As general debate of the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) 66th Session got underway this week, the issue of UN structural reform was again brought into focus—with Brazil leading the charge. A thriving democracy and one of the largest emerging economies in the world, Brazil has powerful ammunition in making its demand—especially paired with the collective declining influence of deficit-ridden, developed nations.
The desired trophy for Brazil comes in the form of a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This elite organ has retained the same numerical composition—15 seats: 5 with permanent tenures (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and 10 with temporary, two-year terms—since its formation in 1946.
Critics of the status quo argue that this small size does not accurately reflect the global developments of the last 55 years. Brazil, as it vocally carries the banner of emerging nations that feel underrepresented in the UN, has chosen to act on reform. The most notable way of doing so has been through the Group of 4 (G4), an alliance formed in 2004 composed of Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan. Each of the G4 nations mutually supports the other members’ bids.
The G4 seeks to expand the size of the UNSC by two-thirds, from 15 members to 25, through the addition of 6 permanent and 4 non-permanent seats. The permanent seats would be comprised of the G4 plus two nations from Africa. However, discord within the African Union has stifled compromise on this issue; Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa are all vying for the two proposed seats and cannot arrive at an agreement.
The G4 is also facing competition from a larger but less influential faction of UN members: Uniting for Consensus (UfC). Members of the UfC, some 40 in number, also favor expanding the UNSC to 25 seats—but by adding 10 temporary seats and keeping the same 5 permanent, veto-carrying members. This makes sense, considering that many of the UfC’s core members are regional rivals of the G4—including Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan, Turkey, Italy, and South Korea—who have a vested interest in thwarting any sort of growing regional influence among the individual G4 members.
To acquire a UNSC seat, two-thirds of the General Assembly, or 129 out of the 193 member states, plus each permanent UNSC member must support a particular country’s bid.
When it comes to the G4’s ultimate objective, China’s reservations are clearly apparent. Although Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Hailong pledged China’s support for UNSC reform earlier this month, the People’s Republic openly opposes Japan’s bid due to so-called “historical baggage.” China hasn’t been outspoken in expressing support for India in fears of upsetting close ally Pakistan. And when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff visited Dalian, China, in April 2011 for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Summit, China did not endorse Brazil’s UNSC hopes, either. Simply put, China has its doubts.
U.S. Policy toward UN Reform
Where does the United States stand? One would suspect that President Obama, with his foreign policy that has strongly favored multilateral diplomacy—which in no small part contributed to his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize—would support greater participation in multilateral institutions like the UN.
Not so fast. Although Obama vociferously supported India’s UNSC bid during his state visit to New Delhi in November 2010, this move was as much a sign of appreciation of the robust U.S.-India relationship as it was a recognition of the U.S.’ geopolitical complexities in South and East Asia—and the need to place a check on China’s ever-burgeoning economic and diplomatic influence. White House officials say that the Obama administration backs Japan’s bid, as well, and there is no overwhelmingly strong reason to oppose the ambitions of a strong military and economic ally like Germany.
In the eyes of the U.S., among the family of G4 nations Brazil seems to be the black sheep. During Obama’s state visit in March 2011, although he paid tribute to Brazil’s remarkable rise in a joint statement with Rousseff, he stopped short of endorsing the permanent seat bid. Dilma, in her half of the joint statement, was explicit in avowing Brazil’s advocacy for redesigning global governance, partly through the augmentation of the UNSC. After all, Brazil’s current rotating term on the Security Council is its tenth overall since 1946, and Rousseff believes her country has earned a permanent seat.
Political scientists like Matías Spektor of Brazil’s Fundação Getúlio Vargas argue that Brazil’s identity “sits comfortably at the intersection between the West and ‘the rest.’ Brazilian diplomats may not share the U.S. view on a range of issues, but in a divided world that requires cooperation to deal with daunting problems, Brazil can be a bridge.”
