The UN Security Council (UNSC) is at a precipice. The Trump administration’s recent announcement that the US would no longer abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the multilateral agreement to restrict Iran’s ability to acquire and develop nuclear weapons – breaks both a UNSC agreement and UNSC procedure. Breaking the JCPOA has the potential to undermine the UNSC’s legitimacy and the important functions it serves; the value the permanent five members of the UNSC (P5) place on the UNSC as a deliberative, policy-producing body in international politics is unlikely to persist amidst repeated, major violations of UNSC agreements and procedures by the P5, with downstream consequences for a broad swathe of international peace and security outcomes.
The UNSC occupies a unique place in international politics and holds unparalleled legal authority. Charged with maintaining international peace and security, it is the sole international body that can authorize the use of international force and enact multilateral sanctions. Its P5 have the largest militaries in the world and can unilaterally veto any action; while they often have divergent interests and foreign policy objectives, they value the UNSC itself as a coordinating venue for resolving complicated multilateral problems, and for the status it accords them in international politics.
The JCPOA is a UNSC-backed agreement: it is not an arrangement between the US and Iran, but an agreement between Iran, the P5 (the US, the UK, Russia, China, and France), Germany, and the High Representative of the European Union (the E3/EU+3). The agreement passed into international law through UNSC Resolution 2231 (2015), which calls on all member states to support the deal’s implementation, and legally binds UN member states to arms and technology embargoes on Iran which mostly pre-date the JCPOA.
Compliance with UNSC resolutions is an obligation of UN member states—but absent an enforcement mechanism, compliance is ultimately voluntarily. UNSC resolutions’ importance therefore rests on how important member states believe these resolutions are, and how much weight the P5 accord the body itself: seeking out the UNSC’s approval for actions, and then abiding by its resolutions, is a social norm that is instantiated, reinforced, and reproduced by repetition by powerful states.
Although news coverage of the UNSC frequently highlights disagreements among the P5, my research with Lise Morjé Howard reveals that agreement between the P5 has actually been the norm since the end of the Cold War, at least on peace operations. The UNSC has repeatedly agreed to authorize peace operations and to authorize peace operations to use force. Even amidst substantial disagreement on Ukraine and Syria between 2013 and 2016, for example, the P5 agreed to all proposed new peacekeeping force authorizations.
We argue that in reaching these peacekeeping agreements, the P5 privilege reaching an agreement over the content of the agreement, sometimes producing outcomes that are neither clearly in the interest of any P5 state nor appropriate to the conflict context. This, we argue, is the result of dynamics that reveal the importance the P5 have accorded the UNSC chamber. The P5 have collectively invested in maintaining their individual status vis-à-vis other states, which is enhanced by their permanent membership on the UNSC. Accordingly, they have an incentive to keep the locus of international decision-making on the use of force within UNSC chambers, to issue decisions on the use of force, and to invest the body with enough legitimacy to ensure other states believe the UNSC’s decision’s ought to be obeyed.
Indeed, even in disagreement, the P5 have until recently adhered to UNSC procedures. For instance, despite their deadlock on the Syrian conflict, neither the US nor Russia sought to entirely bypass the UNSC in their decision processes. US military action against Syrian targets in April 2017 and April 2018, ostensibly as retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, took place after extensive UNSC debate and amidst competing draft resolutions reflecting different ideological positions. These debates pitted norms about chemical weapons use against norms about UN authorization to use force, allowing the US – with support from the UK and France – to claim its actions affirmed one set of UN-supported norms while transgressing another. Indeed, going to the UNSC to request authorization to use force despite being able to act unilaterally accords the chamber importance.
Breaking the JCPOA abrogates a UNSC decision the US itself previously agreed to. The US already has a tool—the veto—allowing it to unilaterally block any resolutions. Transgressing regular UNSC practice to retroactively break an agreement it helped orchestrate calls into question future American compliance with any UNSC decision—which, in turn, may affect other states’ willingness to comply with UNSC decisions. If the UNSC’s legitimacy rests on powerful states according it importance, then breaking UNSC agreements erodes social norms of complying with UNSC resolutions and weakens the importance of the body itself.
The distrust with which key Trump administration officials view the UN is no secret—for them, weakening the UNSC may be a desirable side-effect of breaking with the JCPOA, one more blow to the multilateral structures they view as unacceptably constraining American power and interests. Indeed, the Trump administration has also heightened other areas of US disagreement with UN member states—the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, for instance, also contravenes past UNSC resolutions; the US’s blocking of a UNSC investigation into the killing of Palestinian protestors in Gaza on the same day as the embassy move, and subsequent votes and vetoes on the issue, have also amplified the discord.
The UNSC is an unrepresentative, deeply flawed body that can produce suboptimal decisions—but it is also an important body that has fostered cooperation between superpowers. Forged out of the devastation of two world wars, the UNSC was designed to constrain, engage, and force into cooperation the great military powers of the day in the service of preventing another direct conflict between them. On that front, it has succeeded. A world without an authoritative UNSC is one in which collective responses to humanitarian and security crises will be less efficient, less likely, and less likely to be diplomatic. With powerful states unbound from even nominal fidelity to international norms of agreement and cooperation, it is also likely to be a more violent world.
About the Author
Anjali Kaushlesh Dayal is an assistant professor of international politics at Fordham University and a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute of Women, Peace, and Security.
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