Taking the view that the UN Security Council embodies a necessarily selective approach to collective security, this Adelphi evaluates the Council’s achievements in tackling the problem of war since 1945, sheds light on the division of labour among the Council, regional security bodies and states, and offers a pioneering contribution to understanding the UN’s past, present and future roles.

In contrast to the common perception that the United Nations is, or should become, a system of collective security, this paper advances the proposition that the UN Security Council embodies a necessarily selective approach. Analysis of its record since 1945 suggests that the Council cannot address all security threats effectively. The reasons for this include not only the veto power of the five permanent members, but also the selectivity of all UN member states: their unwillingness to provide forces for peacekeeping or other purposes except on a case-by-case basis, and their reluctance to involve the Council in certain conflicts to which they are parties, or which they perceive as distant, complex and resistant to outside involvement.

The Council’s selectivity is generally seen as a problem, even a threat to its legitimacy. Yet selectivity, which is rooted in prudence and in the UN Charter itself, has some virtues. Acknowledging the necessary limitations within which the Security Council operates, this paper evaluates the Council’s achievements in tackling the problem of war since 1945. In doing so, it sheds light on the division of labour among the Council, regional security bodies and states, and offers a pioneering contribution to public and governmental understanding of the UN’s past, present and future roles.

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  • Introduction

    The United Nations Security Council is often seen as being, actually or potentially, the key institution in an international system of collective security. Yet the record of the Security Council since its creation in 1945 is one of selectivity. Throughout its history, the Council has frequently been seen to be selective in the crises in which it has become involved and in the actions it has taken. In the Cold...
  • Chapter One: The Inherent Selectivity of the Council’s Roles

    The UN Charter system provides a much more robust framework for collective action than any previous attempt at global order. It differs hugely from all its predecessors, including the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century and the League of Nations in the interwar years. As a result, it has often been asserted that the Charter represents a scheme for collective security. However, we question whether the Charter, even in...
  • Chapter Two: Wars and Crises since 1945: The Overall Record

    The Security Council has been involved in an extraordinary range of activities relating to war, from monitoring and mediation to the use of force and long-term reconstruction of political and social institutions after conflict. It has operated in a period in which there have been profound changes in the incidence and character of war, to which it has itself sometimes contributed, and to which it has had to adapt and...
  • Chapter Three: Proposals for UN Standing Forces: A Record of Failure

    Since the formation of the United Nations, the creation of a standing UN military force has repeatedly been proposed. Such a force has been seen as a means of improving the organisation’s response to urgent problems of international war, civil war and mass killings; as a way of expediting the provision of peacekeeping forces to back up ceasefire and peace agreements; and as a basis for preventive deployments to ward...
  • Chapter Four: Innovation and Flexibility since the End of the Cold War

    In operating in a manner which has differed in certain respects from the scheme envisaged in the UN Charter, the Security Council has often acted creatively. This tendency, which began during the Cold War years, has been particularly striking since the end of the Cold War. Among the Council’s most important and controversial innovations to address the problem of war have been the expansion of the number and scope of...
  • Chapter Five: Accountability and Reform

    Ever since the creation of the UN in 1945, there have been repeated proposals for its reform, some of which have been implemented. There have also been growing demands for UN bodies, including the Security Council, to be subject to a fuller system of accountability. In addition, in response to some of the UN’s perceived weaknesses, including ineffectiveness and selectivity in the face of threats to the peace, proposals for...
  • Conclusion: Problems and Opportunities of Selective Security Today

    Selectivity in all these forms affects everything the UN Security Council does, as well as how it is perceived. An exploration of the implications of this selectivity must start with an overall appraisal of the Council, the performance of which is the subject of sharply differing interpretations. Some have seen the Council as a failure – and there is no denying that it has fallen short of the goals set...

Adam Roberts is a senior research fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University and Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. He was Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at Oxford University from 1986 to 2007. His books include United Nations, Divided World: The UN’s Roles in International Relations, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1993, editor with Benedict Kingsbury) and Documents on the Laws of War, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2000, editor with Richard Guelff).

Dominik Zaum is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Reading. He was previously a research fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Author of The Sovereignty Paradox: The Norms and Politics of International Statebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2007), he has published articles in Review of International Studies, International Peacekeeping and other journals.

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