REVIEW: Article

Strengthening the United Nations' Peace and Security Mandate

As the United Nations welcomes a new Secretary-General, and the United States elects a new Administration and Congress, we have a unique oppor­tunity to reset relationships, building on the United Nations’ successes and addressing its failings as we adapt to the changing demographics and global challenges of this century.

The Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945, expressed the fervent hope that the allied victors of World War II could work together to prevent another world war. Fortuitously, they also agreed on aspirational goals that reflected a common humanity, such as the dignity and worth of the human person and the equal rights of men and women.

In the ensuing 71 years, there has not been another world war and conflicts between States have been significantly reduced. While the United Nations was designed to respond to the conventional wars of the past, like the Korean conflict, it is now called upon to do much more. The Charter has been interpreted flexibly as the United Nations responds to ethnic and religious conflicts within sovereign States, record numbers of refugees, displaced persons and migrants, and challenges that do not respect sovereign borders such as climate change, pandemics and other communicable diseases, non-state terrorism, nuclear pro­lifera­tion, cybersecurity, an interconnected global economy, and festering poverty and growing inequality. Most of the challenges facing the United States domesti­cally in the 21st century are fundamentally global in nature—a reality that many Americans and our political leaders are reluctant to acknowledge.

As it has evolved, the United Nations’ mission is four-pronged: to maintain peace and security, to support cooperative sustainable development, to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need, and to promote human rights. Increasingly, the United Nations has recognized the symbiotic interdependence of the four prongs as it has focused resources on the latter three in support of its primary mission of peace and security. With the rise of non-state terrorism, ethnic and religious conflict, and the failure of the Security Council to resolve crises in Syria and Ukraine, among others, the United Nations’ peace and security mandate needs strengthening. That is the focus of this article.

From its inception, US leadership has been essential to the United Nations’ success. The United Nations and its various affiliates and entities, including the 17 Specialized Agencies, have addressed myriad conflict situations and facilitated global cooperation in countless ways, often below the radar, that serve the US national interest. To cite but a few examples, the United Nations has helped prevent or resolve over 60 festering conflicts in places like Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Namibia, Tajikistan, and Mozambique. The United Nations has responded with humanitarian aid to man-made and natural disasters, provided lifesaving support for millions of refugees, established global goals for sustainable devel­opment lifting more than a billion people out of extreme poverty, cutting almost in half maternal and child mortality, improving access to sanitation, health care, and universal quality education, and eliminating or reducing the prevalence of diseases such as smallpox, polio, river blindness, malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS. The United Nations vaccinates 58 percent of the world’s children.1 Increasingly, the United Nations has become a strong advocate for a broad understanding of human rights, including empowering girls and women and LGBT rights.

The United Nations today is very different from that in 1945. A mostly advisory General Assembly of Member States has grown from 51 in its first session to 193 today, with China and its 1.4 billion population and Palau with 21,000 having the same vote. With the demise of colonialism, facilitated by the now dormant Trusteeship Council, many new states have emerged creating geographic and sometimes divisive blocks of nations. The Chapter VII binding authority of the Security Council to impose sanctions and initiate military action is subject to a veto by any one of five permanent members: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China. The Cold War put a cold blanket on the hope of collaboration among the big powers, and even after the demise of the Soviet Union, the veto has prevented Security Council action on conflicts in which the P-5 powers have opposing interests.

Today the United Nations is a sprawling conglomerate with a Secretariat of 41,000 employees in 17 departments, 14 Funds, and 17 Specialized Agencies. The Secretary-General is the “Chief Administrative Officer.” Yet, he has no executive authority over much of the UN system and is constrained by constant meddling by Member States. That is why the next Secretary-General must have the stature and fortitude to act affirmatively and impartially to advance the principles of the Charter, working with Member States, international organizations, civil society and the private sector, to seek the peaceful resolution of conflicts between and within sovereign States. The Deputy Secretary-General, as the Chief Operating Officer, must have the authority to streamline a bloated bu­reaucracy including a plethora of senior management and direct reports, end corruption, increase transparency and accountability, and hire and promote an impartial international civil service based on merit rather than geography and political connections.2 In impoverished, failed or failing states, a comprehensive, integrated approach is needed which requires breaking down stovepipes and silos, better coordination to eliminate fragmented, ineffectual and redundant programs and to reduce jurisdictional rivalries, and much stronger field and country-based oversight.

