At the Tehran Summit in November 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin spent four days thrashing out a common strategy for defeating Hitler and the Nazis. They discussed dividing up Europe and shaping the world for decades to come. They planned the D-Day landings and Roosevelt even floated his idea for the post-war creation of the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Tehran Summit was followed in July 1944 by the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire, geared towards the creation of an international monetary and trading system and a World Bank. 730 delegates from 44 countries had been invited, including the ailing UK economist John Maynard Keynes and his nemesis, the influential American Treasury Department economist Harry Dexter White. What no-one realised was that Harry Dexter White was a Soviet spy, constantly seeking to align American policy with Soviet interests.  

The allied victory over Germany and Japan in 1945 set the stage for the emergence of the new world order planned in Tehran and Bretton Woods. America, which had accelerated the Japanese surrender by exploding atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had become a global nuclear power and also sought to dominate the new monetary and international trade setup, making the US dollar king. America’s closest ally was the UK, now engaged in a massive rebuilding programme as it tried to crawl from under the shattered ruins of the war. Confronting the West from behind what Churchill termed ‘The Iron Curtain’, were the communist nations of the Soviet Union and the vast and mysterious People’s Republic of China. Both were racing to develop their own nuclear weapons. 

To avoid future wars and disorder between the great nations, the UN Security Council (UNSC) was seen as the ideal bulwark. The US, the UK, France, the USSR (Russia after 1991), and China, became the five permanent UNSC members, each with the power to veto decisions. It quickly became clear that in conflicts involving any of the five UNSC members, their vetoes would be used, successfully neutering the effectiveness of the organisation. The UNSC has only ever really been able to act with unanimity in conflicts in which none of the permanent members have had a stake. There was one notable exception to this in 1950, when, thanks to the absence of the USSR representative at the meeting, the UNSC passed a resolution authorising a US-led coalition to repel the North Korean invasion of South Korea.

Today, as Vladimir Putin continues his war of aggression in Ukraine, the UNSC is virtually hamstrung, with the Russian veto sure to curtail any attempts at stopping the conflict. The result leaves individual countries to impose their own sanctions on any offending nation. But, as such decisions are taken out with the remit of the UN, many countries simply ignore them. Again, this has been evident in the swathe of current sanctions imposed on Russia, with Iran flouting the diktat and supplying kamikaze drones to Putin, for use in attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure targets.

The composition of the UNSC is clearly outdated and in need of urgent reform. India has overtaken China as the world’s most populous country yet is not represented. Huge continents like Africa and Latin America have no representation on the UNSC either. On the other hand, Europe, as a relatively small continent geographically, is heavily over-represented, with the UK and France occupying two of the five permanent seats. Surely a revised and fairer membership should allocate a single, perhaps rotating seat to Europe, with one each to America, Russia, China, Latin America and Africa. A simple majority of those present and voting at UNSC meetings should be sufficient to carry forward decisions. The right to veto should be eliminated.

In the absence of any meaningful reforms, dissatisfied nations, who feel excluded from the current setup, are attempting to create their own anti-western alternative. A clear example was the recent BRICS summit in South Africa. BRICS is comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. When they met in Johannesburg last month at the invitation of South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, gathered around the table were Xi Jinping of China, Narendra Modi of India, Lula da Silva of Brazil and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister representing Vladimir Putin. The South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that they have invited Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to join the bloc next year. BRICS is therefore offering a direct challenge to the future of the UN that could divide the world into two distinct multilateral organisations, creating a West versus the Global South confrontation, with both Russia and China vying to seize the ideological leadership of the Southern alliance. This is a dangerous and destabilising development.

As we struggle to deal with climate change, an increasing proliferation of conflicts, rising populism, systematic attacks on democracy and human rights and deepening global inequalities, we need to maintain a coherent international approach. The UN will have to face up to major reform or it will sink into the abyss of history. The Ukraine war has once again proved the ineffectiveness of the current multilateral system in coping with crises and conflicts. The UNSC was conceived to maintain international peace and security but has been totally deadlocked by the veto process. As the UN heads towards its 80th birthday, it is bedevilled by a litany of challenges, including gross underfunding, bloated bureaucracy, disunity, and geopolitical rivalry among the permanent members of the UNSC. These and other issues weaken its effectiveness and undermine its relevance.  It has become quite clear over the years that the permanent members of the UNSC have little interest in internal reform. They only take decisions according to their own interests rather than global interests. It is therefore up to the wider membership of the UN, together with civil society, to push for change. The UNSC must be totally reformed to reflect 21st century realities.