informal gathering. The Security Council sits at the pinnacle of international law.

That, in turn, makes it a place where countries want to go, need to go for legitimation. For that reason, I do not see the G-20 replacing the Security Council or even superseding it informally.

Also the Security Council meets every day. The G-20 meets sporadically.

I simply don't see the kinds of linkages, the kind of depth within the G-20 that the Security Council provides.

It doesn't surprise me that India, which I think has grown very frustrated with the Security Council expansion process, would tout the virtues of the G-20, because they're on the G-20 and they're not on the Council permanently. But I do not think that you will see the G-20 moving into the Security Council's domain. I think on economic matters, which is something the Council has never really handled, the G-20 will play a role, but on peace and security issues, I don't see the G-20 emerging.

QUESTION: I know your title focuses on the five. I want to ask you about the ten other guys. As you know well from writing the book and hanging around the United Nations, countries wage incredibly campaigns, very expensive campaigns, worldwide campaigns, to become nonpermanent members.

My question is, is there real power in being a nonpermanent member? Is there influence there?

DAVID BOSCO: First of all, I think it's very interesting to note that countries do make the efforts that they do to get on the Security Council. And you're quite right.

They expend significant diplomatic capital in order to get on the Security Council. You have to ask, what are they getting from that?

I cite in the book—there are a couple of economists who went through and looked at whether countries received more foreign aid when they are on the Security Council. The answer was, yes, they do.

So there may be a little bit of rent seeking there. But I don't think that's the dominant thing. I think the dominant factor is status. They want the status of being on the Security Council.

Very often the Permanent Five drive the debate, drive the agenda, and you will find the nonpermanent members trying their best to insert themselves. I think, when they get on the Council, they all want to do things. They all have issues that they want to tackle. They have had very mixed success in doing so.

But I would cite, and I talk about in the book, the safe-areas policy in Bosnia in 1993-94. Some of the nonpermanent members, including Diego Arria from Venezuela, were very, very influential in pushing the Council toward that policy of creating safe areas in Bosnia.

Now, it was a policy that was, in many respects, deeply flawed. But they were, in essence, trying to fill the gap between the permanent members. Because there was such a divide between the United States on the one hand, the U.K. and France on the other, and the Russians, which had a somewhat different perspective, some of the nonpermanent members were able to fill that gap and try to come up with a policy that they could then push on the rest of the Council. And they did so fairly successfully.

I think those kinds of episodes are relatively unusual. You will often find the nonpermanent members—it's funny. Sometimes when their roles are most prominent is when their votes are needed, if there is a real clash between the Permanent Five. For example, during the run-up to the Iraq War, the nonpermanent members of the Council were courted intensely—courted and sometimes coerced intensely—by, on the one hand, the United States and, on the other side, France, which were chasing their votes on the Security Council. You had this spectacle of American and French diplomats traveling to obscure African capitals, trying to track down the votes of these three members of the Council.

In that case, they were able, in a sense, to exert influence just by their votes. But when it came to shaping the debate on the Council or shaping the direction on Iraq, that was something that was going to be left in the hands of the permanent members. I think that's more often the reality.

QUESTION: My understanding and my reading about the five permanent members—particularly France is quite different, because France was a defeated country, not a victorious one. It was due to Charles de Gaulle, the president, who emphasized getting a peace in Germany, as an occupied country. But Churchill was trying to justify it for Roosevelt and perhaps Harry Truman.

The countries you have referred to that might be added, on the basis of huge populations—does justice have any place in your perspective of a better future for Security Council organization?

DAVID BOSCO: De Gaulle played an important role, although, as I recount in the book, he really made it difficult for Churchill, in Churchill making the case for France, because de Gaulle and Roosevelt detested each other. That made Roosevelt all the more resistant to the idea of putting France on the Security Council. It really was Churchill who had to make the case.

It's an interesting historical question as to why Churchill thought it was so important. I think, number one, he wanted another colonial power on the Security Council. Churchill was very concerned that the Security Council might become an anti-colonial body. So he wanted another colonial power. And he wanted to resuscitate France to great-power status because he realized that the British army wasn't going to be able to stay on the continent and the Americans might go home. He wanted another great power there between the U.K. and Germany, on the one hand, and the Soviets, on the other. So that was part of his strategy of resuscitating France as a great power.

The question of justice—and I might attach to that word "legitimacy"—is, I think, a very important one. You hear the concept of legitimacy bandied around all the time when you talk about Security Council reform. People say, "The Council will be more legitimate if we expand it, if we reform its membership."

I think that's a deeply uncertain question, actually. I can see, for example, that some reform of the Security Council might in some circumstances make it seem less legitimate. Imagine, for example, that India gets a permanent seat on the Security Council and that Pakistan involves itself in some international crisis. The Security Council finds itself passing resolutions about the crisis in Pakistan. Would that Security Council seem more or less legitimate to Pakistan? I think that Security Council, with India there as a permanent member, would seem less legitimate than the current Security Council.

So I think the question of legitimacy and justice is a difficult one. Simply saying that a larger Security Council will be more legitimate and will be more just is, I think, in essence, to provide the answer already to what is really something that should be debated. It should be debated whether that's the case.

My own view is that the size of a country, the power of a country—but particularly the size in terms of population—is a really important factor for who should be on the Security Council, and that, in many respects, it is just and legitimate for the most powerful countries, certainly the largest countries, to have a special place, particularly because if we think about legitimacy and justice from the standpoint of individual human beings, simply put, the major powers represent more individual human beings. For that reason, maybe they should have a special place, a greater claim to the power that comes with a Security Council seat.

But I think this question of Security Council legitimacy is something that needs to be explored in a lot deeper way than it has been. It has become kind of a catch-phrase at the United Nations that you reform the Security Council to increase its legitimacy. I'm not sure it's that simple.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you very much for opening the doors a little wider.

DAVID BOSCO: Thank you.

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