The Security Council of the United Nations is perhaps the most important international meeting-place in the world. The Charter of the United Nations, signed in 1945, has provisions for there to be five permanent and ten rotating members of the Council. These – the P5 – have a de facto veto power, meaning that if they vote against a resolution, it fails, even if every other member approves. This veto can be seen as a vindication of realist IR theory, or so realists argue. The UN would not exist without it. Adoption of the UN Charter, signed on 26 June 1945, was certainly not inevitable. At the United Nations Conference on International Organization…
“…[a]t San Francisco, the issue was made crystal clear by the leaders of the Big Five: it was either the Charter with the veto or no Charter at all. Senator Connally [from the U.S. delegation] dramatically tore up a copy of the Charter during one of his speeches and reminded the small states that they would be guilty of that same act if they opposed the unanimity principle. ‘You may, if you wish,’ he said, ‘go home from this Conference and say that you have defeated the veto. But what will be your answer when you are asked: “Where is the Charter”?’“ (Wilcox 1945)
At the UN’s establishment, the P5 members were the United
States, the United Kingdom, France, the USSR, and the Republic of
China. The first four are still members. Inclusion of China seemed
simple enough, especially remembering that it shared Senator
Connally’s opinion and intentions regarding the veto. China
was one the victors of WWII, suffering horrors and casualties
second only to those of the USSR. However, in 1945
‘China’ meant the Republic of China (RoC), established
by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists. The KMT
and the Communists, under Chairman Mao Zedong, had been fighting
for control of China before the war, but came together to drive
out the Japanese invaders.
Afterwards, they resumed their civil war, and the communists won, driving the KMT to Taiwan and forming the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland.
This meant that, by 1950, the ‘China’ represented at the Security Council was in control of Taiwan, a substantial island, but relatively insignificant compared to the magnitude of the PRC in both population and area.
Upon the PRC’s initial bid to have the permanent seat, in 1950, the US had voted against, and in favour of Taiwan, along with most of the General Assembly (Torelli 2012), because they thought of the communist states as a ‘bloc’, and the Cold War was getting under way. When the question came up again, in 1971, the US attitude had changed. President Richard Nixon and his legendary Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had decided that it was better to have the communists “inside the tent” than out. Their change of attitude was enough to tip the scales in favour of the mainland, and the PRC took over China’s veto power by a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly. (Morphet 2000)
Realists, then, can argue both that the UN would never have existed without the veto powers, and that it would have been severely weakened and marginalized without the great power, the communist PRC, being included in the exclusive club.
- The Security Council was able to adapt to the situation in 1971 because the new order demanded it. Could it similarly adapt today?
- If you had to choose one or more new P5 member states today, which would they be?
- How does the UNSC differ from a world government? What is the significance of its ability to over-ride state sovereignty?
Morphet, S. (2000). “China as a Permanent Member of the Security Council: October 1971—December 1999.” Security Dialogue 31(2): 151-166.
Torelli, A. (2012). “The Costs of Realism: The Nixon
Administration, the People’s Republic of China, and the
United Nations.” The Journal of American-East Asian
Relations 19(2): 157-182.
[The Nixon presidency has been pivotal in debates on American Cold War foreign policy and domestic politics. Recent access to primary sources now allows more precise analyses of the relationship between the Nixon administration and the United Nations in general and the problem of Chinese UN representation in particular. The representation question conditioned the actions of the UN starting from the 1950s and was in turn influenced by the new policy adopted by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger toward the People’s Republic of China in 1971. Until now, analysis of White House strategy toward the PRC concentrated on the period preceding Peking’s admission to the United Nations or considered the admission question only marginally. This essay focuses on PRC admission to the United Nations, setting it within the context of the opening of dialog between the United States and China and of the realist strategy adopted by the White House, underlining the differences between the positions of the White House and of the Department of State.]
Wilcox, F. O. (1945). “II. The Yalta Voting Formula.” The American Political Science Review 39(5): 943-956.