No Clean Slate: Why the legitimacy of the Security Council isn’t what it used to be


If you were to sit down and design a new international organization whose job it was to “maintain international peace and security,” and you came back with the design for the current United Nations Security Council, you would be handed your hat.

The Security Council institutionalizes privileges for five of its fifteen members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all enjoy permanent seats and can individually veto any substantive proposal that comes before them. This conflicts with modern norms of sovereign equality and democratic decision-making that the United Nations is supposed to uphold. It also predisposes the Security Council to inaction: the five permanent members have used their vetoes over 220 times in the Council’s history. Its failure to take greater action in Syria leads some to consider it a ‘moribund’ organization. As a consequence, and because public debates in the Security Council have become staged affairs full of posturing, the real activities of the Security Council often take place outside of its formal structures.

One might think that special position of the five permanent members (P5) is justified by their special contributions to international order. Yet of the P5, only three are among the five biggest contributors to the UN budget, and none are among the five biggest contributors of peacekeeping personnel. As for promoting international peace and stability, two of the permanent members—Russia and the United States—have turned out to be major sources of conflict and instability. The US has launched wars that directly violate the UN Charter, has practiced and attempted to justify torture, regularly withholds its UN budget contributions, and generally acts as a shirker of international agreements. Russia, for its part, appears to take “active measures” to subvert the domestic political affairs of other countries, and has used force to alter the territorial status quo.

To put it mildly, all of this raises major questions for the legitimacy of the Security Council and the international order it is supposed to uphold.

Not So Rationally Designed

The fact that the Security Council appears to be both quite dysfunctional and to suffer from a legitimacy deficit poses a challenge to those who would understand it as the product of “rational, purposive interactions among states and other international actors to solve specific problems.”[1] From this rational choice perspective, “conscious design” is the “overriding mechanism guiding the development of international institutions.”[2] The problem with this approach is not that international institutions such as the Security Council are not the result of conscious choices or goal-oriented actors. But such an approach does appear to downplay the roles of coercive power, legitimacy considerations, and institutional stickiness in accounting for the structures and outputs of international institutions such as the Security Council today.[3]

This, at least, is the argument that I make in a recent publication (available free to download here). To understand the legitimacy deficit that institutions such as the Security Council currently face, it is important to go back and analyse the power-relationships and normative environment that were present during the crucial moment of institutional creation.

I assume, in contrast to strict interpretations of rational choice institutionalism, that the founders of international organizations are both goal-oriented but also legitimacy aware actors. That is, the designers of institutions have functional goals in mind, but they also attempt to make sure that the institutions they create are perceived as legitimate, at least by those with the capacity to undermine their activities. Thus to understand why institutions take the form that they do, it is important to examine historical context at the time of their founding.

But this is only part of the story. Because institutional design choices will be related to the norms and values of relevant audiences at the time of the institution’s founding, an institution’s legitimacy may erode because it does not keep up with changes in the political and normative environment.[4] Due to the inherent stickiness of institutions, they frequently fail to adapt to a changing environment. As a consequence, IOs have a tendency to become less efficient or effective than a purely functionalist approach would suggest. Borrowing from historical institutionalists, I refer to this process as legitimacy drift.

What factors give rise to legitimacy drift? The list is potentially as long as institutions are numerous. In my article, I identify three abstract categories of factors into which all possible sources of legitimacy drift can be organized. These are broken promises (disruptions in perceptions of whether an institution meets existing standards of legitimacy), shifting standards (changes in the standards or criteria for legitimacy applied to an institution), and audience shift (changes in the audience to whom an institution must appeal for legitimacy). To the extent that institutions fail to live up to their initial promises, fail to adapt to a changing repertoire of legitimacy demands, and fail to respond to changes in their relevant publics, their legitimacy is likely to come under strain.

The Security Council’s Drifting Legitimacy

The case of the Security Council provides a particularly vivid illustration of all three sources of legitimacy drift, made possible by a relatively high level of institutional stasis (owing to the five permanent members’ veto) and the rapid changes in the international environment since 1944-1945. The essence of my explanation for the relatively dismal state of Council legitimacy today is: it was built to address the issues of, and gain legitimacy within, a bygone era. Indeed, a look at the Security Council today makes one wonder how it ever had a claim to legitimacy .

