Reforming the United Nations: Permanent Five

Hannah Mallin

With the aftermath of World War II came, in part, the creation of the United Nations — a forum through which dialogue between states could be established and mediated in an attempt to prevent the events surrounding WWII from repeating. In order to ensure that the failure of the League of Nations was not repeated with the UN, five prevalent world superpowers were given special status in return for their loyalty to and cooperation within the organization. The global governance of security threats (such as those to international peace) was somewhat institutionalized through the UN, with these five states at the forefront. Global governance of international security is not limited to the UN (NATO, for example, has acted against UN rulings in the past), nor is the governance of such within the UN limited to these five states (there are 188 other members to consider). Yet, perpetuating their prevalence six decades later is somewhat unrepresentative of the modern world and the permanent five requires reform in order to be contextually relevant. However this reform, although perhaps legitimate, is both unlikely and even dangerous to the success of the UN’s global governance objectives.



Those at the forefront of global governance are often subject to criticism, not only in relation to their actions through pursuing such, but because of their perceived role in the governance system. Yet, in order to address global issues such as international security, there needs to be cooperation between the transnational actors which these issues affect and a mechanism through which dialogue can be established in order to pursue solutions. The most widely known arena for the global governance of security threats is the United Nations. Perpetually at the forefront of the UN are the permanent five members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom) who possess the potent power to veto which allows them final say on substantive UN measures(Charter of the United Nations). The permanent five were established over sixty years ago yet, because of this status, remain at the forefront of UN global governance of security threats and, hence, are integral to its future. Regardless of the moral implications of the power these elite states possess, the permanent five requires reform in order to be representative of and relevant within the modern world. As such, the following report will address the legitimate calls for reform of the permanent five, but also why these demands remain futile.


The Problem of Perpetuation

The states at the forefront of UN global governance are not necessarily less relevant than they once were; however, the international realm has changed. There are problems perpetuating the post-World War II establishment of global governance, especially because this is institutionalized in, for example, the five permanent members of the Security Council. This is a problem in the modern world because at the forefront of UN global governance of international security there are a limited number of interested parties disproportionately determining substantive UN measures. The perpetuation of this permanent five and their influence on the global governance of security issues is thus integral to the future of such governance. This is important for various reasons but that with which I am concerned is that the states that hold the most influence within intergovernmental institutions concerned with global governance issues, such as the UN, heavily determine the agenda for said governance issues. These five collectively, more than any other group of states, hold the most decisive power within the Council which “simultaneously reflects both the principles of intergovernmentalism and global governance” (Cronin and Hurd 2008).

For global governance within the UN to strengthen and progress it must be adaptable. In perpetuating a twentieth century order, the UN is in fact promoting global elitism. This elitism gives the more powerful nation-states a greater control over global governance and is not representative of the modern world. This order was established in the aftermath of World War II based on the prominent military, economic and political powers of that time.

Throughout history, power has been shown to inevitably shift between states and, as such, there is a commonly cited criticism that the current permanent five are no longer an accurate depiction of the modern world, nor are they representative of the world at large (Africa, Australasia, and South America are not represented within such at all). It may be that there are others who, by mid-twentieth century standards, should also be integrated into the forefront of this global governance. Other nation-states such as Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan have ardently argued for their ascension into permanent members of the Security Council in virtue of their economic and political standings.

In 2010, the top five contributors to the UN budget were not the permanent five but, in descending order, the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France (Blanchfield and Browne 2013). Surely, then, the continued institutionalization of the post-World War II establishment is both outdated and perhaps illegitimate; a select few states are able to de facto control and direct the collective’s resources, through their omnipotent power to veto. The issue of reforming, and thus modernizing, the permanent five is complex at best, impossible at worst. Yet perpetuating such a system is to ignore contextual considerations in favor of unduly preserving a mid-twentieth century international order.

Those at the forefront of UN global governance are arguably those who hold the most power and influence internationally; i.e. through economic affluence, military strength and political might. However, as previously mentioned, this has changed since the first inception of the permanent five and, perhaps, if the UN was established in the modern world there is likely to be a different set of permanent members — both in make-up and number.


