Instrument of order

Does the UN Security Council matter in an era of Global South diplomacy and major power tensions?

The German Navy corvette "Oldenburg" in the port of Beirut, which is a contribution to the UN mission Unifil.
The German Navy corvette "Oldenburg" in the port of Beirut, which is a contribution to the UN mission Unifil. Fabian Sommer/dpa via Reuters Connect.

The topic of the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council—its performance, and its membership—is once again on the international agenda. High visibility debates, vetoes, and failures over Russia’s reinvasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Gaza crisis have drawn international attention back to the body, and to the U.N. Charter itself. The early days of the Ukraine war were met with a torrent of commentary about how the U.N. had failed at its founding purpose—preventing wars of aggression—and calls for Russia to be removed from its permanent seat. With accidental but fortuitous timing, India used its much-anticipated 2022 presidency of the G20 mechanism to place renewed focus on the case for Security Council reform (among other global governance topics), and Brazil is following up under its term, in both cases with a focus on adding new permanent members (notably including themselves.) Council reform is the most symbolically powerful part of a wider, growing chorus of demands from the more influential countries of the Global South for real reform to the core institutions of global order.  

Partially in response to Global South concerns, U.S. President Joe Biden also chose to make the case for Security Council reform during not just his 2022 but also his 2023 annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, and to follow that up with sustained U.S. diplomacy with members of the G4 (a coalition of aspiring permanent members: Brazil, India, Germany, and Japan) and other aspirants from Africa and Latin America, and various other reform groupings, to explore pathways to implementation. The hope is that permanent seats on the Security Council would give countries like India and Brazil and South Africa a stake in continuation of the established order, against what is seen by the United States as a sustained attack on that order by Russia and China.  

This hope—and it is only a hope, or at best an assessment—seems faint, especially when viewed against recent foreign policy decisions and positions of these three aspirant states. More credible is to recall and revive an older purpose and function of the council: as a body wherein opposing great powers could meet and chart pathways to de-escalation. Reviving this function of the council, as a tool for de-escalation, is more important than membership reform.

Russia's Representative to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia addresses the Security Council during a meeting over arms to Ukraine, at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, U.S. May 20, 2024.

Russia’s Representative to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia addresses the Security Council during a meeting over arms to Ukraine, at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, U.S. May 20, 2024. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz.

Does the Security Council matter in an era of geopolitical tension?

The inability of the Security Council to affect the major military dimensions of the Ukraine and Israel-Gaza crises is unsurprising to any realist scholar of international politics, but has generated renewed questions about the effectiveness of the U.N. writ large. A case for reform should flow logically from this critique: With changed membership and changed rules, the Security Council might be able to take decisions where currently it is blocked. In fact, a key element of the reform conversation is about expansion of the category of U.N. permanent members. Yet, even some of its proponents acknowledge this is likely to decrease, not increase the ability of the council to reach consensus and drive action. 

Would-be reformers among the rising powers argue that membership expansion is simply a matter of right, and of legitimacy. In the absence of membership reform, they assert, the council cannot hope to serve as an anchor institution of a treaty-based order. With permanent membership that reflects the distribution of power at the end of World War II (with the exception of the inclusion of China), the reformers argue that the Security Council cannot represent the current international order or act in its interest. They therefore seek a new membership arrangement that more accurately reflects the distribution of gross domestic product and diplomatic influence as of the early 21st century. “The realities of 1945, when the council was established, have long been superseded by the geopolitical realities of the modern era and a new century; with the need for change being felt across the board,” argued India’s permanent representative to the U.N. in March 2024. 

Neither argument does much to address what should be the more fundamental question: What is the potential role of the Security Council in confronting new dynamics of geopolitical tension and risk? This is, after all, the foundational instrument of contemporary international law, and the primary treaty mechanism designed to restrain the major powers—at least in theory. How such a body works or doesn’t in an era of great power contest is directly germane to the question of whether such contest remains limited or escalates.  

During the post-Cold War era, the Security Council evolved into the primary instrument at the disposal of the West for dealing with civil wars and humanitarian crises in Africa and Latin America (and episodically in Asia and Europe as well). And in New York, consensus among the permanent members of the council became the norm, not the exception. All this mattered: though the U.S. narrative about international order neglects the point, the fact is that of the 80-plus wars that have been waged in the post-Cold War period, very few have ended peacefully without the deployment of third-party stabilizing forces, and the U.N. either deployed or authorized the large majority of those. 

These roles will be hard to square with current geopolitical realities and sustained distrust between several of the permanent members of the council. Indeed, the council has been more stymied of late, even in dealing with conflicts in Africa, let alone in grappling with crises that involve the major military powers.  

There is, however, another angle to consider: which is to look back to the role played by the Security Council during the Cold War. In that fraught period, the body served less as an instrument for internal crisis management and more as a guardrail against great power escalation. During the first four decades of its existence, Washington and Moscow repeatedly used the Security Council as an instrument through which to de-escalate crises that threatened to spiral into outright superpower hostilities. From the Berlin blockade through the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Yom Kippur War, the Security Council was an important instrument in the toolkit of Cold War crisis management. This largely overlooked mechanism took two forms: direct U.S.-Soviet negotiations at the U.N. building, and indirect U.S.-Soviet negotiations through the U.N. Secretaries-General. In both cases, U.N. action was often facilitated by the middle powers of the day. When successful, this led to two sets of outcomes: changes in U.S. or Soviet military movements to bring a spiraling conflict back under control; or the deployment of some form of U.N.-sponsored monitoring or confidence-building arrangement designed to stop a conflict between other parties escalating to the point where it risked bringing in the nuclear powers. 

