9.5.3 Implementing Security Reforms

Implementing security reforms would require the agreement of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council; they would benefit.

Rules-based international governance would depend upon powerful countries obeying the rules.  A move to restructure the Security Council, by adding new members and reducing the applicability of vetoes, would attract wide support – even in some of the countries which currently have a veto: A BBC World Service poll of 23 countries showed “nearly universal support for dramatic reforms in the United Nations”.

Perhaps the current international crisis at the start of 2024, with more wars raging now than ever before, will trigger a movement for change.  As Ian Morris observed, in his book War: What is it good for?, “paradoxically, war is the only human invention that has allowed us to construct peaceful societies”.  This is not a recommendation for going to war, it is his observation that civilisation only makes progress as a reaction to crises.

Three Security Council members, America, Britain and Russia, can all see that they are not achieving their aims directly by using military force in the Middle East and in Europe.  All three countries would benefit by reducing the costs of supporting conflicts which are in danger of spreading:

●  Military action in Afghanistan and Iraq has been disastrous (8.8.4).

●  Israel’s attempt to eliminate Hamas in Gaza Is beginning to destabilise the wider region. As reported by Reuters, commenting on American and British air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen, “Iran-backed groups have increased attacks on U.S. targets in several countries since Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and precipitating the war in Gaza, which has so far killed more than 23,000.”

●  Ukraine has moved its focus to defence, having failed to inflict a decisive blow against the Russian invasion. And Russia did not succeed in conquering Ukraine.

A change of strategy would be very popular.  There are several political impediments to be overcome, though:

●  De-politicisation of international law requires UN Security Council members to sign up to a reformed UN and to support the International Criminal Court (which would be greatly strengthened by their support).  The current UN structure gives a lot of power to each of the five Permanent Members (6.6.1), and they would be reluctant to give that up – especially in America where it would be argued that the US Constitution and Congress must be supreme.

●  National leaders would need to relinquish some aspects of direct control, to change the subsidiarity of power (6.6.4.2). Bearing in mind that a love of power is one of the factors that is likely to have propelled them into politics as a career choice, they may have difficulty in accepting the need to give it away.  But it is only the illusion of power that they are ceding; their role as representatives of their countries in multilevel governance is in reality both more effective and more important than strutting on a smaller stage.

●  There is a lack of shared values among Security Council members. For example, the Principles of China’s Foreign Policy (as published by Columbia University):

“China says its decisions on foreign policy questions derive from the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.”

This list does not include the Western concern for the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ people from governments which abuse their power, but China might be persuaded to agree to protect people from genocide, for example, if that were sufficiently tightly defined.

●  National politicians would have to persuade their populations that collaborative action is preferable to Self-Protection. This should not be too difficult, as there are sound arguments against having a coercive foreign policy (6.7.7.1 and 7.4.7).  Their populations are aware of the huge cost of war (7.4.6).

●  The countries with nuclear weapons are very unlikely to disarm, or hand control of their weapons to the UN. These countries need a new treaty, which might contain incentives towards disarmament for some of them and might offer defence guarantees to non-nuclear powers.  This would be much less risky than the present tendency towards nuclear proliferation (7.4.2), but it would fall short of complete nuclear disarmament – at least for the foreseeable future.

●  It would take real leadership, particularly from the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to bring about these changes. Leaders will have to be able to persuade other leaders to collaborate in making progress in the suggested direction.  They will have to convince each other, and everybody else, that there is more national dignity and prestige in behaving responsibly than in trying to be the biggest bully in the playground.

What is described here as rules-based international governance would be collaborative not hierarchical, so it is not the same as world government – which a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “World Government” opposed on grounds of feasibility, desirability and necessity.  Stronger rules would have to emerge slowly, as a succession of international agreements which would authorise collective action.  National governments would remain free to sign up to, adopt, or withdraw from, the agreements reached and they would need to adapt their legal systems to be complementary to the framework of international law (5.3.7).  National governments would empower the necessary institutions and control their composition, budgets and terms of reference.

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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/953.htm.