An Elite Security Council Is A More Effective One The elitism of the United Nations Security Council doesn't play well in today's increasingly democratic and egalitarian world. But the uncomfortable truth is that the major powers do matter most, and if an exclusive club can help them sort out their problems, it's a small price to pay.

An Elite Security Council Is A More Effective One

President Obama chairs a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at the U.N. headquarters Thursday. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

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Charles Dharapak/AP

President Obama chairs a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at the U.N. headquarters Thursday.

Charles Dharapak/AP

The United Nations Security Council that President Obama presided over this morning is one of the world's most powerful and exclusive diplomatic bodies. Its five permanent members — the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom — and 10 rotating members can impose sanctions, enforce blockades and even wage war, all in the name of the international community.

But the powerful council is also under siege. During the U.N. speeches this week, world leaders from Libya's Moammar Gadhafi to Brazil's Lula da Silva hammered the council for being an exclusive and outdated great-power club in desperate need of reform.

They have a point. Do Britain and France, who have long since retreated from great power status, deserve their permanent seats?

Where are the rising powers from the developing world like India, Brazil and South Africa? And doesn't Japan — the U.N.'s second largest financial contributor — deserve a permanent seat at the council table?

David Bosco is an assistant professor of international politics at American University's School of International Service and author of Five to Rule Them All: the U.N. Security Council and the Making of the Modern World. Courtesy of David Bosco hide caption

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Courtesy of David Bosco

The issue of Security Council reform has been simmering at the U.N. for years, and the Obama administration is under pressure from much of the world to finally get the job done.

The American administration should tread carefully. Most proposals for reforming the council call for membership to balloon to 25 or even more. At that size, the Security Council will lose its character as a great power clubhouse.

And that has been one of its principal contributions to security over the years. The council has always been a place where the great powers can make hard compromises and keep in touch on issues from humanitarian intervention to nonproliferation. American diplomats dial up their Russian and Chinese colleagues more than they would otherwise because they need each other's votes on the council.

The council doesn't often solve the problems it debates, but it can help keep the great powers on the same page. The dangerous Berlin blockade in 1948 ended after a series of quiet conversations between the American and Soviet ambassadors to the council. And when war broke out in the Middle East in 1967 and 1973, the superpowers used the Security Council to help keep themselves from becoming entangled.

The council's elitism doesn't play well in today's increasingly democratic and egalitarian world. But the uncomfortable truth is that the major powers do matter most, and if an exclusive club can help them sort out their problems, it's a small price to pay.

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