As India, Brazil, and others continue to push for U.N. expansion, this older history of the council, more than the post-Cold War experience, should be the framework through which we examine the question of the possible utility of the council and the question of what membership reform would accomplish. To that end, this essay mines the history of great power negotiations and crisis management at and through the U.N. during the Cold War, to highlight its latent de-escalation or guardrail function.  

The essay also briefly scans a subset of post-Cold War crises—not the civil wars in Africa and Latin America that became the mainstay of U.N. action, but a handful of crises that rose up the agenda of the major powers and threatened wider regional conflict. The purpose of this second part of the essay is to amplify awareness of the menu of diplomatic and operational arrangements—tools like preventive deployments, multinational command arrangements, and border certification missions—available through the U.N., should the United States, China, Russia, or other major powers find themselves in search of diplomatic instruments for de-escalation.

Backdrop: The U.N.’s evolving role, and changing international conditions

In the first 25 years of the post-Cold War era—roughly from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the start of the Trump administration—Western governments came to rely on the U.N. as an instrument in the management of transnational threats and internal conflicts, especially in Latin America (in the 1990s) and Africa (in the 1990s and 2000-2010s). The United States, of course, looked more to its own power and to NATO; but even Washington frequently made recourse to the Security Council, and encouraged or supported expansive efforts by the U.N. to mitigate, mediate, or manage internal and regional crises. To give one measure of the expansion of U.N. roles, by the mid-2000s, the U.N. had more than 120,000 troops and police deployed into crises worldwide, as well as tens of thousands of humanitarian workers. Only the United States had more armed personnel deployed to crises overseas, and some of those were deployed within U.N. arrangements.   

The international conditions under which this occurred was American unipolarity—or to use the evocative French phrase, “hyper-puissance.” What’s more, in the pre-9/11 period, American policy was oriented toward extending the multilateral order, both in the economic and security space. It was a benign environment for Washington: outside of the United States, only the major European states had substantial diplomatic weight in world affairs, and their military power was embedded in U.S.-dominated NATO. While Russia retained its nuclear stockpile, it was profoundly degraded in its economic and diplomatic capacity, and China was yet to rise. There were occasional flare-ups in relations between the permanent members of the Security Council—in Bosnia; in Kosovo; over the E-3 incident; and over the implementation of the Iraq no-fly arrangements that followed the Gulf War. But in the main, the United States and the Western powers could shape international conflict and crisis management without sustained interference from non-Western powers. Even in their own backyard: for example, when the US pushed to create U.N. missions in Tajikistan and Nepal, Moscow and Beijing complained but did not veto U.N. action. The period also saw substantial evolution in U.N. arrangements and tools: the frequent deployment of peacekeeping forces to internal conflict, versus on the borders of conflict (which was rare during the Cold War); the use of Chapter VII to authorize coercive measures; the development of a post-conflict peacebuilding machinery and doctrine; and extensive humanitarian operations inside the borders of countries facing conflict (which was unheard of during the Cold War.) 

As relations between the world’s top military powers have reverted to greater tensions and a more militarized posture, the question arises as to whether the Security Council will be sidelined. Recently, Crisis Group’s Richard Gowan, a noted observer of the U.N., highlighted that while to date the powers have not entirely stymied U.N. peace operations in Africa, they have been reluctant to bring the U.N. into the management of major new crises outside that continent.  That was evident in the Syria crisis, where early agreements by the Security Council’s Permanent Five (P5) members (China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the United States) on U.N.-facilitated conflict management arrangements faltered shortly after they were agreed; and it’s been true in spades in Ukraine. In the Israel-Gaza crisis, the Security Council failed to reach a consensus on action until late March 2024, when a tepid resolution calling for a temporary ceasefire and a release of hostages passed with a U.S. abstention—a resolution made even more tepid by the (spurious) American claim that the resolution was “non-binding.” 

So, as threats to international security mount and evolve, and tensions between the top powers rise, can the U.N. play a broader role in maintaining international peace and security, by helping to mitigate great power tensions? Can it recover the role it played during the Cold War, as a guardrail against escalation?

Current conditions

The basic conditions within which we should assess the potential for the U.N. to contribute to international security are these:

  • major tensions between the United States and China and “persistent competition” between them;
  • the risk of outright conflict between the United States and China in the Western Pacific, especially (but not only) in the Taiwan Strait and surrounding waters;
  • ongoing friction between the United States/Europe and Russia; persistent strain and occasional (and increasingly dangerous) flare-ups between India and China along the Himalayan border

Beyond the immediate issues touching the permanent members, there is also sustained antipathy between the military powers of the Middle East, growing tensions in Latin America, and resurgent civil wars and crises in Africa. If U.S.-China-Russia-Europe antagonism continues to mount, we might expect this will block innovation at the UN. 

