Why Africa has no leverage at the UN Security Council

Sep 25, 2011

One of President Robert Mugabe's favorite subjects is UN Security Council reform to make that body more 'democratic' and representative of the world's population. He has spoken about this issue for years, with more passion and conviction than he does on most of the issues that many Zimbabweans worry about on a day to day basis. These kinds of broad, grand issues are what are closest to Mugabe's heart, rather than the nuts and bolts of problem solving. While many of Mugabe's arguments make sense, it is ironic that he misses a key point about why not many take Africa seriously when its leaders, such as he, advocate for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

UN Security Council reform fits in very well with Mugabe's overall message of 'the West is keeping us down.' This issue moves and motivates him much more than mundane ones about increasing farming productivity, health sector recovery, job creation, the cost of living and so on. Mugabe's thirty years in power have shown that these tough bread and butter issues are boring to him compared to broad ideological sweeps.

Said Mugabe last week when addressing the UN general Assembly, ''Africa's call for at least two permanent seats for its members on the Security Council has been constant for decades. Africa cannot remain as the only region without permanent membership in the Security Council.''

There is nothing in his sentiment that the average African would disagree with. The UN's own credibility as an arbiter of international 'democracy' is increasingly compromised by the contradiction of its own deeply undemocratic power structure.

Yet membership of the UN Security Council is not simply a favor granted by the existing members out of a sense of wanting to be seen to exercise global 'democracy' or 'fairness.' It is another manifestation of and an extension of states internationally projecting power.

States or regions do not become internationally powerful by gaining a seat on the UN Security Council. It is instead the other way around: they get that seat because they are already powerful; militarily, economically or both. They leverage that pre-existing power either to get a seat on the Security Council, or to bypass and/or neutralize its resolutions in other ways when convenient.

In this regard, Africa is by the weakest of all the worlds' regions. Africa does not have military or economic power in relation to the other regions to project in ways like bargaining for a seat on the Security Council.

If Africa were 'given' such a seat, at present it would not have the ability to give any teeth to its SC positions. This was graphically shown by how Africa was out played and then quite casually ignored on Libya.

Africa was roped into supporting a 'protection of Libyan civilians UN resolution.' But when it quickly became clear that what the western powers really had in mind was to depose senior African Union member Muammar Gaddafi, no one listened to their protests about how they had been tricked.

An African veto on the UN Security Council would in theory be equal to that of any other SC member. But in practice there would be a huge difference between an African veto and that of any other permanent member. Defying a powerful SC's member's veto can have military or economic consequences if that member decides to leverage that power. Africa has no such power to leverage. It's veto would be empty. Any other state or region could defy that African veto, safe in the knowledge that there are really no dire consequences to worry about.

At the present time it is simply not possible to imagine Africa as a convincing projector of even symbolic veto power at the UN; the kind of veto to merely make a strong point, rather than necessarily to stop or make something actually happen in the real world.

Does this mean Mugabe's call for Security Council reform and a permanent African seat on it with full veto power is wrong? No, it is not wrong, but it is misdirected energy and largely a waste of time.

India, for example, now largely has the overall muscle (population numbers, military and economic power) to push for a SC seat if it felt that was an important goal to pursue at this stage. Its bid would be taken much more seriously today than 10 or more years ago, and much more seriously than Africa's bid for a permanent SC seat. That is because of how, in terms of the various kinds of power that are practically important on the world stage, India has 'arrived,' or is arriving, in a way that Africa as a continent is still very far from doing.

For decades India has had the population (hundreds of million) to justify a SC seat if only viewed through the 'democracy' (i.e. an important proportion of the world's population) perspective. But that alone counts for very little in world power politics terms. In the UN's General Assembly majority vote may carry the day, but this kind of 'democracy' can be cancelled out by a veto from a any of the SC permanent members. The latter is thoroughly 'undemocratic' but it is brutal international power politics reality, where countries use whatever leverage they have at their disposal to pursue their interests, 'democracy' be damned.  

In addition to its numbers, in recent years India has also aggressively and quickly begun to acquire the other kinds of power (military as well as economic) which gives it real world influence in terms that Africa has none. India can increasingly force the world to pay heed to its voice on an issue of concern to it while Africa cannot. When and where necessary, India has far more leverage to force its way to being listened to than Africa, which can only plead to be heard, and has absolutely no recourse if it is ignored, like it has been by the world for decades about its having a SC seat, or about its change of mind about supporting the western military action that deposed Libya's Gaddafi.

If this is the case, should African leaders like Mugabe give up the fight for the continent's full, permanent representation on the UN Security Council?

No, but they should begin the task of and long journey to being taken seriously by the world at home. You can't seriously insist on and negotiate for UN veto power when most of your countries cannot feed themselves, to give just one very basic example amongst many. One day you are exercising your veto at the UN, the next day you are pleading with your fellow SC council members to feed your people, provide them basic medicines, build you schools and roads. Who on earth in the world would listen to and respect such a weak Security Council member?

Mugabe's call for UN Security Council reform to give Africa a stronger voice is misdirected and a waste of time because it is a plea, whereas getting onto that body is a side effect of world power projection. The current SC members are on that body and able to exercise veto power not because it is 'fair' or 'democratic,' but because they have the combinations of qualities (military and economic) to be able to do so. You don't become a Security Council member by merely politely pleading for it, which is effectively what Mugabe's call amounts to as long as Africa is so weak in so many areas. Africa is not only weak but also dependent in many areas, which only makes it more unlikely that any one would pay attention for calls for it to have an SC permanent seat.  

African rulers like Mugabe would be contributing far more to their continent's eventual inclusion as a SC power player (as opposed to merely being a member) when they have achieved at home the kind of political, psychological and economic gains they have not even seriously begun to work on. Those gains are also far more important for the benefit of Africans than for the 'prestige' benefit of having an SC seat. That is a benefit that may be terribly important to the members of Africa's ruling class like Mugabe, but is very far removed from the top 100 or even 500 priorities of the average African.

It is embarrassing for African rulers like Mugabe to go to the UN for decades to plead for a permanent seat on that organisation's Security Council. When Africa has achieved the kind of self-sufficiency and economic power to be able to make practical use of a SC veto, it will have arrived at a point where it will not need to beg for that SC permanent seat. It will have forced itself into a position in world affairs in which it would be able to insist on and demand that seat, and the appropriateness of it would be so self-evident that there would be little opposition.

Until that distant day, leaders like Mugabe should concentrate on the basics: work hard on your agriculture, the sector that for most African countries is the most realistic conduit to make some great economic strides forward. At the very least, you can begin to ask the world to see and treat you as equals when you are not perpetually begging for food and other of the most basic needs of existence.

The amount of energy which is spent by Africa calling for and pleading for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council would be much more usefully spent on tirelessly working on making Africa stronger by improving conditions at home. That would be mainly for the benefit of Africans, but one eventual side effect would be that Africa's voice would then carry more weight in global affairs than it currently does.   

The Zimbabwe Review


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