As the only Member State with an Ambassador for UN Reform, the United States can continue to make strides in improving management efficiency—not through arrogant pronouncements and threats to withhold funding, but rather through quiet diplomacy and backroom compromise that puts global collaboration ahead of narrowly defined national self-interest. It is often most effective to encourage other States to take the lead in advancing reforms that the United States supports.

Today 125,000 UN Peacekeepers from more than 75 States serve in 16 conflict zones on four continents, the largest military deployment in the world. They often seek to maintain peace and security in failed or failing states, which are breeding grounds for non-state terrorism, thus giving the United States a vital interest in their success. From the US perspective, UN blue helmets are a bargain, at one eighth the cost of US boots on the ground, according to studies by the USGAO and the RAND Corporation. Moreover, the American public has little appetite for sending US troops to Somalia, Lebanon, the Golan Heights, Haiti, Kosovo, Mali or South Sudan. Yet, abuses, negligence, underfunding, poor training, lack of equipment and intelligence support, and inadequate mandates from the Security Council plague their operations. Whether it is child and sexual abuse in the Central African Republic or the cholera epidemic brought to Haiti by peacekeepers, UN peacekeeping has been subject to intense criticism.

Strengthening UN peace operations should be a top reform priority. For starters, the commitments of the September 2015 UN summit, organized by President Obama, should be implemented. For the United States, this means doubling the number of US military advisors, providing air and sea lift, and engineering airfields and base camps. For our allies, including NATO, this means training peacekeepers, providing IED detection and protection, medical units, helicopters, intelligence support and mediation teams. And it means the United Nations should hold the 50 other nations from Colombia to China to their commitment to provide 40,000 new troops and police that meet the high standards that should be uniformly required of all peacekeepers in the future. In addition because the United States is the largest financial contributor to UN peace operations, Congress should authorize a contingency fund that would enable the Security Council to respond quickly in emerging conflict situations, and establish a rapid response team that could intervene early to prevent conflict. While preserving the cost-effectiveness and benefits of peacekeeping, the US Defense Department should allocate new funding for US and NATO military support for UN peacekeeping. Indeed a strong argument can be made that the US contribution to UN peacekeeping should be funded out of Defense Department appropriations.

Most importantly, the United Nations must enforce a zero-tolerance policy on abuses and efficiently integrate peacekeeping with political negotiations, mediation, humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism operations, economic, social and environmental development, and the protection of human rights, working closely with regional organizations such as the African Union and NATO. Security Council mandates should be comprehensive and tailored to the specific conditions of each conflict zone, and use of force rules adopted to protect civilian populations. Peacekeeping missions should be time limited and renewed only when the Security Council determines that continued operations are necessary. Finally, the Secretary-General should ensure a seamless transition to peacebuilding—building the corruption-free institutions that will maintain peace and security and enable inclusive democratic self-government. Perhaps the Trusteeship Council should be reconstituted, supporting and enhancing the Peacebuilding Commission’s work to coordinate assistance to failed States.

The third rail of UN reform is, of course, the Security Council, which does not reflect changing demographics and whose actions are subject to the P-5 veto. Rising powers like India, Japan, Brazil, Germany and South Africa are not permanent members.  Asia with 55 percent of the world’s population has one permanent representative and Africa and Latin America have none.

While it seems unlikely that the P-5 will give up their veto, there are a number of steps that can be taken to enable the Security Council to address today’s challenges more credibly and to strengthen the United Nations’ peace and security mandate.

Security Council decision-making can be more transparent, including the selection of the Secretary-General, as practiced by the General Assembly for the first time this year. In addition, victims and organizations affected by conflicts should be invited to testify in public hearings. Civil society, the business sector, regional organizations, and representatives of the UN Specialized Agencies should also be invited to testify on issues pending before the Council and consulted on a regular basis.

A new class of Security Council members could be created with longer terms or permanent status (but without the veto) that would better reflect relative economic and population strength today and broaden geographic representation. At a minimum, the Security Council could establish a permanent advisory committee more broadly representative of influential Member States. In addition, the Security Council could work more closely with the G-20 (a more contemporary reflection of economic power and influence globally) on issues of mutual concern. The G-20 could meet at the United Nations every other year. The Security Council could place issues on the G-20 agenda, and ongoing coordinating mechanisms could be strengthened.

Pursuant to Article 52 and 53 of the Charter encouraging the use of regional arrangements, the Council should utilize the African Union, ASEAN, the OAS, the Arab League, the EU and NATO as essential partners in maintaining peace and security. In situations where a State is unable to address, or is complicit in, atrocities, the Security Council should act forcefully. At the September 2005 UN Summit, world leaders established the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect or R2P. The world leaders affirmed the responsibility of each State to protect populations within its borders against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The United Nations and the international community have the responsibility to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect these populations from atrocities. If a State is incapable or unwilling to protect its people, and peaceful means are inadequate, then the Security Council, in cooperation with regional authorities, should take collective action to protect the affected populations. But what if one of the P-5 States vetoes collective action to protect against atrocities?

