Biden launches UN reform push, but prospects remain slim

With his call for an expansion of the UN Security Council, US President Joe Biden has given impetus to the reform talk that has stagnated for decades, but it is far from certain that this turning point will come about.

The UN General Assembly’s annual summit, which ended Monday, featured well-known speeches from developing countries about the alleged injustice of the 15-member Security Council, which saw five nations as victors in World War II – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US United States – exercise veto power.

But this time the calls for reform have been joined by Western nations, angered by Russia, the most widely used veto in recent years, which it can use to block any Security Council action over its invasion of Ukraine.

In his speech, Biden said that all members of the Security Council should only use the veto in “rare, exceptional situations” and called for the seats to be expanded.

He supported permanent seats for Africa and Latin America, and echoed previous US support for the bids of Japan and India.

“It is time for this institution to become more inclusive so that it can better respond to the needs of today’s world,” Biden said.

A senior US official said Biden’s intervention “underscores the seriousness” of the United States, but acknowledged it would not be an immediate process.

“This should never be a dictate or a fait accompli. The idea has always been to hear ideas and compare notes,” the official said, declining to say whether the United States would support a veto power for new permanent members.

– Shipping pressure to USA –

Richard Gowan, who follows the United Nations for the International Crisis Group, said US officials know they need to make progress ahead of the next General Assembly in September 2023.

“Otherwise, Biden will be accused of dishonestly spreading the idea,” Gowan said.

“Even so, I don’t think the US has a clear model in mind for reform, or a very detailed game plan of what to do next,” he said.

Gowan said Biden was responding to growing unease about the Security Council, where diplomats were reading canned generalities at a session just as Russia was attacking Ukraine.

“I think the US had an easy choice. They could ignore the issue, defend their privileges as a veto power, and face charges of implicitly siding with Russia to defend a very flawed system,” Gowan said.

“Or it could be ahead of other UN members and position itself as a potential reform leader. It was far wiser to take that second path like Biden did.”

The closest the United Nations came to reform was in 2005, when Brazil, Germany, India and Japan submitted a joint bid for permanent seats.

China flatly refused a seat for Japan, a rival East Asian power and US ally, and the other three faced varying degrees of resentment from neighboring countries.

The United States saw little urgency for UN reform under then-President George W. Bush, who bypassed the Security Council to invade Iraq – a fact constantly cited by Russia when it comes to haughty US babble about the world organization is asked.

– Russia sees a right –

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Saturday that India and Brazil are “strong candidates” for an expansion of the Security Council.

Western diplomats saw the stance as an attempt to sow divisions between the two developing powers and Germany and Japan, which have firmly opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

William Pomeranz, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, doubted Russia would ever green-light a reform that watered down its veto.

“They think that’s what they fought for in World War II and won legitimately,” said Pomeranz.

Since President Vladimir Putin “has made Russia’s sovereignty and existence as a great power one of his main concerns, I do not expect that Russia will be willing to join a reform of the UN Security Council,” he said.

India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the UN’s reform efforts must proceed “sincerely” and not be blocked by procedural tactics.

There is “widespread recognition that current architecture is anachronistic and ineffective,” Jaishankar said.

“It is also felt to be deeply unfair to deny entire continents and regions a voice in a forum that decides their future.”