Bargaining in the UN Security Council: Setting the Global Agenda

Susan Hannah Allen
Amy Yuen
March 23, 2022

More than seventy-five years after the founding of the United Nations, the UN Security Council meets nearly every day. Powerful countries – the Council’s permanent members – continue to send top diplomats and support large staffs. Other countries strive for the elected seats on the Council, often campaigning aggressively to gain one.

While most discussions on the Council focus on its composition or on the special privileges of the five permanent members, our book, Bargaining in the UN Security Council shows how the institutional rules allow less powerful Council members to influence the content of resolutions. An in-depth view of the day-to-day negotiations and working modalities reveals a much-needed realistic understanding of how international organizations operate.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the Council has continued to meet and discuss pressing issues, including those that threaten to divide the Council members and risk the mission of maintaining international peace and security. Between 2017 and 2019, the Council held an average of 281 public meetings and 131 closed-door consultations and passed an average of 56 resolutions per year. The members of the Council interact very frequently in both formal and informal settings and have continued to do so despite the perception of increasing tensions over persistent issues like Syria and Ukraine.

What are they discussing? The UN Charter tasks the Council with responding to threats to international peace and security, but that definition has evolved and broadened over time. Recent topics have included South Sudan, Cyprus, Somalia, Libya, and Palestine. Many meetings concern ongoing peacekeeping missions, and others take on thematic issues, such as women and peace and security, non-proliferation, and protection of civilians in armed conflict.

What is equally interesting, however, is what the Council does not discuss. Why does the Security Council take up some issues for discussion and not others? What factors shape the Council’s actions, if it takes any action at all? The most common answer to these questions has been that the powerful states drive the discussion and the actions taken. The vote that allows a veto to be cast, however, is the last step in a long process of bargaining within the institution. Too often, the focus has been on vetoes cast, resolutions passed, and the peacekeeping missions created in the Council without considering how the Council chooses from all the issues brought to its attention.

International organizations are a reflection of the bargaining process that creates them. The victorious allies create the Security Council as one of six bodies in the new United Nations that was meant to manage international relations in the post-WWII world. The Council was designed as the preeminent body with binding resolutions and a structure that is notably not broadly representative or strictly democratic but instead is designed to promote cooperation among the most powerful states that survived WWII. The designers created voting rules, particularly veto power, to keep those powerful states engaged with the institution instead of pulling away when the institution’s goals and actions conflicted with their interests. They also, however, set up the Council to provide access to non-permanent members on a rotating basis.

The Council itself developed its own provisional rules for how it would function day to day. The rules include how the Council sets its agenda (the delegation in the Council presidency sets it) and how the Council presidency rotates (monthly, and roughly alphabetically). The provisional rules also include meetings that are either open and public with an official record or meetings that occur behind closed doors (consultations of the whole). These features affect what the Council discusses and materially affect the content of a resolution.

Because of the rotating nature of the Council, member states have limited opportunity to raise issues in the Council that they think deserve attention. Plenary time in the Council is scarce, which means we should expect Council presidents to avoid issues that they know will be vetoed. Indeed, statistical tests show that for issues in which the permanent members have more disparate preferences, a meeting is much less likely to occur. This principle holds true, for example, for issues that encroach on a permanent member’s region.

Statistical analysis also shows, however, that issues that are important to the Council president are more likely to be discussed. Further, the Council discusses many issues, even contentious ones, and even passes resolutions that at face-value might have seemed impossible. How?  The Council makes extensive use of the private meetings to negotiate the terms of resolutions secretly, and these discussions can lead to resolutions texts that will not be vetoed with careful language and limits. An example of this phenomenon is when the Council passed Resolution 1674 enshrining some of the ideals of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Russia and China had serious misgivings around R2P, yet they ultimately agreed to the resolution. A close reading shows that it imposes limits on actions the Council can take and also requires that R2P actions be approved in the Council, giving legal basis to restrain actions taken in the name of R2P outside the Council. Thus, while many expected R2P would fail in the Council, the members were able to reach a compromise understanding that is now enshrined in Council resolutions.

One puzzle from the scarce plenary time logic is that if agenda-setters avoid issues that would end in veto, we should never see vetoes. But of course we do see vetoes, so the question is why? An easy answer is that the vetoes are nasty surprises that arise at the moment of the vote. Council members, however, interact so frequently and across so many issues, that they almost always have forewarning of a veto.

Another explanation is that vetoes are expected and serve another purpose. If we accept that international institutions communication information about foreign policies to domestic and international audiences, then vetoes are a form of communication – grandstanding – designed to make a positional statement to a target audience. Indeed, the general purpose of recent Council meetings on Ukraine have served this purpose allowing the members to make grand speeches and veto resolutions to make a statement. It’s important to note, however, that these vetoes can’t happen if the Council president refuses to put it on the agenda.

Contrary to what we typically think about the Security Council, the rules allow each member, including elected members, influence through agenda setting and strategic leverage over public and private meetings. Our evidence confirms that permanent members affect those decisions, but the preferences of elected members also affect which issues get discussed.

Finally, whether the meeting is public or private has material influence on the content of a resolution and sometimes affects whether it will pass. Private diplomacy has a long history in international relations, and it serves an important purpose to give cover for states to make bargains that might otherwise weaken a regime in the eyes of a domestic or international public. While the Council is widely criticized for lack of transparency, sometimes opacity makes cooperation possible where it otherwise would not be because states can hide concessions or conceal positions that could cause trouble with an observant public. China faced a difficult position like this in managing North Korean nuclear proliferation. China could not agree to policies that might motivate regime collapse in North Korea (such has harsh sanctions that might mobilize migration out of North Korea) but they had to allow some sanctions to try to and curb North Korea’s nuclear progress. The Council struck numerous bargains behind closed doors to apply pressure to North Korea while preventing an influx of refugees, illustrating the difficult line China had to toe to achieve its goals for a stable, preferably non-nuclear North Korea.

Rules matter in international institutions, including security institutions, which have too often been ignored or dismissed on the grounds that institutions don’t matter when a state’s security is at risk. For too long, scholars have been content to treat international institutions either as wholly ineffective or as mere reflections of the interests of powerful states. Such an understanding misses the crucial bargaining and cooperation that reflects a shared value for working cooperatively to address threats to international peace and security that persists today.


About the Authors:

Susan Hannah Allen is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi. Her work examines how power is wielded in the international system. In a former life, she worked for the Quaker United Nations Office in New York. Find her on Twitter @lady_professor.

Amy Yuen is an associate professor at Middlebury College whose research focuses on peacekeeping and the United Nations.

This think-piece is based on their new book Bargaining in the UN Security Council: Setting the Global Agenda (Oxford University Press, 2021).

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.