SA's UNSC delusion

RW Johnson on the dearth of credible African candidates for a permanent seat on the security council

South Africa’s ignominious abstention in the UN debate on Ukraine has produced a good deal of discussion, during which – once again – we have heard of Pretoria’s somewhat aggrieved demand for a permanent place on the UN Security Council. Yet this demand is silly: it has not the ghost of a chance of success and the fact that it can be made at all displays a great deal of ignorance of international relations.

The notion that Africa “ought” to have a permanent seat on the Security Council comes from a naive assumption of regional representivity. Yet this has never been part of the UN’s Charter or its thinking. Originally “the United Nations” was the term applied by Roosevelt and Churchill to the wartime Allies.

The key assumption was that the Second World War had been a titanic struggle against evil and that the UN should include only those states who had supported the Allies. There was to be no room – let Ramaphosa note – for those who had sat on the fence when the chips were down. All five permanent Security Council members (known as the P5) had fought for the Allied side.

The USSR, realising that it stood to be outnumbered by Western countries in the UN, tried to argue that each of its fifteen constituent republics should have a seat. In the end the compromise was that in addition to the USSR, Belorussia and Ukraine should have seats. Note that at that stage Russia argued strongly that these were completely separate and independent countries – whereas Putin’s argument today is that both have never really existed as states and should be absorbed back into Russia.

Over time the argument has been made that the international scene has changed considerably since 1945 and that the UN ought to reflect that. The key changes have been (a) the huge shift of economic power. In 1945 Japan and Germany were flat on their backs. Today they are the world’s third and fourth largest economies. In general economic power has shifted and is shifting towards Asia; and (b) decolonisation, which has hugely increased the UN’s membership and seen the rise of what were called “developing countries”.

By 2030 the world’s six biggest economies (on a purchasing power parity basis) are forecast to be China, India, the USA, Indonesia, Turkey and Brazil. There is no African contender. Japan and Germany will remain in the top ten.

What this means is that the serious contenders for a larger UN role are Germany, Japan, India, Indonesia and Brazil. But that is where the trouble begins. China can be relied upon to veto its old enemy, Japan, and almost certainly India too. India, which will soon be the world’s most populous country, is clearly the major rival to China in Asia and its membership of the Quad – the US, Japan, Australia and India – suggests that it will be part of a key alliance aimed at “containing” China. Beijing has fully taken note of this development and is loud in its denunciations.

Moreover, India’s turn to Hindu nationalism has upset many of the world’s Muslim countries and they would also probably to try to block India. But if India can’t get in then how can one argue for Indonesia, which will have a far smaller economy and population?

As for Brazil, its claims would doubtless be contested by the other Latin American giant, Argentina, but in any case the Brazilian economy has recently fallen on ill times (as has Turkey’s) and its political scene continues to be chaotic. Its last president but one, Lula da Silva, was jailed. His successor, Dilma Roussef, was impeached and sacked in disgrace. She then failed even to win a seat in the country’s Senate.

The current president, Jair Bolsonaro, is an irresponsible cowboy who denied Covid existed and led his country into the world’s worst Covid epidemic. The Brazilian Senate has formulated impeachment charges against him and allegations of crimes against humanity. His popularity has fallen steeply.

No matter how much goodwill they feel towards Brazil, the current permanent members of the Security Council – the P5 – would be extremely reluctant to add to their numbers a country with such a chaotic and unpredictable political system.

That leaves Germany. The recent decision by Chancellor Olaf Scholz to increase Germany’s defence spending to 2% (or possibly more) has at one step meant that Germany will have the biggest defence budget in Eurasia – more than Russia, Britain or France.

This could well be the point at which Germany steps forward in muscular fashion to become the leader of Europe in every sense. This is bound to be greeted with mixed feelings in Moscow, Paris and London and with great reservations in the many smaller countries subjugated by Germany in the last world war.

France would be upset to see its aspirations to lead Europe thus ditched but it would not veto Germany’s membership of the Security Council. Though Russia probably would. Once Germany becomes Europe’s defence leader the question will inevitably be posed as to whether it should become a nuclear power.

True, France’s President Francois Mitterrand tried to make it a condition of German reunification that Germany should never have nuclear weapons. But that agreement merely brings to mind De Gaulle’s saying of such agreements: “Treaties are like pretty girls. They have their moment and then they are gone.”

But this is all probably academic. It is far from clear that the Germans themselves would like to be a nuclear power or on the Security Council. One could imagine a package deal in which Germany might be one of several new Security Council members but, as we have seen, all the other candidates have fatal handicaps, and there is no prospect of Germany alone being promoted to P5 status/

All of which means it is very difficult to imagine any enlargement of the P5. Even to bring up the question for debate risks bringing many old enmities back to life. The ensuing rancorous deadlock could occupy the UN for several years, when it has far more pressing tasks to deal with. So it would be much easier just to carry on as now.

Note that one reaches that conclusion without the question of an African Security Council member ever arising. One thus realises that the only way such a member could ever emerge is if, despite all the insuperable difficulties above, a general and sweeping change of the Security Council was agreed, with an African membership tagged on at the end.

Africa alone can’t put itself on the agenda. It has too many wars, too many failed states, too many comic opera presidents. It is a byword for mis-governance and corruption. It has no powerhouse economies – no South Koreas or Indonesias. It doesn’t even have any Taiwans or Singapores.

Last time the issue came up the AU couldn’t even agree on a candidate and so came up with three – a pantomime performance. The three were Egypt – a military dictatorship, South Africa – a failing state, and Nigeria, a country in utter chaos, fabled for its corruption.

Outside Africa this was seen as a pure joke, confirming every negative stereotype of the continent. Pan-Africanists are not known for their sense of humour and certainly no one with a sense of humour could have urged the UN to choose not one but three African states to join the P5. The fact that the AU couldn’t even see that this was preposterous, indeed funny, was just another disqualifying factor.

Moreover, even African Secretaries-General of the UN like Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan have insisted that a key requirement of Security Council membership should be the ability and willingness of members to put substantial resources, both military and economic, at the disposal of the UN. All the P5 do so. But it is hard to imagine any African state being willing or able to do this for many decades ahead. Indeed, as UN members are only too bitterly aware, Africa merely produces most of the wars and crisis situations requiring UN intervention. This alone more or less rules out African demands for P5 status.

Indeed, the demand for a permanent African member of the Security Council is part of a pathology – grasping at symbolic success because real success eludes one. The P5, after all, are an embryonic world government. But if Africa can’t govern itself whence this ambition to govern the world?

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.