The Challenge of Cessation

When the forerunners in the global governance of international security were institutionalized, there were accompanying difficulties associated with acceptance and the incorporation of potential change. Furthermore, a state’s fall from international grace can either be immediate or a gradual decline, making an institution’s adaptation to a new international order that much more difficult to coordinate. Incorporating more states into the forefront of global governance is often a troublesome notion for those already there. Endowing more states with a permanent status within the Security Council could potentially render the UN in a perpetual stalemate. The differing agendas of states would mean, if more were assimilated as permanent members, the increased diversity of national interests and decreased likelihood of consensus on policy areas.

Yet, even if one holds the opinion that the current UN elites are too narrow in their representation and incorporating a wider array of state actors would be a positive development, how can this be done? The permanent five, undeniably, consider themselves nation-states before they are members of the international community. As such, global governance is always conducted with personal interest in mind. This is by no means a new notion, but it is important to bear in mind.

Those at the forefront of UN global governance, such as the permanent five, will pursue international security so long as it is in accordance with their national interests. Hence, the interests of the actors at the forefront of international security governance are a factor in a particular issue’s fate. A contextual example of such is the Syrian conflict, which is often compared to that of Libya. The Council agreed to action in Libya (China and Russia abstained) under, it was claimed, the Responsibility to Protect. Yet, there has of yet been no consensus on direct military action in Syria, nor are Russia or China willing to abstain because of the Russian government’s support of the Assad regime; they fear intervention may potentially derail this regime, given the outcome in Libya (BBC News 2012).

Within the permanent five there is therefore, to a degree, a commitment to sustaining international security — so long as this is not counterintuitive to their national interests. What then can be done to modernize the permanent five if one cannot reform them? The foreseeable future of UN global governance seems like it will be very much consistent with the previous sixty years. A decision to reform the permanent members of the Security Council, through expansion or alteration, is subject to the interest of the current permanent five who are unlikely to relinquish or share their power within the UN due to the influence in the global governance of international security this position secures.

Even if the permanent five consented to others’ ascension, ignoring the complexity of implementation, there would be other states who would disagree with this on the basis that it is counter to their national interests. Furthermore, as President Obama has commented regarding the G20, “everybody wants the smallest possible group… that includes them. So if they’re the 21st-largest nation in the world, then they want the G21, and think it’s highly unfair if they’ve been cut out” (Obama 2009). Hence, where should any expansion cease? Also, what would happen in another sixty years when the international realm is likely to have changed again? Perhaps then, if the forerunners of global governance are always subject to fluctuation and degradation then all UN member-states should be equally endowed with permanent status and the power to veto. However, if all 193 current member-states possessed a veto and the system were the same as it was now, that one veto was enough to kill a substantive policy, it would be a political catastrophe. Furthermore, reminiscent of the failure of the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, if the most powerful states are equal in opinion to those states less proficient in resources and influence than themselves, there lacks any advantageous incentive for them to even participate.



Those at the forefront of the global governance of international security in the modern world are a product of the twentieth century. Hence, in the infancy of the twenty-first century the prevalence of these state actors must be questioned. Rather than criticizing global governance as a concept or condemning the lack of equality between states within global governance institutions, this report recognizes that in the modern era there are states which are at the forefront of the global governance of security. These states are thus important because they contribute heavily to the decisions made regarding global governance. Yet, the most extensive forum for the global governance of security issues, the United Nations, is to a disproportionate extent determined by the permanent five and their omnipotent power to veto. The permanent five are a bi-product of World War II; in the modern world, international security issues are largely decided by historical establishments. The permanence of global governance institutions such as the UN is questionable because of its seeming inability to evolve and account for contextual fluctuations within the international realm. Thus, perhaps this inextricability must also call into question the longevity of global governance itself.



BBC News, ‘Syria conflict: West ‘appalled’ by Russia China UN veto’, (2012) (accessed 24 July 2013).

Blanchfield, Luisa and Browne, Marjorie Ann, ‘United Nations Regular Budget Contributions: Members Compared, 1990-2010’, (Congressional Research Service, 2013) (accessed 23 July 2013).

Charter of the United Nations, ‘Chapter V: The Security Council’, (accessed 22 July 2012).

Cronin, Bruce and Hurd, Ian, ‘Introduction’, in The UN Security Council and the Politics of International Authority, ed. B. Cronin & I. Hurd (New York, Routledge, 2008), p.5.

Obama, Barack, ‘Press Conference by the President’, (The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, 2009)… (accessed 25 July 2013).


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