This moment of mounting geopolitical tensions is increasingly referred to as a “new Cold War.” Elsewhere I have argued that this framing is at best incomplete; the nature of economic ties between the West and China, and the shared exposure to global public goods/bads, mean that we are operating in a system that bears only partial resemblance to that which held during the period of U.S.-Soviet rivalry. What’s more, the United States faces not one but two nuclear rivals. Wordsmithing aside, it is a period of mounting and increasingly militarized frictions, which risk spilling into outright conflict. Managing that increasingly tense competition and avoiding outright conflict will be a central policy challenge in the coming decades. The question for this essay is whether the U.N. will be relevant to that challenge, or how.

The room of the World Security Council of the UNO in New York, 1979.

The room of the U.N. Security Council in New York, 1979. IMAGO/Hermann J. Knippertz via Reuters Connect.

Looking back: How the United States used the Security Council during the Cold War

One person who saw the U.N. as a relevant instrument for managing great power crisis was President John Kennedy.  

The Cuban Missile Crisis was, by most accounts, the most acute crisis of the Cold War, the closest we’ve yet come to a full-scale nuclear exchange, and thus the most dangerous moment yet faced by humanity. In American lore, it’s commonly depicted as a moment of American resolve, and a case study in the vital importance of a willingness to risk the use of large-scale force as a means to ultimately deter war. American resolve was essential. Less commonly recalled in the recounting of the episode is that the Soviet turnaround and eventual withdrawal was accomplished not just through resolve, but also through diplomacy. And that the mechanism for diplomacy was U.S.-Soviet communications through the United Nations. Just as much as a case study in resolve, the crisis is also a case study in the vital importance of diplomatic instruments for crisis de-escalation.  

This essay is not the place for a full recounting of U.N. Secretary-General U Thant’s role, but some essential elements are germane. His initial foray into the crisis came at the urging of a grouping of so-called “neutral nations”—analogous in some respects to the role played by today’s middle powers. His initial moves were resisted by both the Soviets and the Americans. Recently released records from the period show that following a debate involving Dean Rusk, Adlai Stevenson, and others, it was Kennedy himself who settled on the approach of working with the Secretary-General rather than trying to keep him out of the process. Kennedy subsequently worked closely with Thant to shape his messages to the Soviets, the second of which helped to orchestrate the Soviet naval turnaround. Kennedy’s insight was that he could give Khrushchev a face-saving exit from the crisis by working through Thant. Kennedy would later acknowledge Thant’s role, saying that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.”  

In the literature on conflict management and war termination, this issue of the role of third parties is essential. When opposing (especially warring) parties distrust each other, proposals for de-escalation that emanate from one of the parties themselves are bound to be greeted with suspicion by the other. Opposing parties, too, lack trust in the other side’s willingness to implement any agreement. Third parties can ease both difficulties, by generating or communicating ideas for de-escalation and agreeing to observe and report on implementation or violations, giving both sides an impartial reference point for action. And they can provide face-saving off-ramps when one party to a conflict realizes it needs to step back but is reluctant to be seen to give up or give ground. Third-party roles like this have frequently been played by diplomats of neutral nations, middle-power diplomats, and representatives of international institutions—notably the United Nations.  

Kennedy’s collaboration with the U.N. Secretary-General to handle this deep crisis with the Soviets was part of a pattern set early in the Cold War. Indeed, for the first three decades of the Cold War, the United States or other permanent members turned to the U.N. to deal with several of the most dangerous crises of the period. They are briefly recounted in what follows.

The Security Council during the Cold War

World War II was barely over when war broke out in the Middle East. The first Arab-Israeli war started in 1947, within moments of the U.N.’s recognition of Israel as an independent state. The fledgling state saw its Arab neighbors deploy military forces against it, and fierce fighting ensued. But so too did diplomacy, and the centerpiece of that was U.S.-Soviet negotiations at the UN Security Council. These ultimately resulted in U.N. action, with the deployment of the first-ever U.N. mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden (technically, he was a joint envoy of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross). In turn, Bernadotte generated other innovations—the first-ever deployment of U.N. police forces, to the contested Israeli territory; and the first-ever deployment of U.N. monitoring forces, on the border between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Syria—forces still deployed to this day under the overall aegis of the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). All this eventually brought the fighting to a halt and allowed Israel to begin life as a new nation.  

What soon followed was the 1948 Berlin blockade. When the Soviet Union suddenly blockaded Berlin and cut off access to large parts of the city by the U.S., U.K., and French troops deployed there, it was the first direct crisis of the newly described Cold War. Meeting in Paris, the foreign ministers of the United States, the U.K., and France sought to coordinate their response to the Soviets. After some discussion, the United States, under the lead of Secretary of State George Marshall and with the support of Director of Policy Planning George Kennan, proposed that the three Western powers (which we have come to refer to as the P3) should initiate direct diplomacy with the Soviets but threaten, should it not succeed, to refer to the issue to the U.N. for “neutral mediation” by the U.N. Secretary-General and ultimate resolution in the Security Council. France and Britain resisted the American initiative but ultimately accepted the idea of referral to the United Nations. When the Soviets rejected the initial Western proposal, recently-appointed Director of the U.N. Office at State Department Dean Rusk was given the job of formally referring the issue to the Security Council. Over the course of the subsequent year, negotiations between the P3 and the Soviets—held at the U.N.’s temporary headquarters in Lake Success, New York—eventually resulted in the Soviets backing down and agreeing to large parts of the P3’s proposals for management of Berlin.  

