Why the U.N. Security Council is Still Important

David Bosco discusses Five to Rule Them All.


The United Nations and its Security Council have long been a source of hope and frustration for foreign-policy makers. While the council holds the promise of international cooperation, its reality often involves stalemate and intransigence. But, veteran journalist and commentator David Bosco argues in Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Mak ing of the Modern World, it retains relevance and importance. Bosco, a professor at American University's School of International Service and a former senior editor at Foreign Policy, recently chatted with U.S. News about the problems facing the Security Council and some of its more colorful moments. Excerpts:

What can we expect the U.N. Security Council to do with the Iran nuclear issue?

The dilemma with Iran in terms of the Security Council all along has been that China and Russia—Russia in particular—look at the issue quite differently than the U.S. does, than the Western powers do, both I think because of their financial interests in Iran and also because of their general skepticism about intervention in the internal affairs of states. But Russia has made some signals recently that it's willing to consider more comprehensive sanctions. And a lot of people wonder whether there wasn't some kind of quid pro quo in terms of the missile defense program in Eastern Europe.

Does it make sense for the United States to act through the Security Council at this point?

Yeah. It is a way of making sure that the United States is keeping in contact with and keeping on the same page with the major powers on the council.

Have there been cases in the past where bypassing it was the right decision?

I would cite Kosovo as an example. The Clinton administration worked through the Security Council as far as it could go, in essence, but it simply couldn't get Russia on board. And then it worked around the Security Council through NATO, took military action, and then came back to the council to try to get approval for the peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

How effective has the council been?

Historically speaking, the council has been much more effective at easing relations between the big powers who sit on the council than it has assertively maintaining international peace and security. And you can see in the last 10 or 20 years, the council has launched all these peacekeeping missions, it's slapped sanctions on a bunch of countries, and a lot of these efforts have been not complete failures but have been very deficient.

How has the Security Council evolved?

The hope of the people who founded the U.N., and the diplomats at that time, was that the Security Council would be kind of the answer to international politics, that the big powers would work together to stop conflicts before they got going, really. That dream died very quickly because of the Cold War. But what you've seen since the end of the Cold War, you've seen the Security Council return to the center of international politics.

So it still makes sense to have the council?

Definitely, I think it makes sense. At a minimum, it creates a place where the big powers can try to settle their differences. One of the big questions, of course, is whether the Security Council is anachronistic now, whether it's outdated.

In terms of composition?

In terms of composition. And this has been something that has come up a lot during the General Assembly speeches. Some change is necessary because the council no longer reflects world power. There are major, major powerful countries that are not on the council. India should be on there; I think Japan should be on there; I think Brazil probably should be there. Britain and France ultimately should, I think, combine their seats into a European Union seat. The problem for all these reform efforts is that in order to reform the council, you've got to amend the U.N. charter. My fear is that if you do council reform the wrong way, you'll end up with a council of 25 or 30 members that will be bloated, that will be inefficient, and that will be most importantly not a comfortable place for big-power diplomacy.