"Man of the Century" Albert Einstein is reputed to have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again in the expectation of a different result.


His comment is very apposite when applied to the history of U.N. reforms. The last big push for major reform of the organization came in 2005. The most optimistic had hoped for a San Francisco moment in New York in September, one no less decisive and momentous than the signing of the U.N. Charter 60 years earlier in the city by the bay. Instead the United Nations had an Albert Einstein moment as the head of steam built up for overhauling the anachronistic and creaking U.N. machinery fizzled out. Thus was the 2005 effort buried in the graveyard alongside most previous major reform proposals.

One front of the reform movement was led by four aspiring permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: Japan, Brazil, Germany and India. It became known as the G-4 campaign. They came tantalizingly close, closer than most people realize, to achieving their aims. Unfortunately, there are no consolation prizes for coming close to but not crossing the finishing line. Yet, seduced perhaps by the memory of how the prize was snatched from their overreaching grasp at the last moment when the African Union insisted on a deal-wrecking position that all new permanent members must have the veto right too, the G-4 seem to be reprising the same tactics. This is a triumph of misplaced hope over bitter experience.

The Security Council is long overdue for a major overhaul of composition and procedures. By any yardstick, the G-4 countries, joined by two from Africa, are the leading contenders for permanent membership. The longer that reform is thwarted, the less authority the Council will command in the real world and more and more countries and leaders will take to defying it openly. Last Friday, for example, the African Union as a whole sent an emphatic message to the Council and to the International Criminal Court that they disagreed with the referral of Sudan's president to the ICC and would not abide by the latter's ruling.

The veto-wielding five permanent members (P5) can safeguard their privileged and exclusive status indefinitely, but only at the cost of making the Security Council increasingly irrelevant. Just as the failure to give the award to the 20th century's most famous apostle of peace diminished not Mahatma Gandhi but the Nobel Peace Prize, so the exclusion of the deserving countries from permanent membership diminishes not them but the Security Council.

Security Council reform is held hostage to a curious oddity. While there is consensus on the need for reform, the agreement breaks down as soon as any one particular formula or package is proposed. Once people see the details of a concrete proposal, losers and opponents always seem to outnumber winners and supporters. Building a political consensus and generating the necessary momentum will require accommodating the divergent perceptions of the broad range of threats by different segments of the international community. Losers will have to be compensated, opponents neutralized and, of course, winners strongly mobilized. Given the number of countries and the range and diversity of their interests, this is a well nigh impossible task.

I remarked once, at a seminar on U.N. reforms in New York, that if people want to understand why reform is critical and urgent, they should read my work. But if they want to understand why it is impossible, they should read the work of Edward Luck, now a special adviser to the U.N. secretary general, who has written elegantly of the deeply entrenched institutional and political bottlenecks to reform.

How then might the G-4 escape from the Einstein trap? First, by recalling the great success of Gandhi's noncooperation strategy that did, after all, defeat the mighty British Empire. And second, by recognizing that the Security Council is not the forum of choice for the idealists of the world. Rather, it is the epicenter of geopolitical realism where hardball tactics rule the roost as the different powers jostle furiously and use sharp elbows liberally in pursuit of hard-nosed interests. The P-5 are the exemplars par excellence of hardball diplomacy, including on the question of Security Council reform. Those who are not prepared or not able to engage in hardball diplomacy do not deserve to be permanent members of the Security Council.

Combining the two, the conclusion is obvious. The G-4 countries should engage in a deliberate and combined campaign of noncooperation. This need not take offensive form. As Gandhi showed brilliantly, passive noncooperation is a very cost-effective strategy to force the issue against closed minds. To begin with, they should refuse to take part in the elections to the nonpermanent seats. By participating in the process, and even more by succeeding and taking two-year turns as elected members of the Security Council, they effectively legitimize the Council as it is currently structured and operates. Conversely, the likes of all four of them not serving on the Council for a decade or more would thoroughly delegitimize it.

India was last on the Security Council in 1992, but seems to have decided last year to mount a campaign for a seat in 2011. Brazil, Germany and Japan contest and win frequently. All four need to realize that in this case, the good -- winning elected seats -- is the enemy of the best -- becoming permanent members. Besides, if other countries can look forward to largesse from candidate countries every four years or so, it is in their self-interest to stay with the present system rather than have the generous benefactors seated at the top table permanently.

Nonparticipation in Security Council elections will not be enough. To drive home their conviction that the Security Council as presently composed is illegitimate, the G-4 countries should refuse to vote for referring or citing any country for bad behavior, such as noncompliance with nuclear nonproliferation obligations, to the Security Council. Again, they need not be overly aggressive about this. They do not have to support or speak up in defense of Iran's and North Korea's nuclear policies. Nor do they have to campaign against the referrals of international outlaws to the Security Council by others. But they can politely remind everyone each time that as they do not believe that the council is fully legitimate, they would feel hypocritical in subjecting others to its compulsory coercive authority. Therefore they will abstain.

Third and finally, since all U.N. peacekeeping missions are authorized by the Security Council, they should refuse to contribute troops or civilian personnel to U.N. operations until such time as the council is reformed. Once more, they do not have to oppose the establishment of such missions. But they should let others provide the necessary personnel. And, since peacekeeping operations are funded by voluntary contributions, they should refuse to volunteer any funds. Where the United States has led in showing the effectiveness of purse diplomacy, they should follow.

These three steps will show the depth of their anger and resentment, throw a monkey wrench in the U.N. system, and force the membership to tackle the thorny issue instead of the preferred posture of permanent procrastination. Or of course they can continue to prove Einstein right.

Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.

 

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