Although Brazil and the United States have excellent trade flows and happily collaborate on “open government” initiatives, the two countries have repeatedly clashed on diplomatic terms regarding critical global issues. For instance, Brazil’s and Turkey’s refusal to place sanctions on Iran in 2009 in condemnation of its nuclear ambitions certainly created a rift between Brasilia and Washington. Instead, Brasilia and Ankara offered to mediate talks with Tehran. Not only did this proposal gain no traction in the UN, but it rubbed salt to the U.S.-Brazil wound.
The Middle East: Creating Space between Developed and Emerging Nations
Earlier this year, Brazil abstained from the U.S.-approved UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized a no-fly zone to intervene in Libya’s civil war. The resolution was passed two days before Obama arrived in Brazil in March, and the nascent NATO bombing campaign overshadowed his entire visit to Planalto and Rio de Janeiro.
With Colonel Muammar Gadhafi now deposed, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda called countries like Brazil “shameful fence-sitters who waffled endlessly” on “one of the [UNSC’s] most successful actions in recent memory.” Castañeda opined that nations who abstained from Resolution 1973—not just Brazil, but India and Germany as well—“are showing that they are not ready for a bigger role in international affairs.”
Fanning the flames further, the most contentious issue of this year’s UNGA—Palestine’s declaration to become the UN’s 194th member state—came into focus today. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally presented his bid this morning to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon before turning to the General Assembly. In his address, Abbas cited “the unquestionable right of our people to self-determination and to the independence of our State.” The declaration will proceed to the UNSC, and Brazil and the U.S. could not be more diametrically opposed on this issue. Despite fervent opposition from the U.S. and Obama’s threat on Wednesday to veto the Palestinian unilateral act, Brazil has not only enthusiastically supported Palestine’s bid—but has pledged to “defend” it as well.
The IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) bloc—whose members all occupy non-permanent seats in the UNSC—also chose not to adopt a UN resolution supporting sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. These disagreements have further pitted Brazil and the U.S. apart, leaving the United States “not encouraged” by Brazil’s performance at the UNSC since it began its most recent term on January 1, 2010.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice summarizes: “It has been a very interesting opportunity to see how [IBSA] responds to the issues of the day, how they relate to us and others, and how they do or don’t act consistent with their own democratic institutions and stated values.”
Challenges Going Forward
President Rousseff, in her opening speech to the UNGA on Wednesday, issued a clarion call for structural reform in the UN on behalf of all emerging nations. Dilma said, “A new kind of cooperation between emerging and developed countries is an historical opportunity to redefine—with solidarity and responsibility—the commitments that govern international relations.” Then she directed her aim at the UNSC, stating, “The world needs a Security Council that reflects contemporary realities: a Council that brings in new permanent and non-permanent members, especially developing countries.”
Although the Obama administration does not endorse Brazil’s desire for increased representation in the UN, in March Obama acknowledged Brazil’s aspirations to do so, which represents a breakthrough in itself. Given Obama’s proclivity toward multilateral diplomacy, there may be ways to bring more members like Brazil into the UNSC fold over time.
One such issue is Iran. Given that the theme of this year’s UNGA is “the role of mediation in the settlement of disputes by peaceful means,” perhaps officials in Washington can turn to Brasilia, which has a warm relationship with Tehran, to work in tandem to quell the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. Another area of potential collaboration is leveraging Brazil’s growing alliance with the Global South. But as the global community witnessed a transformative, revolutionary year in the Arab World, Brazil’s inaction toward the Middle East would make approving its permanent UNSC bid a bitter pill for the U.S. to swallow.
Three years ago, then-Brazilian President Lula da Silva addressed the 63rd Session of the UNGA by stating, “Today’s [UNSC] structure has been frozen for six decades and does not relate to the challenges of today’s world. Its distorted form of representation stands between us and the multilateral world to which we aspire.”
While the Great Recession has certainly accelerated the rise of emerging countries, it remains to be seen whether Lula’s vision was sheer prescience or merely wishful thinking.
Ryan Berger is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He works at Americas Quarterly as well as the policy department of Americas Society and Council of the Americas.