At the time of its founding in 1944 and 1945, the Council’s legitimacy was based on five main elements. The first three are familiar to our assumptions today: it was supposed to deliver on its mandate of peace and security, to represent (at least to some extent) a portion of the UN membership, and it was opened up to vigorous debate with the lesser powers in San Francisco (even though the debate took place in a largely take-it-or-leave-it context).

But as I argue,[5] the Security Council was also founded on the legitimacy derived from allied “great Powers’” roles in fighting the Second World War, and by the widespread assumption that an institutional hierarchy favouring the great powers was a legitimate feature of international society. The early meetings of the UN General Assembly were filled with references to the United Nations’ wartime role and the victory over fascism. Both big and small states saw the United Nations as an extension of the wartime alliance that defeated Hitler, providing an important element of common solidarity. UN Member States also saw it as largely self-evident that the ‘great Powers’ would play the dominant role in structuring world affairs, and their privileged positions on the Security Council were understood in this light.

While all of these features of Council legitimacy have eroded since its ‘founding moment’, it is perhaps the last two which have faced the greatest challenges. Few people today care that the P5 members assumed most of the terrible costs of defeating fascism and winning the Second World War. Today, people have different concerns, such as civil wars and human rights. Moreover, over time, the norms of diplomacy, and more broadly of global society, have become less tolerant of international hierarchies and the idea of an institutionalized directorate of great powers. One indicator of this are the increased calls to make the Security Council more “representative” and “democratic”. Another vivid indicator of this is the decline in the use of the term ‘great Power’ itself. While in the early years of operation, UN members spoke self-evidently about ‘the great Powers’ in their debates, over decades, this terminology gradually declined,[6] and today has fallen into disuse completely.

These shifting standards are also evident in the tasks that the Security Council is supposed to assume. Humanitarian crises such as the Syrian civil war have been brought onto the Council agenda, and resolutions condemning the government have been repeatedly voted down by Russia, China, or both. Needless to say, the role of China and Russia in defeating the fascist powers of yesteryear does little to weaken the outrage and indignation from those who decry Council inaction, including from the UN General Assembly.[7]

Yet the Security Council was simply not created with such humanitarian crises in mind. It has no legal responsibility for the deaths of civilians in Syria, nor have aspirations towards a ‘responsibility to protect’ actually changed the legal rules surrounding coercive intervention. Indeed, criticisms of the permanent members’ use of the veto is also at variance with the assumption that the Council should not be used to isolate one of the world’s major powers, which might only exacerbate challenges to international instability. In short, the Security Council has not been able to keep up with these raised normative expectations, rendering its legitimacy more precarious than ever.

Back to Normal?

The Security Council’s legitimacy has always been imperfect, and its founding legitimacy began to erode rapidly after its creation. During the Cold War, the Council was largely sidelined from international security affairs as it fell prey to the East-West conflict. After a period of much greater activity in the 1990s, today, this situation has partially re-emerged. Russia and China increasingly face off against the US, France and UK over conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. The Council’s future role future role will likely lie in the few areas upon which the P5 still agree: combating international ‘terrorism’, and managing intra-state conflicts in Africa using peacekeeping missions. In the absence of a clean institutional slate, the Council will lumber on, adapting its activities somewhat, promising reform while never delivering it, and coping with its legitimacy deficit as best it can.


[1] Barbara Koremenos, Charles Lipson, and Duncan Snidal. 2001. “The Rational Design of International Institutions.” International Organization 55(4): 761–99, at page 762.

[2] Ibid, 766-7.

[3] The authors in the Rational Design article mention the relative resistance-to-change that are inherent in international institutions such as UN in order to pre-empt the realist challenge that institutions are only ciphers of state power (p. 762). But curiously, this nonetheless does not prompt them to incorporate the roles of state power and institutional stickiness into their list of independent variables to account for institutional design choices.

[4] This is based on what Tobias Lenz and Lora Viola would call a congruence model of institutional legitimacy. See their article here.

[5] Matthew D. Stephen. 2018. “Legitimacy Deficits of International Organizations: Design, Drift, and Decoupling at the UN Security Council.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs  31(1): 96-121, at 107-9.

[6] Ibid, p. 110-1.

[7] In fact, the Council has taken several steps, such as issuing Presidential Statements in favour of de-escalation, forcing Syria to give up its chemical weapons programme, threatening Chapter VII measures in response to subsequent chemical weapons attacks, and calling for temporary ceasefires to allow humanitarian access.

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