Like most modern international institutions, the United Nations Security Council, and the United Nations itself, traces its origins back to the end of the Second World War. The Council – both exclusive and amorphous – possesses the power to make decisions that can generally bind each member of the United Nations without any vote by the General Assembly. Its exclusivity is in its small, fifteen-nation membership with five permanent members: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China, each having the power to veto any legislation unilaterally. In contrast, its amorphous character is illustrated by the ten members who are elected to the Council in two year terms, with various parts of the world guaranteed a certain number of rotating members.
The small club of five nations who currently hold a permanent position on the Security Council are faced with the reality that expansion is needed to reflect a world that is no longer defined by the legacy of global conflict. But this expansion is challenging, namely because each permanent country can conveniently hide behind the fact that an acceptable new member to one nation is likely to be a non-starter for another. For example, as far back as 2005, the United States was willing to support Japan’s push for permanent Security Council membership. But China, Japan’s historical and strategic adversary, is diametrically opposed to such a change. What results is a diplomatic stand-off that has left the United Nation’s most powerful group stuck in 1946 while working to confront twenty-first century problems.
In the post-World War II context, the founders of the United Nations granted permanent Security Council and veto power to only the “victors” of the Second World War, namely the United States, Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union.
But a closer look at the make-up of this five nation group reveals that the nation’s relationship to the war, perhaps more than the country’s role in the ultimate victory, defined the membership.
The United States and the Soviet Union are exceptions to this. Each had more than carried their weight in the Second World War, both in terms of military and economic power, and their respective super power status is reflected by their mutual antagonism and strategic respect.
While Britain was undoubtedly a victor of the war, it was hardly the power the Soviets or Americans were. While at the Yalta Conference in 1945, Churchill himself admitted that his inclusion at the exclusive conference was something of a numbers game, remarking that there was an “entrance fee” with regards to army size. And of the “Big Three,”the three major countries who guided Allied policy throughout the war, Britain was certainly the odd-man out. The British army’s peak size in World War II was around three million men, while sixteen million Americans served over the course of the war. None of this could be compared to the Soviets – who saw somewhere around ten million military deaths – nevermind service numbers alone.
While Britain provided key intelligence, air, and naval benefits to the Allied powers, it was something other than its military might that earned its exalted status after the Second World War. More than anything, Britain was right. From when France surrendered in 1940 to the German invasion of the Soviet Union roughly a year later, Britain stood mostly alone against the Germans. Britain, led by Churchill, bet that it could withstand German air assaults and believed that Nazism and fascism would, in the end, inspire worldwide repudiation. When that happened and when Hitler was finally defeated, Britain could claim a level of moral and strategic superiority. And while Britain may have earned its spot as a world leader though the blood of its citizens and troops, it was only able to do so in the context of standing against the Nazi regime.
For the French, this was a completely different story. The shame of the French defeat, surrender, and collaboration with the Nazis lingers in France’s social-political identity to this day. Additionally, while the liberation of France was a key point in the war, the French had relatively little to do with it. In fact, it took British and American insistence for the French to have a spot at the final negotiating table entirely. It was the narrative of a vanquished yet revived great power, mostly crafted by French leader Charles de Gaulle, that justified French inclusion. The context, more than the reality, mattered.
The Chinese case is akin to the French. China was subjugated to torturous Japanese occupation for much of the war and lost millions of people in its fight for freedom. At the end of the day, though, China, like France, was occupied. And like in the French situation, it was the advancement of American, British, and, later, Soviet, forces who truly turned the tide against the Japanese and made the Chinese victors in the struggle against Japan. But the Chinese had fought and suffered against the common, global enemy. And that – even without a massive military or industrial identity – mattered in the post World War II context.
While a baseline of economic and military power was undoubtedly important to how post World War II powers were identified, it certainly was not the only factor. This history of the five permanent members reveals that the contextual and historical power of the Second World War drove how world powers were understood. For Britain, it illustrated moral and strategic leadership, while for France and China it represented the survival and revival of two historical powers. And in the Soviets and Americans, the world identified its two competing superpowers who dictated global policy for decades.
The Second World War was the current world order’s inflection and origin point, and the current permanent members of the Security Council reflect that origin point. If the time has come – and it certainly has – to change the make-up of this institution, then the time has also come to define the twenty-first century’s mission.
Perhaps that mission is the Covid-19 pandemic and public health more broadly, in which case African nations, led by South Africa whose advanced public health infrastructure helped to quickly identify the Omicron variant, deserves heightened consideration.
Or maybe in the context of climate change and the potential of future water conflicts, nations with vast and important natural resources, like Brazil or Canada, deserve a key seat at the table.
Or as the Biden Administration looks to pivot to supporting democracy around the world, large democracies like India or Nigeria should be elevated to promote democratic discourse and a commitment to the liberal world order.
In 1946, when the Council was created, the challenge of the day was to avoid another world war. The five permanent members of the Security Council could lay claim, either directly or by the framing of their leaders, to achieving that goal.
Now, in 2022, the question should be less about what a prospective country can bring to the Security Council’s table in the context of the Second World War, but rather to define what the future questions will be and then to present how they can best answer this new set of questions for generations to come.
Author’s Biography: John LaLime is a moderator for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He received a B.A. in History and Political Science at Tufts University.