The United States again made recourse to the U.N. two years later, in 1950, when the Korean War broke out. Confronting the first major act of aggression since the end of World War II—the Chinese and Soviet-backed North Korean invasion of South Korea—was an early test of the U.N.; after all, resisting acts of aggression was its founding purpose. Here, the West profited from an accident of history: the Soviet Union was temporarily boycotting the U.N. to protest the decision to award the U.N. seat to the Republic of China (Taiwan) instead of the People’s Republic (China) following the Communist takeover in Beijing. With no Soviet diplomats present to veto the proposal, the Security Council passed a resolution creating the authorizing framework for the deployment of the United Nations Command to the Korean Peninsula. Comprised of forces from the United States, U.K., Australia, Canada, France, Turkey, Ethiopia, and nine other nations, with the United States comprising the bulk of the force, the U.N.-mandated force deployed to the Korean peninsula, where it engaged the North Korean forces. Following the 1953 Armistice, the establishment of the demilitarized zone and the deployment of U.N. Command forces to that zone established the basic de-escalation and deterrence structures that remain in place to this day. It was the first, not the last, deployment of U.S. power through the U.N., and it halted the North Korean aggression. (U.S. forces on the peninsula continue to be nominally deployed as part of U.N. Command, and dual-hatted as the leadership of the U.N. forces on the peninsula.)  

As the Cold War deepened, a new crisis threatened major escalation between the now-nuclear powers. The 1956 Suez Crisis arose when the U.K., France, and Israel mounted a coordinated invasion of the Suez Peninsula. Khrushchev, who saw the move as a serious threat to the Soviet position in west Asia, threatened a nuclear response against Europe. The crisis was striking for the degree of American anger against its putative European allies, and American pressure on London and Paris to back down was the essential ingredient in de-escalation. The detailed agreement on how to end hostilities, however, was brokered by Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson at the U.N. and resulted in the deployment of the U.N.’s first-ever armed peacekeeping force, the U.N. Emergency Force (UNEF). The U.N.’s agreement to deploy a neutral buffer force created the conditions for Israeli withdrawal past the Canal.  

With the precedent set that the U.N. might authorize the deployment of multinational forces, the United States turned to the body again in 1960 in response to the Katanga Crisis in Zaire. Today, we might not describe the outbreak of civil war and a succession move in central Africa as a strategic crisis. But in 1960, when Katangan rebels declared their intention to break away from Zaire and began military assaults on Zairian positions, two factors amplified the salience of the crisis: it rapidly became a proxy struggle between the superpowers, with the Soviets backing the rebels and the United States backing Kinshasa; and it was the first succession threat during the period of widespread decolonization, and threatened to create a chaotic precedent. Having just developed the instrument of peacekeeping in the Suez context, the United States and the Soviets once again agreed to the deployment of a U.N. neutral force—U.N. Operation in the Congo (UNOC). This was a large, powerful peacekeeping operation, with its own air force and over 20,000 troops deployed on the ground. It was also the U.N.’s first experiment with transitional governance arrangements—UNOC had a large administrative capacity, a contingent of teachers, health workers, and more. By 1962 the mission succeeded in ending the secession crisis and the violence. (But an important additional note: the other result was the start of the Mobutu administration of Zaire, one of the most corrupt and rapacious of the entire Cold War. In the post-Cold War era, too, the U.N. would have a better track record at halting violence than in leaving effective governance in place.)  

The next major example of the U.N. being used as a tool for de-escalation came a decade later, during the Yom Kippur War. The outbreak of fighting in 1973 between Israel and the Arabs saw intense U.S. and Soviet responses, both in terms of the American and Soviet airlifts of supplies to their respective allies, but even both superpowers’ consideration of deploying troops. The risk of direct confrontation led Kissinger to engage his Soviet counterpart through the Security Council. Once again, Washington and Moscow agreed to the deployment of U.N. forces as a device to de-escalate the conflict. They bolstered the troop posture of UNTSO observers along the Egyptian, Lebanese and Jordanian borders with Israel, and added a new mission—the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which established a large buffer between the Syrian army and Israel on the vital Golan Heights. (It remains in place to this day, though its functionality and operations were disrupted by the outbreak of civil war in Syria during the Arab Spring.) These actions froze the conflict and avoided direct superpower engagement. 

In short, from its founding in the late 1940s and through its first three decades, the Security Council was frequently used by the Soviets and the Americans as an instrument of de-escalation—a guardrail of sorts. And not in peripheral crises, but in the most important crises that confronted the two superpowers and risked entangling them.  

