Blog Post

The Price of Order?

Big power relations are in a bad state. Does this make the United Nations less or more relevant to global politics?

Date Published
23 Sep 2018
Richard Gowan

Big power relations are in a bad state. Does this make the United Nations less or more relevant to global politics? The obvious answer is less. The Security Council has stumbled painfully over a series of crises that have divided its five permanent members (the P5) over the last decade, from the Libyan war to the destruction of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. The Syrian conflict, above all, has demonstrated the impotence of a divided council in the face of mass slaughter. Many observers see an organization in terminal decline.

It is time, Anne-Marie Slaughter recently argued in The Financial Times, “to stop thinking of the UN as a global power center, full of people who can order others to take action and solve problems.” The organization, in Slaughter’s view, needs to reinvent itself as a “hub” for global networks of corporations and non-governmental organizations to resolve transnational problems. It is not clear what role, if any, a semi-paralyzed Security Council can play in such a networked world. It might at best become some sort of museum of twentieth century diplomacy, where P5 diplomats can confer over such old-world conundrums as the division of Cyprus, largely cut off from a rapidly evolving international order.

This makes a lot of sense when it comes to tackling problems such as transnational crime or the evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which traditional diplomacy struggles to deal with effectively. But with regards to navigating an era of big power security competition, it may be time for the UN to go back to its post-Second World War roots, not try to innovate. The founders of the UN designed the organization as a framework to help big powers cooperate and avoid open conflict. The Security Council’s rules, granting the P5 the power of veto, make this plain. The council and multilateral system as a whole have taken on a multitude of new tasks since 1945, and the relative power of the P5 members has altered considerably, but at its root the organization rests on this original big power deal.

Today, there is a real prospect of conflict between at least three members of the P5 – China, Russia and the United States – undermining that bargain. The UN’s “cardinal challenge,” one current official warns, “is to serve its original purpose as the forum for mitigating great power tensions and preventing large-scale military confrontation between them. That purpose has more relevance today than in many decades.” The UN is not yet on knife-edge comparable to the Cuban missile crisis, when the Security Council debated a standoff that could have gone nuclear within days, but it could act as a brake on an ongoing decline in big power relations.

Counter-intuitively, geopolitical tensions might make the UN more relevant than at any point since the Cold War. It is still a space in which big powers can make political bargains – comparing interests, devising compromises and concealing differences – without losing face. Rather than dumping the UN as a “global power center,” it is necessary to ask if the organization could do more to reduce big power frictions. But this would not be politically easy.

Managing big power tensions today

We are not used to looking at the UN in this way, precisely because the threat of great power conflict has been unusually low since the 1980s. During the Cold War, the Security Council was often paralyzed but intermittently useful as a venue for the US and USSR to stop conflicts from escalating, most notably in the Middle East. UN peacekeeping evolved as a tool for overseeing Cold War trouble-spots such as the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights.

The end of the Cold War brought about a radical transformation in the way that the UN did its business. The Security Council suddenly became not only much more active, intervening in civil wars that it would previously have left well alone, but also routinely referring to human rights and humanitarian obligations. The basic problem of P5 balancing never entirely disappeared – as the 1999 Kosovo crisis and 2003 Iraq War amply demonstrated – but was less persistent and acute than before.

Over the last decade, this problem has gradually but brutally returned as a decisive factor in UN affairs. It is still not as all-encompassing as it was in the Cold War. As a previous UNU study of the Security Council notes, the P5 have managed to “compartmentalize” many of their differences, splitting over some crises while maintaining a common front over other questions, such as peacekeeping deployments in Africa.

The Security Council has increasingly become entangled in cases – including not only Syria, Myanmar and Yemen but also Ukraine and Korea – in which the P5’s first-order interests have been at stake. In these cases, the post-Cold War way of judging the Security Council on its contributions to protecting civilians, advancing human rights and promoting other liberal norms may no longer make sense. Instead, it may be necessary to judge the council and the UN as a whole on its capacity to act as buffer or mitigating force for the P5 tensions. As David Bosco has claimed, the “key product” of the council may not be to enforce international law or respond to crises, but simply to sustain “comity and contact” among the P5.

