Rough Edges: The Changing Dynamics of the P-5

In the span of a few weeks, Sarkozy is out, Putin is back, and the dynamics of the United Nations Security Council may just be about to get very interesting. Francois Hollande’s victory in the French Presidential election only served to highlight the potential for a shift in the Council’s internal dymanics that 2012 brings. The United Kingdom stands alone of the P-5 in not having to deal with a changeover in government, or the potentiality of such an event, in 2012, thanks to the Fixed-terms Parliament Act of 2011. Of the other four, two have held their elections already, one more of a forgone conclusion than a true race.  The final, arguably most powerful members of the Council, still have several months to go of grappling for power. In spite of these changes, actual and potential, in the upper echelons of their ruling mechanisms, the Permanent Five of the Security Council remain in their seats, constant no matter the guiding foreign policy principles of the individual at the head of the government. Instead, rather than policy, it is the working styles and level of tension between the Five that is prone to be altered the most by year’s end.

Though it was the most easily foreseen shift, the one with the greatest likely repercussion on the Council is the return of Vladimir Putin to the de jure leadership of Russia. While many, myself included, had hoped that Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidency was more than just a placeholder, keeping the seat warm for Putin, that was clearly just a pipedream. With his re-ascendancy, there’s a toss-up for the likely foreign policy repercussions. On the one hand, Putin’s return could lead to an increased antagonism with the West, which Russia under Medvedev had seen wane slightly. The “reset”, already under siege on both sides, could shatter entirely with a more belligerent Moscow flexing its muscles.

Such a restoration would mean that the obstinacy showed by Foreign Minsiter Sergei Lavrov and UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin throughout Medvedev’s rule could be turned up to 11. Lavrov, himself a former Permanent Representative, is decidedly more hardline than his now former President, which means his unleashing could be quite the show in Parliament. In a practical sense, the Council’s current debates centered around whether the norms of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention have shifted may have an even sharper divide in the coming six years, as highlighted in a document signed by Putin yesterday declaring  that Russia will “counter attempts to use human rights concepts as an instrument of political pressure and interference in the internal affairs of states”.

Not everyone is convinced that this is the path that Russia will take in the Council, including on matters such as the Syrian conundrum. Thom Woodroofe believes that with Putin back in command, Russia may still serve as the impetus for peace between Damascus and the opposition. Such an event would be in line with the theory that Vladimir’s antagonism towards the West and the United States in particular during his campaign was a trumped-up act to remind Russians of his toughness. Regardless of its intent for domestic consumption, it may prove more difficult than predicted for Mr. Putin to walk back his rhetoric, as indicated in a CSIS paper on the topic. In either case, the Russian playbook in Turtle Bay is unlikely to significantly change, with the rules lawyering and veto threats that are a staple of Russian negotiation remaining constant; the most noticeable alteration will be the regularity with which these tactics are unleashed and against what broad concepts or minutiae they are brought to bear.

Meanwhile, Francois Hollande’s move to the Élysée Palace is unlikely to set off a scramble to determine France’s new position on the Council. While during the campaign, Hollande made much political hay over the style of Sarkozy’s diplomatic repertoire, the substance lay mostly untouched. The largest change that is likely to come from the shift may be seen in France’s interplay with two members of the Council that it has been in close alliance with over the past year and a half: the United States and non-permanent member Germany. The Germans and French have been working mostly in tandem to end the threat of a renewed Eurozone crisis, with Paris following Germany’s lead in calling for further austerity. That attitude is a large factor in Mr. Sarkozy’s toppling, and Mr. Hollande has made clear that he would prefer to veer away from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s prescriptions for growth. This split over economic matters may spill over into Turtle Bay for the remainder of Germany’s term, as a renewed, though highly moderated, Franco-German tension may be on the horizon.

As for the United States, Sarkozy was often called “Sarko the American” at home for his unabashed desire to ally with the US on most issues. While President-Elect Hollande has given no indication that he means to completely reverse the strengthening of ties that Mr. Sarkozy sought, he has already announced several policies that are sure to rub Washington the wrong way, including an early withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. With regard to working with the rest of the Council on its Agenda, much of that working relationship will be determined once Mr. Hollande names his Foreign Minister and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. French policy itself at the UN will largely remain unchanged, though slightly less sharp in tone. France will still take a keen interest in the affairs of its former colonies in Africa, and Mr. Hollande has made clear that he does not intend to roll back the former Administration’s beliefs on humanitarian intervention. Indeed, Mr. Hollande will likely prove to be almost as tough on Iran and Syria as Mr. Sarkozy himself.

China’s transfer of power is by far the most opaque of those taking place. Few ascendancies are certain, but among those that are include the naming of Xi Jingpeng as the successor of President Hu Jintao. While that may be decided, there appears to be a growing internal power struggle among the Politburo for just who will sit on the Standing Committee which runs China. The discord, borne of the precipitous fall of Bo Xilai, is severe enough to threaten a delay in the National People’s Congress, currently set to take place in September.

While the transfer of power is certain to take place, the effects of the leadership change is less likely to be the cause of any behavioral shifts in the Security Council. Rather, China’s position of non-interference in other states’ domestic matters and reluctance to use the veto are more likely to be tested by the pressures that come with a rapidly expanding role in the international community, with some like Ken Sofer predicting a sharp break from its non-interventionist foreign policy. The former can be seen both coming under stress in the situation between Sudan and South Sudan, as China seems to be reluctantly accepting its large role as a peacemaker, and fortified by China’s stance on Syria. This growing role will also put to the test China’s relationship on the Council with Russia, as the two often pair together to block what they see as overreach by the West.

Finally, the United States at the present only faces the potential turnover of power. President Barack Obama, who has made a firm point of emphasizing the United States’ role in and desire to work with the United Nations, is currently up for reelection, facing former Governor Mitt Romney as his challenger. Should President Obama come out on top, the largest change would come should he name Ambassador Susan Rice as his new Secretary of State, leaving the UN PermRep seat open.

But should Mr. Obama lose in November, a break from the past four years is inevitable. Mr. Romney, while unlike some of his colleagues in the Republican Party maintains that the United States should remain in the United Nations, is not a big fan of the organization. During the Republican primaries, Gov. Romney especially castigated President Obama over what he saw as a betrayal of Israel at the United Nations, saying that Obama went to “the United Nations and castigated Israel for building settlements. He said nothing about thousands of rockets being rained in on Israel from the Gaza Strip.”

Likewise, Mr. Romney has been scornful of the use of United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. A President Romney would surely scale back involvement with the UN, and likely heed advice to withdraw US membership from the UN Human Rights Council among other bodies. In practice at the Security Council, such a shift would see the majority of Western causes raised more frequently by the United Kingdom and France, with the United States stepping back. The US would be most involved at the Council to increase confrontation with Russia and China, as Gov. Romney has labeled Russia the United States’ number one ‘geopolitical foe’ at the United Nations.

The membership of the Security Council is constantly in flux, as five states rotate on and off at the start of each year, allowing a complete turnover every two years. But the Permanent Five stand apart, not just for the veto, but the continuity that their presence brings to the Council. Some states are chosen by the regions more often than others to take their place among the elected 10 (E10) states on the Council, but a ban on consecutive terms prevents the ascension of de facto permanent members to stand on par with the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russian Federation. The continuity of policy that these states bring to the Council through that permanency can still be upset and sent off-kilter by disruptions in the working patterns and inter-Council dynamics that have come to be developed. 2012 comes hot on the heels of a year shaken by seismic changes in policy; this year, it’s the implementation of those policies and the way each member of the P-5 works with the other four that will bring the most trouble to Turtle Bay.

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