Competing fora of world power: the Security Council and the G20

Obama’s unexpected public support for a permanent seat for India in the United Nations Security Council did not only spur the debate on UN reform, it also provoked reflections on the significance and role of the Security Council in the 21st century. Several commentators noted that the US’ willingness to consider increasing the permanent membership of the Security Council signals a diminishing interest in the Council – it has become “sufficiently irrelevant” for P5 to stop worrying about a dilution of their power within the body. Instead, it has been argued, big powers circumvent the Council to convene in alternative fora, such as the G20, which is currently in session in Seoul, South Korea.

It is true that the Security Council is an anachronistic body that has a doubtful record in providing universal peace and security. It’s permanent membership has not been updated to reflect global power changes in the last 65 years, the P5 veto power paralyzes decision making and powerful states continuously defy its authority (see, for example, NATO’s bombing of Serbia over Kosovo, Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the US invasion of Iraq). The G20, on the other hand, has proven a flexible instrument of global governance, the meetings of which attract heads of state and create a media and policy buzz in capitals, colleges and cafes, both in member and non-member states.

Yet regardless these issues, there are some fundamental differences between the two bodies that should not be lost out of sight, particularly with regard to procedure, substance and authority of the institutions:

First, it is important to remember that the Security Council is a permanent body within a universal international organization, which includes almost all states in the world. The non-permanent members of the Council are elected by all UN members, a procedure that grants the Council a sense of global legitimacy. The G20, on the other hand, is a self-appointed group of powerful economies that lacks a permanent secretariat or staff. Its members include only one African state, South Africa, and leave out other influential nations, such as Iran (19th largest economy) and Norway (not an EU member, so not represented through the organization like Spain, Netherlands and Poland).

Second, the Security Council is mandated to maintain international peace and security (art. 24(1) of the UN Charter). Due to several factors, including the atomic bomb, economic interdependence and the growing aggression from non-state actors (terrorists), its traditional focus on inter-state relations seems increasingly outdated. Yet it cannot be easily replaced by the G20, an economic council that is concerned with the well-being of the international financial system and global economic stability.

These two issues bring me to a third point: as a treaty body that is mandated with the maintenance of international peace and security, the Security Council has the authority to issue decisions that are binding on all UN members. By interpreting its mandate increasingly broadly, the Council has used these powers widely: it has created peacekeeping missions, established international criminal tribunals and, on occasion, acted as global legislator. On the other hand, the G20 issues declarations that indicate broad policy guidelines, rather than binding prescriptions. Its findings are influential, but cannot legally oblige other states, or even its members, to follow in its footsteps.

To be sure, I am not trying to dismiss the significance of the G20, or make the Security Council more important than it is. However, with these three points I do want to make clear that it is very difficult to compare the two bodies. I would argue that the shift in world attention from the Security Council to the G20 does cause the one body to replace the other. Rather, it signals that powerful states consider that their marginal gains from increased economic cooperation are higher than from more collaboration in the security field. This change of interests might make states more amenable to Security Council reform. However, the Security Council will remain the primary forum for issues concerning international peace and security.


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