The 1980s, though, saw little of this kind of U.S.-Soviet crisis management at the United Nations. U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick to the position of U.N. Ambassador kickstarted a new U.S. approach to the Soviet problem, and thus also to the United Nations. She withdrew the United States from UNESCO (not for the last time); highlighted in front of Congress the issue of the budget and costs of the organization; and focused on the imbalance against the United States in U.N. bodies like the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. In his first term, Reagan also employed the kind of anti-U.N. rhetoric that we have come to expect from Republican presidents. That being said, as some of his Republican successors have also done, Reagan adopted a more pro-U.N. stance in his second term and ended up choosing the U.N. General Assembly as the stage from which he first signaled to the Soviets that he was prepared to begin engaging in diplomatic overtures—moves that eventually resulted in the Reykjavik Summit. And as the Cold War was dying down, the Reagan administration supported the deployment of U.N. mediators to help quell a mounting crisis between Turkey and Bulgaria—a regional conflict by one account, but also a potential conflict between a NATO and a Warsaw Pact member just as efforts were underway to bury the Cold War.  

As the Cold War wound down, and international politics entered a new phase, four operations at the U.N. set the stage for what was to follow—a much wider involvement in internal wars and humanitarian crises, largely at the urging and direction of Western powers. First was the Gulf War, or Operation Desert Storm, which took place under the aegis of the Security Council, following intense diplomacy by President George Bush Sr. to secure international support for the action. The Gulf War was not only the second major U.N. act to reverse aggression (after the Korean War), it was also the second larger-scale operation wherein the United States deployed substantial military power through the United Nations. It also left a crucial legacy in the form of U.N. Security Council Resolution 688, drafted in response to Iraqi fighting against the Kurds, following the withdrawal of U.S. forces. That resolution, for the first time, acknowledged that internal crises could constitute a “threat to international peace and security.” It laid the legal and conceptual basis for the expansive role the U.N. would subsequently play in helping to reduce the surge in civil wars that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Second, the U.N. was authorized to mount an election observation mission—the first of its kind—during the South African elections that followed the Mandela-De Klerk agreements, and then supported the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed. These roles both helped to bring an end to apartheid and set the stage for much of what the U.N. would do beyond narrowly described peacekeeping, in its civil war management roles in the post-Cold War period. Third, after the completion of the Paris Accords in 1991, the Security Council agreed to the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping presence and transitional sovereignty arrangement to quell the Cambodian civil war. Similar in model to the U.N. operation in the Congo in the 1960s, the U.N. presence helped to stabilize Cambodia after the end of Cold War era hostilities. (And, as in Congo, it also left in place a government whose human rights record was highly questionable.) And then, fourth, famously, the Bush Sr. administration pushed for a major U.N. role in response to the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Somalia and deployed substantial U.S. forces alongside the U.N. mission. The eventual disaster and attacks on U.S. and U.N. forces in Somalia would trigger the deep aversion to U.N. operations that came to characterize U.S. attitudes to the U.N. for much of the subsequent period.

The United Nations Security Council votes at U.N. headquarters in New York in favour of a resolution authorizing ground and air monitors to ensure an end to fighting in Yugoslavia's ethnic Albanian Kosovo province, October 24.

The United Nations Security Council votes at U.N. headquarters in New York in favor of a resolution demanding Yugoslav compliance with OSCE and NATO land and air monitors in Kosovo, October 24, 1998. Mike Segar/REUTERS.

Lessons from strategic crises in the post-Cold War era: Experimentation and innovation

In the post-Cold War era, the United States faced no opposing great or even major powers. Therefore, the role of the Security Council in creating mechanisms for de-escalation in conflicts involving such powers became largely irrelevant (with a partial exception during Kosovo.) The role of the U.N. changed from helping the great powers de-escalate, to helping the Western powers manage second-tier conflicts and humanitarian crises. Although the United States entered the post-Cold War era with an aversion to the U.N. born in Somalia, it quickly changed course and either pushed the U.N. or acceded to others (notably the British and the activist European middle powers) pushing the U.N. to take on a wide range of roles. The Security Council would go on to authorize peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and humanitarian operations in dozens of internal conflicts in the post-Cold War era. Most of these operations were in weak states, or states with no diplomatic influence, where the risk of regional contagion was slight, and where the interests of the leading powers were largely humanitarian.  

There were, however, a small subset of these conflicts in which the United States or other nuclear or nuclear-aspiring countries had direct stakes. Containing these conflicts, or preventing them from escalation, was an episodic but important function of the Security Council during the post-Cold War period.   

A brief mining of several episodes of Security Council-backed crisis management in strategic or semi-strategic crises in the post-Cold War period may be germane to present debates about the search for guardrails in great power competition, for this reason. What is ahead of us, likely, is a sustained period of great power tension, and with it is likely to come a renewed dynamic of proxy conflict and tension. Containing these crises from escalation is an important part of preventing direct great power war. Thus, to have a richer menu of experiences and options from which to draw, it’s worth a brief review of the handful of more strategic crises of the post-Cold War era.  

That menu of options includes:  

  • the preventive deployment of border forces, to forestall a brewing crisis  
  • the use of transitional administration of disputed or newly liberated territory  
  • deployment of inspection missions to disarm chemical or other munitions 
  • diplomatic arrangements combined with sanctions designed to prevent an actor from acquiring nuclear or other strategic weapons 
  • observer roles that can monitor withdrawal from disputed or recently occupied territory
  • the deployment of multinational forces with U.N. authorization to stabilize newly independent or disputed territory. 

