The (D)evolution of the Security Council: A Three-Part Case Study on the post-Cold War Use of the Veto

Rebekah Leo, Sarah Terlizzi


During the Cold War, ideological divisions stymied the UN Security Council mandate to address threats to international peace and security, preventing a program of collective security action. The post-Cold War period held the potential for constructive relationships, especially among the Council’s permanent members. However, these relationships have not emerged, despite the expressed post-Cold War need for new humanitarian principles and collaborative frameworks. This failure has reaffirmed a restricted political role for the Security Council at a time when its capacities could be more fully realized than any other point in its history. Why have desired post-Cold War principles failed to materialize? Using a constructivist paradigm, we argue that the permanent five members (P5) of the Security Council continue to build their identities on Cold War-era security concepts. Consequently, the P5 persist in using the veto power as a way for the State to enforce its identity. The research demonstrates that, as long as the P5 treat the veto as a traditional sovereignty entitlement, full Security Council capacities cannot be put to use in complex pre-, mid-, or post-conflict situations. This paper examines three separate conditions involving the use of the veto power in the Security Council: Russia’s hesitance towards external intervention in the most recent Syrian conflict; the United States’ conception of sovereignty entitlements with international legal jurisdiction in the International Criminal Court, and the intransigent influence of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The analysis relies on a content analysis of primary UN sources, including Secretary-General reports, Security Council resolutions, verbatim meeting records, and outcome documents. These resources were supplemented with scholarly articles and field research in Washington DC and at the United Nations.  We conclude that, unless the P5 acknowledge the role that Cold War norms hinder Security Council capabilities, any post-Cold War humanitarian frameworks will fail. The danger is that 21st century conflicts will be tolerated, and even encouraged, by P5 sovereignty conceptions. We identify channels for moving P5 behavior in a positive direction so as to liberate the Security Council from outdated norms and engage its powers for human protection purposes.


Security Council; Constructivism; International Law

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