Is The Veto System Really Unfair? – OpEd


Various parties have been frustrated by the veto power of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the P5. They argued that this structural barrier has stonewalled many crucial proposals and considerations for the greater good of the world.

It remains easy for other powers to pinpoint the cause and the blame on the superior power enjoyed by the P5, more so in blaming the US as the sole instigator of global conflicts and in abusing the veto power to its global hegemonic agenda. Contrary to the growing momentum and narrative in abolishing the veto power and in restructuring the domain of the Security Council, there are compelling arguments for the role,legacy and impact of the veto power in providing the needed counter balances and deterrence to threats that would upend the rules-based international order.

The five permanent powers were pillared on historical legacies, being the victors of the Second World War and were all allies at that time, with each having nuclear capacity. Based on their military predominance, they are given the mandate to decide, lead and provide both moral and power-based judgment on global issues that will affect the future of global peace and civilisational advancement. By having these capabilities both in terms of the legitimacy and trust derived from their status and achievements, faster decision making and deterrence for conflicts are made possible with their real capacities in providing the hard and soft power sways.

Veto power is the first step in preventive diplomacy, where proven powers that have real and imaginary powers to deter and to enforce rules act as the first barrier for any challenging force that intends to act rogue. By not having the first step to prevent conflict or aggression, it will create a more dangerous climate in a two pronged risk. Firstly, if the states that currently possess this privilege and power, the P5, lose this veto advantage, they will lose their first preventive option in preventing threats to their own interests and survival. By losing this first defence of deterring threats to their survival, it will provide greater pretext and justifications for greater acts of forceful manouvres. Secondly, other states will pounce on this opening for greater assertions and projections of power, both in challenging the bigger powers’ primacy and in securing their own power calculations at a higher level regionally and globally. The resulting impact will be rising anarchic tendencies and a deeper arms race cycle. The veto structure serves both directions, as a crucial deterrence and check and balance spectrum but will paradoxically create semblances of unfairness on others. However, the reality of international relations and engagement remains rooted to the undeniable truth where smaller powers will need the security assurances from the bigger powers, both as a form of trust and normative adherence.

The calls for an equal representation of votes involving all 193 UN members invite greater implications. If all decision making, particularly crucial security considerations are to be based on a referendum style involving all, a weaker and slower response to urgent and high impact crises will risk prolonging and worsening the conflicts, worsened by the different agenda and interests of different states. Other implications include the growing divide of West/East or North/South in power and influence parity, where each will strive for greater acknowledgment and demands in creating a more equal distribution of powers. If the veto power is abolished, the loss of the P5’s global sway and privilege will create more erratic actions and unpredictable nature of policy uncertainties.

In the call to expand the veto power or to increase the permanent seats with representatives from regions or rising powers and the developing world, it would create lasting and never ending dilemma of other power tussle.Other regions or sub regions will want to have a stake, with endless debates on the rightful place and accreditation. How will power be measured and on what basis and whose narratives that a power or a state is deemed to be worthy or powerful? Current indicators of power parity and assessment have themselves been a state of flux, where power measurement is not a fixed science. 

If the current structure is abolished, the East/South might be mired with complacency and to use their new entitlements to push for a new order that is dictated by the East/South. This will in turn threaten the long held entrenched influence and interests of the West/North which might take retaliatory measures that will affect global stability and direction of progress as a whole. The West relies on the East’s market, resources, volume of capital and the likes, while the East relies on the West’s market as well, with leadership in knowledge creation and assurances of security. The dichotomy will change once there is profound disruption to the order.

The loss of the sense of greater entitlement with the change in the current system means the West or the P5 lose their pretext to advance their contributions and affiliations to global causes, compounded by the greater push by others for their own interests, will increase the stature of UN being obsolete, if not increasingly being one already. International commitments and voluntary support and aid will risk a real downturn with the withdrawal by these higher powers, with the sense of being the victims of the rising global anti West or anti US narrative. The West and the entrenched power establishment are chastised for being the root cause of the world’s problems, including practising double standards and blatant hypocrisy in their policy orientation of favouring nations and inciting wars. From climate change to enriching their thirst for conflicts, the West is admonished for its complicity and taking advantage of the lopsided power domain in the Security Council. But you cannot have the cake and eat it too, where other players including Russia and China have tried to challenge the rules based order and in creating risky conflicts including Ukraine and assertive tactics in regional disputes.

Statistically, it is Russia/USSR that utilised the veto the most, followed by the US. China is rising in frequency, where most of the usage has been to ensure Russia and China’s core interests are secured, including the Ukraine conflict. The recent veto effort by Moscow in the resolution on its annexation manoeuvre serves as another stark reality to this dichotomy. States rebuke the West for their inaction or over actions on their part, but the same expectations for all states to abide by the agreed rules and norms under the UN can seemingly be adjusted to justify the causes and actions of Russia or China, based on the victim card and the pretext of them trying to right the wrongs or to stand up to the bullying West. Reality remains that none will give up their current position and structure. For democracy to work best, it doesn’t have to be a whole and all in participation, the same reason why there is a cascading and decentralisation spectrum of elected representatives in policy making in representing the people on issues and decision making.

The reality of global politics remains that each state is for itself but in order to keep the state secure, it will need to ensure that other states have the same adherence and common belief in the same system they are under, to ensure they too can play by the rules and that they will have the same faith and adherence to the same body, the UN. It is still a sanctuary for almost all the nations on Earth, as long as they and the big powers are made to feel that they have a role to play with expected returns, albeit one that is in adherence to the agreed rules and order.

For as much as they condemn the global institution, they realise that for now, the UN remains the only bankable entity that can give the desired assurances and the platform for all nations to agree to the same rules. However,for that to remain, the rules based order and the agreed values and norms must be equally applied. The UN is not a utopian salvation for perpetual peace, the realist nature of power and struggle defies that. The reason why the UN still exists is that states understand it is the first line of war prevention, and it remains the last hope for another destructive war.Further violations on this structure and foundation of war prevention with increased challenges to the rules based order will only invite the inevitable. As Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN secretary general put it aptly in 1954, “the UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” It remains true until today.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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