Various elements of this menu might, for example, be relevant should Moscow eventually reach the conclusion that it cannot achieve its objectives in Ukraine, and Kyiv decides that it is willing to live with some form of interim arrangements in some parts of Crimea or parts of the other territories occupied by Russia, as a way to halt the devastation that has accompanied Russia’s invasion.

Having shifted from superpower de-escalation to the management of secondary crises required innovation.

The Security Council in the post-Cold War era

An early post-Cold War example came in 1995, as the crisis in the former Yugoslavia threatened to spill out into then-stable Macedonia. Following U.S. diplomatic activity, the Security Council agreed to authorize the deployment of a border force designed to deter Serbian hostilities and prevent the opening a new flank of the crisis—the U.N. Preventive Deployment in Macedonia, UNPREDEP. This use of forces to prevent rather than respond to a crisis was seen as an important innovation, but one that has not been replicated since. 

That was followed by a diplomatic innovation suggested by the U.K., in the case of the East Timor crisis, specifically, in the wake of Indonesia’s military crackdown in East Timor following the results of the independence referendum. The United States did not initially view the East Timor crisis as warranting high-level attention; U.S. National Security Advisor Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger infamously dismissed U.S. action in Timor by analogizing to his daughter’s “messy apartment up in college.” But an activist Britain saw things differently and decided to lead a Security Council delegation to visit Timor—the first of its kind. This generated huge media exposure to the scale of hostilities being undertaken by Indonesia; and under pressure from public opinion, the United States changed course. The United States subsequently backed the authorization of an Australian-led multinational force under U.N. auspices, which was able to deploy 15,000 high-quality troops to the island within days, to quell the fighting. It later transitioned to a U.N. peacekeeping force and a U.N. Transitional Authority operation. The net result was an independent and reasonably stable East Timor.  

The example was then followed for the Kosovo crisis. Following a G8 agreement at Rambouillet, the United States agreed to halt NATO offensive operations and the Russians agreed to cause the Serb forces to halt military operations against the Kosovars. Talks then went to the Security Council, where it was decided that NATO would deploy to Kosovo under a U.N. framework, and the U.N. would deploy a transitional authority operation. The operation was fraught and experienced repeated crises, but the net effect was ultimately a reasonably stable Kosovo recognized by over 100 countries. 

The 1990s also saw renewed U.N. deployments in the Middle East. The Israeli withdrawal from its occupied territories in Lebanon in 1999 created an opportunity for conflict reduction, but also a potential new crisis. An early Israeli decision to retain a slice of Lebanese territory even after “withdrawal” threatened to provoke a serious Arab pushback. After exploratory talks, the United States agreed to a proposal for a Security Council-certified process of verifying the line of withdrawal—what became known as the “Blue Line.” This diplomatic and verification mission helped to certify full Israeli withdrawal from previously occupied Lebanese territory, averting a renewed crisis.

The U.N. was also used in response to the 2006 outbreak of the Israel-Hezbollah war. Hezbollah missile strikes on Israel provoked a large-scale Israeli military operation inside Lebanon, which in turn sparked a major international diplomatic crisis. Italy convened a gathering of foreign ministers to search for solutions, during which then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice floated the idea of a NATO-led force to stabilize southern Lebanon. The Arabs rejected the idea of a NATO force, and the United States subsequently agreed to a U.N. stabilization force. This was deployed in and through the pre-existing (but much weaker) peacekeeping presence, the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). It had sufficient diplomatic weight and firepower in the form of French, German, Italian, and Indian forces to deter Hezbollah attacks, and even to deter Israeli air attacks (having a substantial battery of anti-aircraft guns deployed along the Israel-Lebanon boundary.) UNIFIL II eventually also developed the U.N.’s first naval peacekeeping unit, initially led by Germany, later by Brazil—deploying several nations’ naval forces under U.N. command to allow Israel to lift its quarantine of Lebanon, and then to patrol the contested maritime boundary. These arrangements remained in place until the October 7 2023 crisis. Between 2006 and 2023, the U.N. arrangements helped maintain stability along the Israel-Lebanon border but did not prevent Hezbollah from considerably expanding its missile arsenal.  

In Syria, too; although initial P5 proposals for overall conflict management were discarded (primarily by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite having helped negotiate them), the U.N. was used for a specific purpose related to chemical weapons. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical munitions against his own population looked briefly like it would trigger an American military response. Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened during the G20 session in St Petersburg to propose that the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons instead be tasked with dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. The subsequent U.N.-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigative Mission did manage to remove 600 metric tons of deadly chemicals from Syria, most of which were destroyed by the U.S. Navy, while the weapons components were removed from Syria by a joint Norwegian-Danish operation. Although the mission stated that they had cleared all declared sites of chemical weaponry, subsequent attacks in 2017 and 2018 confirmed the mission had not in fact been able to entirely dismantle Syria’s arsenal. However, experts assess that the U.N.-OPCW mission did destroy more than 90% of Syria’s chemical weapon capacity. (It is of course eminently arguable that Syria would now be in a better place had U.S. President Barack Obama not backed down from deploying American force in response to the chemical crisis.)  

