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CvT: A New Cold War Brewing in the UN Security Council?

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As we wrote in an April CvT article, Biden’s election brings a new dynamic to the United Nations. This is especially evident in the UN Security Council (UNSC); the UNSC is the UN body formed to handle conflict and crises. Its three roles are to peacefully settle disputes, direct the peacekeeping force, and use enforcement measures against states as needed. There are five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, as well as ten temporary members with two-year terms. As I discuss below, the primary power of the permanent members is the veto.

Despite China’s current status, it was not one of the original members of the UNSC. Until 1971, the Republic of China, or Taiwan, was one of the permanent members instead. The US worked to block Beijing throughout its push for recognition by postponing reviews in the 1950s, and in the 1960s, it pressured the General Assembly to recognize China’s movement to replace Taiwan in the United Nations as an important question that required a two-thirds vote. Meanwhile, the UNSC was unable to move freely during the Cold War as the US and the Soviet Union frequently used their veto to block any action proposed or supported by the other. More recently, China has joined this relationship as it has formed a tactical alignment with Russia – both of whom often veto movements together.

The UNSC and the power of the veto

The veto is one of the primary powers granted to the permanent members of the UNSC; it allows a member nation to block any action that others put forward. The establishment of the veto ensured the powerful, permanent members could reach a consensus while preventing a single country from having special privileges, a key distinction from the League of Nations. This capability, however, soon provided the five members with a new tool to advance their own foreign policy objectives.

Of the five members, Russia (including the period in which the Soviet Union held the seat), the United States, and China have used the veto the most. Between 1989 and 2019, the US cast twenty-three vetoes on its own – primarily on proposed movements surrounding the Middle East, while China cast thirteen vetoes with Russia and two on its own. These two agenda items concerned Macedonia and Central America and were both indirectly related to Taiwan and its recognition in the international community.

The Council on Foreign Relations notes that China’s use of the veto has increased in recent years, aligning with its growing ties with Russia and more assertive foreign policy goals. This has illicitly caused the other countries to become more hesitant about the movements they put forward. For example, the United Kingdom resisted drafting movements in response to the 1 February coup in Myanmar (also known as Burma) as they foresaw it would be opposed and vetoed by one or more of the other members. These concerns were presumably in relation to China, who had previously blocked the Security Council from condemning the coup. These reactions make China’s veto, or at least its threat, more noticeable as Beijing’s motive to use this power transitions from supporting traditional interests in domestic affairs and more towards advancing its increasingly assertive foreign policy. In this vein, China’s resistance to international intervention in global affairs has put it on a collision course with the US in the UNSC, who has resumed its traditional support for multilateral responses.

Biden’s election shuffles the status quo

On 18 March, President Biden virtually hosted representatives from the permanent members of the UNSC to reaffirm the US presence in international institutions with the aim of improving international health security, ending the global pandemic, spurring a global economic recovery, and joining the UN’s Group of Friends on Climate and Security. This rededication to an international presence has also included a commitment to increased activity in the UNSC; Biden noted a need for action in countries like Myanmar, Syria, and Ethiopia. These changes will bring the US back into the fold and mark a noticeable deviation from the past four years of Trump’s isolationist policies.

This ideological shift has reshuffled relationships within the Security Council. At a UNSC meeting on multilateralism in May, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized China and Russia’s lack of commitment to multilateralism. Russia later rebuked the US with more direct comments, which struck a stark contrast with the relatively warmer relations of the previous four years and provided a glimpse of what can be expected during the next three and a half years of Biden’s term. While Blinken was more subtle than his Russian counterpart, their respective comments bring the three countries’ relationships into international light; Washington’s renewed promotion of multilateral relations challenges its previous relations with Beijing and Moscow while bringing it closer to the multilateral organizations from which it had drifted. This stance also draws it back into a position to challenge China’s role on the international stage. 

What comes next?

The UNSC has seen several transformations since its creation in 1945. Many now argue that it is time for the body to adapt once again; the greatest requested change is to expand the number of permanent members. For an amendment to pass, however, it must receive unanimous approval by the five permanent members. It is unlikely that a modification of this scope will happen soon, and observers expect to see the beginning of a new cold war in the Security Council between China and the US as the latter resumes its presence in the UN and other multilateral organizations.

Washington’s vocal reassertion draws it into opposition with both China and Russia, who show signs of a growing relationship. A Brookings report suggests that the US should respond by moving closer to the United Kingdom and France – the other two permanent members – to counter this alignment. The three countries could then work to build alliances with the ten temporary members, though China has developed a relationship with many countries in Africa and often has ties with the countries that take the continent’s three allocated seats. As certain movements in the UNSC require a majority vote from the fifteen seats, these alliances can prove to be quite valuable.

China’s stronger position in the UNSC corresponds with Xi Jinping’s vision of greater Chinese influence and presence in the United Nations. As the United States and China continue to strengthen their roles in the UN, a new cold war in the UN Security Council may be brewing.

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