The United Nations’ Reformer-in-Chief

Whenever world leaders meet at the United Nations, as they are this week, there is talk of the need to overhaul the organization—and, above all, to reform the Security Council. This year, the chatter is a little more intense than usual.

This is partly because the U.N. has had a rough ride over the last twelve months. U.N.-coordinated climate change negotiations have drifted badly since the 2009 Copenhagen summit. U.N.-commanded peace operations in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo have reeled between crises, repeatedly accused of failing to protect the vulnerable.

Deeper forces are at work. Most Western and non-Western governments agree—at least rhetorically—that the U.N.’s political structures don’t reflect today’s shifting world order. 

Leaders like Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy expound on the need to reshape the Security Council to accommodate the rising powers. 

Though this is a familiar theme—Brazil, Germany, India and Japan made a concerted effort to win permanent seats on the Council in 2005—it has gained urgency since the financial crisis. There are two reasons for this. The first is the sense that the crisis marked a decisive shift in power away from European countries, who hold a privileged place at the U.N. (EU members typically hold 3 to 5 of the Security Council’s 15 seats).

The second is that the crisis threw up a credible alternative mechanism for big power negotiations: the G-20. To date, the G-20 has focused almost entirely on economic affairs. Yet diplomats in New York fear that it won’t be long before some political crisis thrusts security issues onto the G-20’s agenda—sidelining the Security Council in the process.

So there’s a growing sense that someone has to get a grip on Security Council reform before it’s too late. Who? Unlike his predecessor Kofi Annan, who strongly advocated Council reform, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon isn’t inclined to lead on the issue.

Ban is a conciliator, and his public statements suggest that he has an oddly ambiguous attitude to the U.N.’s global role. At times he insists that the organization is indispensable—at others, he is very realistic about its limitations. He’s also up for re-election in 2011. Seizing the banner of Security Council reform would make him enemies he can’t afford.

Nicolas Sarkozy, himself facing elections in 2012, thinks he may be the man for the job. France is hosting both the G-20 and the G8 next year, and Sarkozy has announced he’ll take this opportunity to launch sweeping reforms of international financial institutions—and that the changes could spur an overhaul of the Security Council as well.

Sarkozy’s vision has been criticized as over-ambitious and designed to win him kudos at home. This isn’t entirely fair. At a minimum, the French president has laid out a coherent vision of what a grand bargain on multilateral reform would look like. If he can catalyze serious inter-governmental debate on the issue, it will be a major step forward.

But it’s unlikely that France will manage to win consensus on a dramatic package of reforms in a year. Although Britain and Germany also favor Security Council reform—and Angela Merkel has upped the ante by underlining that she still wants a permanent seat on the Council—Europe’s ability to drive multilateral changes is clearly on the wane. 

Last week, the General Assembly voted to postpone a resolution giving the European Union an enhanced status at the U.N. If the EU can’t win a limited concession like that, it’s hard to believe that its members can pull off big institutional reforms in New York.

So who does that leave to lead on reform? Rising powers like India and Brazil can exert pressure, but are likely to run into opposition. China, which is comfortable being the only permanent Asian member of the Council, is skeptical towards any major alterations.

That leaves just one potential Reformer-in-Chief. It’s the United States. Of all the leaders in New York this week, Barack Obama is the only one who can call for Security Council reform without looking either too self-interested or too constrained to lead it.

This does not mean giving up American preeminence. Even if the United States were to initiate large-scale reforms of the Council it would still be the decisive power in the U.N. Indeed, it would probably gain extra leverage as a result of its willingness to advocate change.

Could the Obama administration take up this task? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told the Council on Foreign Relations that the United States wants “Security Council reform that enhances the U.N.’s overall performance and effectiveness and efficiency.”

That’s a sensible start. It remains to be seen whether the president and his team are willing to frame a compelling case for reform. If they are willing to build on the French initiative, they may be able to engender enough momentum to change the U.N.—and show that, in multilateral affairs, the United States is still a powerfully creative force.