Finally: No account of the U.N. in strategic crisis would be complete without a discussion of the P5+1 process in Iran. The Iran nuclear file has been one of the most consequential for international politics, including great power relations, of the last two decades. The launch of the process for negotiations by the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) to negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the imposition of U.N. sanctions, repeated Security Council negotiations and resolutions, and the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 (endorsing the JCPOA and creating the “snapback” mechanism to reimpose sanctions if necessary) constitute perhaps the most important ongoing case of leading powers using U.N. and U.N.-adjacent mechanisms to negotiate with one another while they simultaneously work to manage a regional threat. There are valid criticisms of the JCPOA, especially about the limits of its remit (i.e. the extent to which it does not constrain Iranian regional aggression) and the sunset provisions, but it is hard to see any evidence for an argument that the United States would have concluded a better deal, or seen better implementation, had it negotiated bilaterally. The presence of Russia and China inside the negotiating tent limited their ability to object to sanctions resolutions in the Council (which they agreed to on three occasions), and the unity among the Western powers substantially increased the pressure on the Iranians. The use of an inside/outside mechanism to incorporate the Germans into what would otherwise have been a P5 mechanism added clout to the entire process.

Thus, throughout the post-Cold War era, while engaging widely in weak states and humanitarian crises, the major powers also used the U.N. Security Council to play intermittent but significant roles in strategically relevant crises. And throughout these cases, there have been useful innovations in U.N. instruments that could be germane in the face of new geopolitical crises.   

The question ahead of us is: if the Security Council is expanded to bring in new permanent members, primarily from the Global South, how will this affect the roles played by the U.N. and the likelihood of useful innovation in crises?

Looking forward

This review of cases, especially during the Cold War, points to some themes relevant to today’s international security landscape.  

  1. It is worth noting that in several of the most important examples, it was the United States itself that initiated the use of the Security Council as a framework or instrument for conflict management. This is important to emphasize. In the post-Cold War era, with the U.N.’s expansive roles in conflicts and crises that are secondary or tertiary to U.S. interests, the U.N. Secretariat has taken on a correspondingly larger role in initiation, policy-setting, and managing its operations. This has been good for civil war mitigation, but arguably it has been bad for U.N. relations with what is still the world’s most important security power. Of course, at no point has the United States been anything other than a highly influential actor within the U.N. framework. But Washington exerting influence on U.N. operations and policies is still quite a different thing from the United States—or another major power—using the U.N. as an instrument of its own diplomacy with peer competitors or rivals.
  2. Notwithstanding the first point, it is also notable that some of the most important Security Council-led contributions during the Cold War were opposed at first by both the United States and the Soviets. When that opposition was sustained, the Security Council’s role inevitably faded—for example, initial efforts to resolve the Falklands crisis faded, as have repeated U.N. efforts to insert themselves into India-Pakistan diplomacy. But when faced with a Secretary-General with the guts to risk pushback, the United States sometimes accepted the U.N.’s role, and eventually recognized the value of the role.
  3. Superpower diplomacy at the Security Council was often buttressed and prodded towards an active crisis management role by the “neutral” powers (during the Cold War) or the “middle” powers (in the post-Cold War period.) The logic for this is obvious—working semi-collectively through the U.N., second-tier powers could both add to their collective weight and shield themselves to some degree from the risk of being at the receiving end of Washington or Moscow’s ire.
  4. Vitally: With the sole and accidental exception of the Korean War arrangements (during the Soviet Union’s brief and instantly regretted withdrawal from the U.N.), the Security Council cannot act in major crises without the explicit and direct backing of the top powers. This is obvious from a realist perspective but needs to be stressed against the backdrop of commentary that sometimes misplaces the agency in international crisis management. The U.N. is a framework, an instrument, a tool; by itself, it is not an agent of action. Only at the urging or insistence of the major powers, or with their acquiescence, can the Security Council play roles, sometimes (in limited ways) by the direct diplomacy of U.N. diplomats, more often by creating a framework through which other states can cooperate or coordinate. When assessing potential roles in strategic crises, the essential point is this: the Security Council will only be relevant if the major powers want it to be, and if they want to de-escalate the crisis that confronts them. In the case of Ukraine, for example, the question of whether the Security Council can be or could have been used hinges not on the U.N., but on Moscow’s willingness to see an end to the crisis—of which there is no evidence. If the major military powers are looking to engender or escalate crises, there is little or nothing that the U.N.—or any other body, tool, or actor—can do about it. But if they are looking to de-escalate crises or manage tensions, then we may see a renewed recourse to the Security Council.

If so, and against the backdrop of a changing international order and distribution of power, does membership reform matter?  

The argument that it does is usually framed in terms of the synchronicity, or not, of the membership of the Security Council and the distribution of power on the world stage. During the Cold War, it is argued, the structure of the Security Council matched the structure of power in world affairs; the presence of the United States and the Soviet Union as veto-wielding powers meant that the two actors that were generating instability were also present in the mechanism they could use to generate diplomacy and de-escalation. Now that the balance of power has changed, the membership needs to change as well, or so it is argued.  