There are several controversial proposals on the table worthy of further consideration, which would require the United States and other P-5 States to decide that a more effective United Nations is in their national interest, even if it means less control over specific situations. P-5 Members could pledge not to use the veto simply to advance their national interest and to abstain when they are party to a dispute under discussion (as was the original intent in San Francisco). A proposed Security Council Code calls upon all Security Council Members not to vote against a resolution addressing mass atrocities. These proposals merit further public discussion to build the needed political consensus required for the P-5 States to agree to limitations on the exercise of their veto.

Even more controversial, issues that cannot be resolved by the Security Council could be referred to the General Assembly.The 1950 US-supported “Uniting for Peace Resolution,” dormant in recent decades, provided that when the Security Council is unable to address a threat to peace, due to the exercise of the veto, the matter may be referred to the General Assembly for action.4 The Uniting for Peace Resolution could be revised and used selectively to address situations where the Security Council is paralyzed by the P-5 veto as follows. By a two-thirds majority procedural vote (not subject to a veto), the Security Council could invoke R2P and empower the General Assembly to: (1) establish a team to negotiate a political settlement, and (2) encourage the use of sanctions and collective military force if needed to incentivize a resolution of the conflict. The P-5 plus Germany and the European Union that negotiated the Iranian Nuclear Agreement could serve as a model for a negotiating team. What would be the benefit of referring the matter to the General Assembly if success ultimately would depend on the P-5 powers finding common ground, as in the case, for example of Syria or Ukraine? This is a legitimate question; however, the General Assembly would bring the weight of the UN body most representative of the entire world community behind the peace resolution process and encourage the active participation and support of strong third parties which are not on the Security Council.

In addition, under Article 99, “the Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of peace and security.” Secretaries General have invoked this authority liberally to take urgent action, including investigation and mediation, in pre-conflict and conflict situations. Past Secretaries General have even taken action in emergency situations to extend peacekeeping operations “to fill a vacuum” subject to Security Council review and disapproval. The United States should support a strong, impartial Secretary-General with the power to intervene in pre-conflict situations subject to Security Council oversight. The Secretary-General’s mediation role should be strengthened, including the use of more women as mediators.

Incremental reforms have been recommended by prestigious groups such as the High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, the Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance and the Council of Elders, among many others. They have been debated within the United Nations. With a new Secretary-General about to take office in an increasingly dangerous world, it is time to take concrete action to strengthen the timeliness, effectiveness and efficiency with which the United Nations pursues its peace and security mandate. The United Nations is largely a product of a bold US post-World War II vision and its Charter reflects the values of our free and pluralistic democracy. With visionary US lead­ership, a more effective United Nations can be a strong force for peace and stability, greatly enhancing US values and objectives globally in ways that cannot be achieved unilaterally.*

1 At any given time, the World Food Program has 30 ships at sea, 70 aircraft in the sky and 5,000 trucks on the ground delivering food to 90 million hungry people in over 80 countries. Specialized Agencies adopt global standards and networks that facilitate safe international travel by air and sea, efficient global communications, fair trade and tourism, hurricane and tsunami forecasting, environmental protection, the preservation of world cultural property and heritage sites, agricultural development and food security, workers’ rights, protection of intellectual property, universal quality education, disease prevention, global financial stability, the stimulation of investment and job growth, and much more.

2 Senior positions, such as Assistant Secretaries General, also should be filled by open application and transparent selection and not by informal geographic allocation.

3 During the early days of the United Nations, the United States made such referrals. For example, in 1946, when the Soviet Union vetoed the establishment of a special commission on the Balkans that would address Greece’s complaint that Yugoslavia was violating its territorial integrity, the United States moved the issue to the General Assembly which established a UN Special Committee on the Balkans.

4 The Resolution has been invoked ten times, including in 1956 to refer to the General Assembly the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal after they vetoed Security Council action. It was invoked again in October of 1956 when the Soviets invaded Hungary.

* Editor's Note: As this article was published online, the Security Council, after an unprecedented open and transparent process in which over a dozen candidates were considered, unanimously recommended António Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as the next Secretary-General.

Issue Date


President, United Nations Association of the National Capital Area, 2013-present
Ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization, 2006-2009