Is the UN still up to these tasks? The answer varies by crisis and region. Regarding the Middle East, the P5 managed to maintain a degree of cooperation at the Security Council during the early years of the Arab revolutions – initially a textbook example of what minimalist UN diplomacy can look like – but this has now disintegrated. By contrast, African issues rarely cause major P5 rifts, although they are not friction-free. Perhaps most interestingly, the US and its Western allies have begun to turn to the UN as a framework for handling acute Asian crises – North Korea and the flight of the Rohingya – with China in the last few years. Although the results remain uncertain, Beijing has proved willing to use the UN as a channel for de-escalating its differences with other P5 members in a way that Russia – after its military successes in Syria – does not.

Although the UN has been rocked by a series of crises this decade, Syria has predominated. In the first four of the five-year war there – from roughly mid-2011 to the Russian intervention in September 2015 – the P5 used the council as a diplomatic framework to contain their differences over the conflict. Despite their failure to agree on a political solution, the US, Russia and other council members managed to find common ground on humanitarian access to the war-zone and the destruction of chemical weapons under council resolutions. A succession of UN mediators crafted a simulacrum of a political process that Washington and Moscow endorsed, if only to buy time for their proxies in the war. After the upsurge of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the P5 worked perfectly collegially through the council on steps to sanction the jihadists.

The Obama administration plugged away at UN diplomacy over Syria as the war worsened, in part to keep the P5 together over its higher diplomatic priority, sealing a nuclear deal with Iran.  Although the Iranian negotiations took place at a safe distance from day-to-day diplomatic bickering in New York, they were another success for old school big power diplomacy. Rather than bargain bilaterally with the Iranians, the US chose to involve the rest of the P5 plus Germany in the talks, and to embed their final agreement in a complex Security Council resolution. Without this UN-based negotiating framework, Washington might have struggled to keep a common front with the EU and stop China or Russia from undermining the entire process.

Up until late 2015, it was possible to argue that – while failing horribly in the Middle East by any humanitarian or moral standard – the P5 and Security Council were at least maintaining some sort of geopolitical balance during a period of heightened international tension. This balancing act has largely fallen apart over the ensuing three years. Having turned the tide of battle in Syria, Russia has increasingly aimed to sideline the UN over Syria, blocking its investigations of new chemical weapons incidents and limiting its political role.

The Trump administration has, meanwhile, defaulted on its side of the de facto Obama era “Syria for Iran” strategy by pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal. The US has also attempted to undermine the UN’s long-standing role in managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cutting off funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The rest of the Security Council has pushed back against Washington over this, but the UN’s political stock in the Middle East is in sharp decline. Rather than attempt to balance their interests in the region through the UN, P5 members are courting regional powers – above all Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran – creating a patchwork of deals beyond the council’s control.

The UN and Indo-Pacific

If the UN is losing salience as a big power deconfliction mechanism in the Middle East, its fortunes are varied elsewhere. It continues to play a useful function in easing the P5’s differences over African conflicts: China and the US have, for example, managed to limit their differences over both Sudan and South Sudan since the mid-2000s through council diplomacy. Beijing and Washington continue to publicly disagree on how to deal with Khartoum and Juba, but within limits. In 2016 and 2017, for example, China persuaded other Security Council members to block successive US attempts to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan. But when US Ambassador Nikki Haley gathered sufficient support for the initiative this summer – and was willing to bargain over specific sanctions questions – the Chinese chose not to veto the proposal.

While this was an interesting case study of how the P5 can both counter and defer to one another, it is clear that South Sudan is not a top-flight strategic priority for any P5 member. The Third World War will not begin in Juba. By contrast, the North Korean crisis in 2017 put the Security Council back at the center of a crisis with nuclear implications. It performed unexpectedly well. In the second half of last year, China and the US were able to agree a series of sanctions resolutions against Pyongyang that put the North Korean economy under extreme pressure – setting the stage for this year’s roller-coaster diplomatic contacts between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

As I have previously argued, this full-court press by the council against DPRK echoed the UN founders’ original conception of the organization as a framework for great power cooperation over a high-level crisis. This cooperation has frayed somewhat as the chances of an immediate conflagration have receded, and the US has accused both China and – much more forcefully – Russia of failing to stand by Security Council resolutions.

