Variable Multipolarity and UN Security Council Reform

56 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2011 Last revised: 12 Dec 2013

Date Written: 2011


One of the fundamental international law questions over the past two decades, and an integral issue for US policy, has been the structure of the United Nations Security Council. In a world of variable multipolarity, whereby changing crises demand different combinations of actors with relevant resources and shared interests, the Council’s reform should be based not on expanded permanent membership - as mistakenly held by conventional wisdom - but on inclusive contextual participation in decision-making. The Council’s five permanent members continue to have collective resources relative to the rest of the world that are not significantly different than at the founding of the UN. Their aggregate power may have actually increased over time, but is nonetheless insufficient due to the shifting crises. Thus, the Council needs to ensure flexibility of response and, depending on the context, engage with specific regional and local actors. In contrast, increased permanent representativeness (except for limited expansion to include India and Japan) would have little, if any, benefit in enabling the Council to better fulfill its responsibility across all crises, and would merely risk increased deadlock. Moreover, the key issue for the international community is clarifying what common purpose the Council should serve. There is both a consensus within the international community that the Council’s responsibility under Article 24 of the UN Charter should continue to be the maintenance of international peace and security, and a persistent lack of clarity as to the meaning of this obligation in specific crises. Due to the decentralized nature of the international community, without a single Sovereign, this uncertainty cannot be resolved by a purely political decision. The Security Council is not above the law and must act within the law. Under international law, interpreting the Council’s purpose based on legal analysis of the text, context, and practice of Article 24 can be supplemented by recourse to norms of legitimacy emerging within the international community. If further agreement is reached on the Council’s purpose - a process that gives primacy to persuasion and can be improved through certain recommendations - the UN Charter already provides sufficient legal mechanisms to accommodate varying areas of crisis.

Suggested Citation

Szewczyk, Bart M.J., Variable Multipolarity and UN Security Council Reform (2011). Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 53, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Bart M.J. Szewczyk (Contact Author)

German Marshall Fund ( email )

1744 R Street NW
Washington, DC 20009
United States

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