The case is not cut and dry. First, the three countries most likely to be directly involved in a geopolitical crisis—the United States, Russia, and China—are already present in the Security Council as veto-wielding members. (This is an accident of history: the permanent member category was initially to be restricted to the ‘four policemen’ – the United States, U.K., France, and the Soviet Union; it was a late-game decision to extend a fifth seat to China.) Europe, which remains economically and diplomatically powerful, and has the potential to be militarily powerful, is represented by the two countries with Europe’s most capable military and intelligence arms: the U.K. and France. Germany’s absence means that the fourth largest economy in the world, and an increasingly important diplomatic actor, is absent; but informal arrangements like the P5+1 framework for negotiations with Iran create an easy workaround there. The real case for change lies in the absence of India and Japan—the third and fifth largest economies in the world, and two countries quite likely to be ensnared in geopolitical tensions and crises.  

The case is harder to make for South Africa and Brazil—somewhat ironically, for Brazil is the sole actor among the leading economies to retain a deep political commitment to international law. South Africa’s presence on the Security Council, it is argued, would increase the legitimacy of the body’s actions vis-à-vis crisis management in Africa. This is a valid argument and concern to be sure, though limited in terms of the Security Council’s potential roles in managing strategic tensions. Brazil’s presence on the Security Council would do little to ease any mismatch between crisis players and Security Council members; there are few if any major power crises on Brazil’s horizon. Brazil has often made its case in terms of regional representation and legitimacy. The more compelling argument is that having on the Security Council a permanent member with diplomatic and economic clout and with a deep commitment to multilateralism could bolster U.N. diplomacy during a period when the natural tendency of the competing powers will be toward tension and escalation, not diplomatic solutions.  

Moreover, it could just as easily be argued that to adequately reflect the contemporary geopolitical reality, the Security Council should also have permanent members from among the leading powers of the Middle East—Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. But no one is making this argument and it would be a dubious argument on its face; leaving aside the fact that any effort to make one of these countries a permanent member of the Security Council would significantly escalate tensions in an already volatile region.

It’s hard to assess whether membership reform of the Security Council will happen, even if the major players of the Global South keep up the pressure. It’s only happened once before, and not in the category of permanent seats. There are grounds for serious skepticism, especially because China is dead set on opposing a permanent seat for either Japan or India; though whether they would visibly and explicitly block them, if a reform package advanced that far, remains to be tested.  

But whether with a wider membership or without, the deeper question is about the role of the Security Council in a period of geopolitical tension. As the space for consensus constricts, some U.N. roles will fall by the wayside – at a serious cost to human security. The question is: Will other, older, roles come back to the fore? And will the Security Council be able to serve—alongside informal arrangements—as a guardrail against escalation, during a period of danger in international politics?  

It will not be easy to restore this sensibility of the Security Council as an instrument for creating guardrails in strategic crises. It is striking to look back, for example, at exchanges between the U.S. president and the State Department during the Berlin crisis: one reason that Secretary Marshall decided to adopt the U.N. strategy was his fear that Congress “will not understand” if State did not make recourse to the highest international diplomatic body in the search for solutions. It’s hard to imagine any version of today’s American Congress having this view! The United States has also now long neglected the early practice of presidents appointing a U.N. ambassador from the opposing political party, to help generate bipartisan support for its diplomacy—a practice that led to Dean Rusk’s influential tenure at the United Nations. Nor does the United States any longer live up to Truman’s initial commitment to the U.N. to provide it with strategic airlift, gratis, a practice it maintained until the 1960s, then discontinued (with one recent exception, during the emergency operation in the Central African Republic in 2013, at the urging of then U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power).  

Still, given that China and Russia maintain a strong focus on the U.N. and its role in international order, and given the paucity of regional security and conflict management mechanisms in Asia, we may find that as the United States and its core allies up the ante on deterrence in Asia, they also find an increasing need for diplomatic instruments. Neither the Association of Southeast Asian Nations nor the Shanghai Cooperation Organization nor the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperations nor the Asian Regional Forum will provide them. In Europe: If the political dynamics surrounding the Ukraine war change, we may find ourselves in need of mechanisms through which to negotiate war termination, or interim arrangements on the ground.  

The challenge will be to reinvent the older sensibility of using the Security Council as an instrument for crisis management, in new theaters, with a new rival, in rapidly changing times. Whether Washington comes to this conclusion, or Beijing does, or Moscow does, remains to be seen. In the meantime, activist middle powers and the U.N. itself would do well to recall this older role, and to remind the top powers, via their own quiet diplomacy, of the quite substantial menu of arrangements for de-escalation that the Security Council can provide.

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The author wishes to thank Melanie Sisson and two anonymous peer reviewers for helpful comments, Sophia Hart for research assistance, Alex Dimsdale for editing, and Rachel Slattery for design and layout.

  • Footnotes
    1. There’s a partial exception, in the area of the northern part of Ghajar; after much contestation, the UN certified that Israel had withdrawn to Israeli territory in the area of the Ghajar farms (a village divided by the Israel-Lebanon boundary); but in 2006, in the context of the Hezbollah crisis, Israel re-occupied a part of this territory.
    2. Some who oppose the creation of new permanent members of the Council argue that, similarly, elevating one European or Latin American country over others would create tensions there, too: but Italy and Germany are not going to go to war over U.N. membership, or stop trading, and neither are modern Argentina and Brazil.