It remains possible that, if the crisis worsens again, the P5 will not be able to regain the same level of unity witnessed in 2017. But there is at least some reason to think that, under extreme pressure, the big powers are still able to harness the UN as an urgent deconfliction mechanism.

This is especially significant because the crisis took place in Asia, with China rather than Russia as the West’s main interlocutor in the P5, which was a source of some chagrin to Russian diplomats. UN analysts have long lamented the fact that the organization has lost almost all traction in Asia in recent decades and have argued that the institution’s future relevance rests on its ability to regain a role in the strategically decisive Indo-Pacific. The chances of it doing so have seemed low. “Even if the council finds some tools that are useful to crisis mitigation and de-escalation in the Asian security game,” as Bruce Jones cautioned in 2015, “it will be modest at best.”

Most analysts have ascribed this to the fact that China – and indeed the US and its regional allies, such as Australia – are very wary of letting the UN anyway near their security. The North Korea story, however, shows that they may waive these reservations in dire straits. The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, although another humanitarian disaster, has also been an unexpected study in great power deconfliction.

The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in north-western Myanmar in the second half of 2017 could easily have rendered the Security Council inoperative: Beijing has used it veto to protect the Burmese military before. The UK, which leads on Council negotiations concerning its former colony, has worked hard to avoid such a breakdown. Instead, it has adopted a policy of gradual compromise with China, avoiding potential flashpoints – such as proposing to refer the situation the International Criminal Court – and emphasizing the humanitarian plight of the victims. The Chinese have quietly reciprocated, allowing the council to have a low-key role in managing the fall-out from the crisis.

Other members of the council and human rights organizations have criticized the British approach as too soft. But seen through the prism of big power deconfliction, this strategy accommodation has prevented disputes of Myanmar intensifying, and ensured that the UN retains a toehold in broader talks on the future of the country. This process may point to one possible future of Security Council crisis management. After three decades of mandating ambitious, albeit frequently flawed, political and peacekeeping missions, the council may now offer a channel for the P5 to work out lower-key compromises to contain the worst effects of crises. This is hardly an inspiring vision of multilateral cooperation, but big power stitch-ups may still sometimes be preferable to total diplomatic breakdown and its humanitarian consequences. 

Children’s stories and miracle cures

What are the chances that the P5 can find a new equilibrium and way of doing business in the Security Council? The permanent members of the council recognize that they still have a common interest in maintaining the council as a channel for managing their tensions. Although P5 tensions spilled over into a series of unrestrained public rows over Syria and the poisoning a former Russian spy in England in April and May 2018 – with ambassadors trading quotes from children’s stories to embarrass one another – the P5 took active steps to quieten disputes.

Some P5 diplomats even see reasons for guarded optimism about the state of relations at the UN. The Syrian war, their primary source of contention, appears to be grinding to some sort of conclusion. While there is still no consensus in the council around what, if any, role the council should have in the final phase of the war, it is possible that it will no longer be a regular cause of dissension in the council in future. (As a comparison, the situation in Libya, which created major rifts among the P5 in 2011 is no longer a diplomatic flash-point in New York.) Russian officials continue to assure their Western counterparts that, for all their differences, they believe that the P5 remains an essential component of international order. While Syria has created a high degree of mutual mistrust in the Council, and there can be no return to the status quo ante of Western predominance at the UN, it is possible that the P5 could transition back towards rapprochement.

Over the last year, it has also sometimes seemed possible that some sort of geopolitical miracle cures are available to the UN. P5 members have floated a number of long-shot proposals to address the crises on their agenda that, if they ever eventuated, could reset Security Council, including:

  • Multinational peacekeeping in Ukraine: Both Moscow and Kyiv have indicated that they are open to a UN-mandated peace operation in eastern Ukraine (the Donbas), although their views on the scale and duties of a mission are far apart. Western powers including the US and Germany have strongly supported this option, although talks with Russia remain slow.
  • Framing a political settlement on the Korean peninsula: The P5 have managed to maintain a common front on sanctions against North Korea, despite frequent disputes over their implementation. While recent talks between the Washington and Pyongyang on nuclear issues have been rocky, the council may still have a role in endorsing and monitoring any agreements (partial or general) that ultimately emerge from this confusing round of diplomacy.
  • Coordination over the reconstruction of Syria: Russia has called for Europe and the US to move on from past differences and support the reconstruction of Syria. Western officials remain profoundly skeptical of these proposals. But concerns over terrorism and refugees could eventually lead the P5 to compromise on some council-mandated reconstruction effort.

