Missing Seats at the Table: The UN Security Council’s Post-Colonial Problem

By Patrick Fox

Members of the Security Council vote at the United Nations in New York in 2006.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Keith Bedford

Winner takes all.

For a long time, global influence was organized under this philosophy, with European elites extracting wealth from their massive overseas domains. 

Billions of colonial peoples who were vassalized by this system demanded self-representation and took it back by force through their own blood, sweat and tears. Even as many have attempted to heal and rebuild from this period, the global scales have yet to shift. 

China’s determined claim for global power is considered by many as a new form of colonialism and by others as a more benevolent post-colonial power.  Regardless of their intentions, it represents a major paradigm shift from the long-standing pre-colonial order. 

China garnered much of its recognition as a world power in 1971, when it gained its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the de facto panel of dominant global powers. There was little debate to the claim, even in 1970, that China had a population of 818 million, or 23% of the world’s entire population at the time. 

China had not yet hit its period of massive economic growth, and thus geopolitical influence.  The basic logic behind their role as a world leader was primarily their proportion of global population.

The truth is that size matters…or at least it used to. India has 17.7% of the global population today, but has only had eight non-temporary appointments to the UN Security Council, including its current appointment, which lasts until 2022.

India has been pushing for a permanent role, with Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla stating that this term “establishes the right to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council.” 

America’s position on this topic has been lukewarm at best, with the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield stating that “there are others who disagree within their regions that they should be representative of their regions.” That sentiment must be explored.

If America is basing its hesitation about expanding permanent membership on how representative countries are of their region, it is simply opening itself up to blatant neocolonial hypocrisy. 

Observe the current permanent members of the UNSC: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China; much of the world is massively underrepresented. 

The PRC’s addition to the UNSC in 1971 made it the first country on the council that was not majority-European, a former colonial power. Currently, the council has permanent seats for three European countries who have fought many wars over being “representative” of Europe and yet none of those countries is up for dispute. 

If the goal is to be representative, it must be acknowledged that the United Kingdom and France collectively controlled most of Africa as colonial oppressors, not to mention massive swathes of Asia. 

Despite this, they are the 21st and 22nd biggest countries by population respectively, ranking under their former colonies of Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan and India. While Britain is in 21st place, it colonized the 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 8th biggest countries in the world respectively and yet none of those countries have any form of legally established global political influence.

Which of the current members of the UN Security Council can claim to be representative of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East or even the entire American continent? Many Latin American countries have a fraught relationship with the United States; Washington’s claimed representation of the Americas is certainly up for debate. 

The representative argument holds no water then, and the American call to respect ongoing disputes is more likely an appeal for political inaction than actual justice. But perhaps this emphasis on global population is overrepresented.

When looking at a list of the world’s largest economies, the modern structure of the UNSC makes slightly more sense. The United Kingdom and France are both long-standing economic powerhouses. 

It should be noted that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield was responding to the question of whether Japan, Germany and India should be added to the UN Security Council–the third, fourth and fifth largest economies respectively. 

India meets this economic parameter as well, as it is both the fifth largest economy and the fifth fastest growing economy in the world. However, there are glaring issues with an economic standard for permanent membership in the UNSC.

As mentioned earlier, certain elites in the world reaped massive rewards from abusing vast colonial empires, and this plays a major role in the economic structure today. The United Kingdom’s standing as the sixth largest economy fundamentally comes from the wealth stolen centuries ago from the fifth largest economy, India. 

The United Kingdom has a score of 0.932 on the Human Development Index whereas India is stuck at 0.645. Economic dominance simply isn’t a result of the Global North’s better performance, it comes from a far darker place.

Another stark example of this pattern is the history between the United States and Indonesia, the 4th largest country by population but the 16th largest economy. 

As the world collectively began to emerge from the colonial period, Indonesia was becoming a rapid leader of unity among formerly colonized countries; the Bandung Conference of 1955 serves as a great example of this. 

In fear of Indonesia’s growing communist movement, the United States helped organize a military coup and subsequent period of political mass killings in Indonesia, which took the lives of more than 1 million Indonesians. 

The genocidal regime remained in power until 1998, with the dictator Suharto and his family personally stealing 4% of the country’s GDP. To this day, any chance of growth or change is limited by lingering fears of anti-communist violence. 

Indonesia, despite being the fourth largest country in the world and the largest Muslim country in the world, is functionally sidelined in both global and regional geopolitics. The Indonesian people are not to blame for their country’s modern condition. 

Given that the CIA actually provided lists of Indonesian communists to be killed, the US should take a major degree of blame for taking away Indonesia’s natural right to being a household name and geopolitical powerhouse.

India and Indonesia are not the only examples of countries whose natural rights to global power have been taken away by colonial powers. Brazil had a similar US-backed anti-communist subversion that still haunts the country to this day.  

Nigeria is also at the mercy of European corporations. Nearly every poor country has been transformed by neo-colonialism subversion to keep it in poverty. This simply shows that the economic standards to determine if a country is a global power are based on damaging and old fashioned beliefs. 

If the UN Security Council is going to play the role that it plays today, it must realize that the Cold War is over. Its top priority should be working to eliminate the systematic reinforcement of global poverty. 

President Biden has a direct ethical responsibility to this end. Having worked in Africa for much of her career, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield almost certainly understands this reality very well. 

The world is changing, and America must not simply rebuke the changers but instead work to fix the sins of its forefathers.

Patrick Fox is a regular writer for the Review. He majors in International Relations at Syracuse University, where he is president of the Syracuse John Quincy Adams Society.







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