By Alex MacIsaac
As World Federalists with aspirations for a more democratic and peaceful world, we are no strangers to criticisms that our proposals are “overly ambitious” or “unachievable.” Although most tend to agree with some of our more idealistic proposals, they often don’t view them as practical – especially in a gridlocked UN system that prevents substantive changes to the most undemocratic and inefficient aspects of its structure.
Any amendment to the UN Charter must obtain the approval of the Permanent 5 (P5) members of the Security Council, which itself is rife with democratic representation and inefficiency problems. More specifically, the Security Council places five states at the helm with exclusive veto powers and offers ten rotating seats to come together and make decisions that are filtered through the P5 member’s interests. The power and influence of the veto cannot be measured simply by looking at the number of resolutions vetoed by the P5. Security Council members are aware that any initiative that runs counter to the interests of one or more members of the P5 could be fruitless. The tragedy for our shared world governance lies in the bank of unspent solutions to global problems. Countless common-sense resolutions, many of which might easily receive majority support (not only among the 15 Security Council members but also the General Assembly) are never put forward at the UN Security Council, the General Assembly or other contributing bodies that put forward recommendations to it.
To make matters worse, the Security Council is the only body of the UN that can pass binding resolutions. The founders of the UN placed the most undemocratic and unrepresentative body as a gatekeeper, preventing effective and transformative world policy from coming to fruition. With this interest filter placed at the top of the decision-making chain, it is little wonder that efforts to establish binding resolutions that shake the status quo system are stymied. All five members of the Security Council possess nuclear weapon arsenals. Their exclusive use of a veto on resolutions guarantees their continued access to those weapons, a microcosm of a larger problem at hand in nearly every aspect of global governance failures. The veto grants these powers a myriad direct and indirect interests allowing them to determine global standards and regulations regarding the world environment, economy and geopolitical landscape to their advantage and at the detriment of the global public good.
Unsurprisingly, given the institutional inertia built into the UN Charter at the outset by granting the five victors of the Second World War permanent seats and veto powers, nearly all reforms to the UN structure since its beginnings have avoided the Security Council. One minor exception is the 1965 expansion of the number of non-permanent seats from six to ten. While this type of reform does provide more democratic representation for the world population and increases pressure on P5 members exercising their veto powers, it fails to address the gridlocking power of the veto – circumventing the issue like a vine tendril growing along a brick wall in its search for light, able only to grow along the path allowed by the dominant world powers. The expansion of the Security Council has been discussed again in recent years, including the possibility of increasing the number of permanent seats, although there has been little-to-no progress on efforts towards the abolition or weakening of the veto.
As World Federalists, we have challenged the supremacy of the Security Council at every turn. When we were involved in the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), former World Federalist Movement Executive Director Bill Pace emphasized three principles for its formation, all of which revolved around its independence from the Security Council. Even the most optimistic among coalition members of the CICC did not expect to see its objectives achieved in their lifetimes! Security Council efforts to influence outcomes did reach the ICC in the final days of the 1998 Rome Diplomatic Conference, but could not overtake the separate structure that we had fought for, and so the Council was only permitted discretionary authority over ICC proceedings.
Some World Federalists have recently turned our focus to promote the establishment of a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA), with world citizen elections to gain the democratic legitimacy needed to pass binding resolutions on the world stage. Whether the UNPA would do so in a fashion complementary to the activities of a UN General Assembly, or act as its ultimate replacement, the goal is to fulfill or replace the need(s) for the unalterable system at the height of the intergovernmental organization - the Security Council. The UNPA project will take many years to promote, install, and ultimately develop while taking into account the myriad of possibilities for its structure as efforts respond to future events and evolving international norms. However, it is one of the most promising ways we, as humans sharing this world, can find hope for building a sustainable and equitable future.
The objective with the UNPA is to create a democratically representative body that over time could fulfill (and replace the need for) the binding roles of the Security Council. As the UNPA develops, it will become comparatively more legitimate as a body reflecting world citizens’ interests. The bright side for advocates of a UNPA is that they would be rivalling an immobile or unchanging opponent – offering all the time to develop and align with current world affairs while the Security Council becomes increasingly redundant, sitting still over the years like an ancient ruin overtaken by its own vines.
Perhaps I am wrong, and the Security Council will be propelled to act decisively in reforming its core issues in ways we currently think are impossible in light of the legitimacy challenge posed by a developing UNPA. I see this as a victory for World Federalists (and the world) in either scenario, offering the possibility for a UNPA to exist alongside (and perhaps even complement) a reformed Security Council.
The genie is out of the bottle – the second wave of globalization has reached new heights since its first wave in the early 20th century. The transition is owing to advancements in all sorts of production, communication, and transportation technologies. As greener technologies develop alongside their counterparts, they are often at a disadvantage (profit-wise) in relation to less sustainable practices. Transnational and multinational corporations operate in an unregulated world, reaping profits with little regard for the global public good. They have effectively divided and conquered the world into an international system that competes to drive a race-to-the-bottom on environmental and labor standards. It seems like madness to believe that we can prevent a war involving a world power (e.g. the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the US invasion of Iraq), or meet our climate change targets by continuing to approach global governance the same way we have over the last decades. Although it is a myth that this was Einstein’s definition of insanity, he surely agreed that it would be insane to believe that we can achieve nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament without a supranational body – especially if he had lived to see the continuous failed efforts over the decades that ensued. To believe that we can achieve UN targets and prevent wars without addressing the issues at the core of the international system does not appear to me to be a realistic approach.
In this way, ironically, we can believe that the most pragmatic approach to reforming the UN is an idealistic World Federalist approach! I leave you to reflect on what your world utopia would look like, and with my favorite quote from Don Quixote which I believe highlights the importance of idealism in our development as a unified world community:
“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”