The ANC's UN Security Council pipedream

RW Johnson writes on why the govt’s campaign for a permanent seat is going nowhere

Every new ANC administration announces, sooner or later, that it wishes to “change the international architecture”, which means somehow making BRICS as important as Bretton Woods (a remote and probably fading hope) and a permanent seat for South Africa on the UN Security Council. Since this question excited strong feelings of rivalry in Nigeria and Egypt, that is now generally amended to having two permanent seats for Africa on the UNSC.

It is important to realise that this campaign is going nowhere. Of course, South Africa repeatedly makes unnecessary enemies by supporting foreign dictators like Maduro, but the fact is that the campaign for a South African permanent seat on the UNSC is just naive. Unfortunately, there is almost no international relations expertise in South Africa at academic level. And the less said about DIRCO, the better.

The first thing to realise is that many other states have ambitions for a permanent UNSC seat – Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Japan, India and Indonesia, to name but a few. India is the wotld’s most populous state, Brazil and Indonesia each have 200 million citizens and Germany and Japan are economic giants. With Britain and France already permanent members of the UNSC there is a strong argument that Asia, which is clearly becoming the world’s economic and demographic centre, has the highest claim to new memberships. However, China will quite certainly veto its old rival, Japan, from getting a seat and is also not keen to share its leadership of Asia with India, particularly since China’s ally, Pakistan, is passionately opposed to its old enemy (and nuclear rival) obtaining such an advantage.

With almost one third of the world’s population now being members of the Muslim faith, there is much feeling that there should be a permanent Muslim member of the UNSC – and Indonesia, as the world’s most populous Muslim state, naturally uses this argument. However, as Samuel Huntington pointed out in his Clash of Civilisations, Islam lacks any agreed “core state”. There are many candidates – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and most recently Turkey, as well as Indonesia – but there is no acknowledged leader.

Meanwhile, the problem of Islamic terrorism and the fact that almost no Muslim countries are very democratic gives rise to widespread doubts as to the utility of Muslim representation at the top level. Almost certainly such a step would be a disaster for Israel which in turn means that the Jewish lobby in the USA would campaign strongly against such an idea. Given the trouble and pains to which the USA has gone at the UN to halt the targeting of Israel, a US veto is a strong possibility. But China is also having considerable trouble with its Muslim Uighur minority and might also not welcome a Muslim voice on the UNSC likely to make trouble on this issue.

Ironically, German membership of the UNSC would probably be welcomed by Israel, for its relations with Germany are very warm, but the idea of a third European power on the UNSC doesn’t go down well in Asia. And, actually, it doesn’t go down very well with a lot of Europeans either who tend to feel that a reunified Germany is quite powerful enough, thank you. Indeed, Ms Merkel went to considerable pains to make sure that Germany’s bid had French support – but in practice France is very luke-warm about the idea because it is so aware that its two trump cards, which Germany lacks, are nuclear weapons and a permanent UNSC seat. Why would it be in France’s interests to narrow that advantage?

Currently, there are five UNSC permanent members – China, Russia, the USA, France and Britain. Russia and China are almost invariably allied, as are Britain and the USA, with France sometimes playing a balancing role. Given that these arrangements were made nearly 75 years ago one has to say they have worked not too badly, especially once Nixon gave what had been Taiwan’s seat to Beijing. These are, after all, all still part of the top six or seven powers in the world and include some of the most populous states. Moreover, all five are nuclear powers, which gives them a shared interest in non-proliferation. The five are used to working together and one can understand their collective hesitancy about opening up the club to possibly disruptive or destabilizing new members.

Moreover, some of the would-be new members are countries in which political stability is an open question. Take Brazil: a few years ago there was much talk of a “Lula moment” but Lula is now having his moment in jail for corruption. It is not impossible that Jacob Zuma could follow that example and other countries will have already noted that South Africa is a country in which the political elite was quite happy to sell off their national sovereignty to a family of immigrant criminals. Moreover, the President before Zuma pursued policies which killed over a third of a million HIV+ African women and children by deliberately denying them ARVs. Internationally speaking it will take South Africa a long while to live down the reputational damage done by Mbeki and Zuma. Basically, you don’t want UNSC members whose governments are liable to be taken over by crooks or genocidaires.

There is a financial question too. As of 2012-2013 the UN spent $5.152 billion in direct costs and another $7.8 billion in peace-keeping. Today, the total costs are closer to $20 billion a year. The top contributor is the USA (22%), followed by Japan, China, Germany, France, the UK, Brazil, Italy, Russia and Canada. The problem is that over half the national contributors are chronic bad and late payers. On the other hand there are some conspicuously good payers – Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UAE, and Australia, for example. A glance at that list suggests why Japan, Germany and Brazil are among the top candidates for any extra seats on the UNSC. Now that the Indian economy is growing so fast one must expect India to move powerfully into that club of top payers too. China, which used to be a long way down the list of contributors, has very deliberately stepped up its contributions – it is now the second biggest contributor to peace-keeping operations as well as the third biggest contributor overall – and it is clear that there is a general acceptance that he who wishes to call the tunes must help pay the piper.

This creates a particular problem for would-be African candidates for the UNSC. Many African countries are among the bad and late payers while no one at the UN is unaware that Africa gobbles up, year after year, the lion’s share of peace-keeping costs. That is to say, Africa is the place which creates much of the troubles and whose own institutions are so weak that the AU has to depend on donations from Western countries to be able to function. This puts it right at the back of the queue.

Is South Africa really, seriously wanted to make a bid for a permanent UNSC seat, it would behave very differently. For a start it would stop wasting its money paying an exorbitant contribution to the AU and for a nonsense like the Pan-African Parliament, beef up its armed forces so that it could play a bigger peace-keeping role, and up its contributions to the UN. It would also stop supporting Maduro, Cuba and other Third World dictators, revert to Mandela’s human rights-based foreign policy and stop attacking Israel.

It should remember that a hostile attitude to Israel would not only provoke a US veto but would also upset Russia. Putin is very proud of the fact that Russian is the second language of Israel and is a frequent visitor there and a good customer for Israeli technology. Moreover, these days Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Egypt are all friendly with Israel. Given that South Africa is not a Muslim state, the clever position would be a policy of strict neutrality towards Israel.

However, not even such disciplined behaviour would get round the fact that there is a long queue of countries – India, Brazil, Japan and Germany - whose claims to a permanent UNSC seat would have to be settled before the question of such a seat for South Africa even got onto the agenda. And, as one can see, all these countries currently face deadlocks of their own, so there is little immediate likelihood of any change at all.

Even if that changes – as it may in time – there is no chance of Africa getting two permanent seats on the UNSC. If change does come it would be likely to take the shape of a package deal which would not threaten the positions of any of the five existing UNSC members. That is to say, if you add an extra “Western” state then add an extra friend for China-Russia too. The trouble is that while there are plenty of possible “Western” candidates, it is hard to see who, apart from North Korea, would be a reliable member of the China-Russia camp. And no matter how many wacky meetings Donald Trump has with Kim Jong-un, one suspects one will never see Pyongyang on the UNSC.

R.W. Johnson