The chances of any one of these initiatives coming to fruition are low – and the chances of any one of them succeeding is even lower. I have argued that a UN peace operation in Ukraine could work, and still believe this to be true, but what would happen if peacekeepers in Ukraine stumbled into a clash with Russian-backed forces, or even Russian personnel? Equally, how would the Security Council react to clear evidence of North Korea defaulting on a nuclear bargain? Could the P5 really sustain a coordinated approach to reconstructing Syria given the government’s track record of repression and abuse?  It is especially difficult to see how the P5 could do any deal over Syria while the US and the other permanent members are at odds over how to deal with Iran, which is likely to dog council debates or become a central crisis on the UN agenda in its own right.

There is no one-shot solution to the divisions affecting the Security Council today. If P5 relations do improve, it is likely be through gradual confidence-building. What would this process look like?

A return to realpolitik

There is no shortage of recommendations about how the Security Council might work better.  One of the few positive results of the dysfunctions among the P5 is that other states (inside and outside the council) have begun to opine more forcefully about how the UN should act in Syria and other crises. P5 diplomats do not like this trend. From their perspective, smaller states’ efforts to promote international cooperation and the rule of law get in the way of diplomacy.

For the P5, the best remedy for the current crisis could actually be a return to realpolitik in the Security Council. This needs definition. Many analysts and advocates would argue that the UN currently suffers from an excess of power politics, as geopolitical tensions undermine the Security Council. It is, however, important to distinguish between big power tensions (undoubtedly rife at the UN) and genuinely political interactions between the P5. The UN is often a venue for all P5 members to vent their frustrations with one another. Yet big power politics should center on deal-making rather than name-calling. As British academic John Bew notes, the art of realpolitik (as described by its earliest proponents in nineteenth century Germany) involves calculating the balance of power between states in a particular situation and asking: “what is the room afforded for political action to forward one’s interests and ideals, and what are the risks?”

As we have seen, diplomats at the UN are still capable of hard-headed calculus over situations from South Sudan to North Korea, but this has broken down over crises such as Syria. Rather than work out power-based political deals, the P5 have ended up trading insults and accusations of bad faith. Russia and China argue that their Western counterparts wrap up self-interested arguments in the language of human rights and humanitarian obligations. The US and its allies claim that Moscow, and sometimes Beijing, sign on to Security Council bargains to ease crises but do not implement their terms. The Security Council has edged towards absurdity as P5 members have accused each other of peddling false information over grim topics such as chemical weapons.

If the Security Council is to regain some credibility on the world stage, the P5 have to rethink the bases of their exchanges in New York. All sides need to think politically about how to balance their interests. Britain and France may have to temper their expectations about what they can achieve through the UN – especially when it comes to human rights and humanitarian affairs – while China and Russia may equally need to put more weight behind the implementation of some of the deals that they sign up to in New York. It is time for all the P5 to treat the Security Council as a venue for serious big power political bargains again, not just a platform to air disagreements as loudly as possible. (A future United Nations University paper will look at precedents for such deals.)

A P5 bargain to work more effectively at the UN would come at a steep price. The Security Council would probably react to future crises even less promptly and firmly. The elected members of the council, and UN membership more broadly, might have even less influence than today. The chances of Security Council reform, already exceptionally small, would shrink further. Yet, after the turbulence of recent years, many governments might still welcome these outcomes. The basic foundations of international order are in doubt. If the P5 can somehow restore a little faith in the Security Council through more serious realpolitik, other powers may conclude that they must accept the inevitable downsides as the price of order.

Suggested citation: Richard Gowan., "The Price of Order?," UNU-CPR (blog), 2018-09-23,

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