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.

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 War, its members could agree on policies regarding certain peripheral conflicts, but not on most of the serious wars and crises in which the superpowers were involved. Since the end of the Cold War, a more complex pattern of selectivity has emerged, in which the Council has become deeply involved in certain conflicts, such as in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, but has had a very marginal role in crises, certainly no less serious, in the Israeli-occupied territories, Rwanda and Sudan. It has hardly been involved at all in certain wars and crises of the post-Cold War era, including those in Chechnya and the India–Pakistan ‘Kargil War’.

This record suggests that the UN embodies a set of procedures and practices which might be called ‘selective security’. That is to say, although the UN provides a framework for states to collectively address, and take action on, certain wars and crises, it does not – indeed cannot – do so for all. The factors that compel the Security Council to be selective include not only the veto power wielded by the Permanent Five (P5) members, but also the limited willingness of all states – whether or not members of the Council – to provide resources and trained personnel to resolve conflicts that they may perceive as distant, complex and resistant to outside involvement. Indeed, in a number of conflicts, the states involved have been reluctant to refer the issue to the Security Council; and many crises are perceived, by some actors at least, as best handled by regional bodies rather than by the UN. The fact that the Council’s role is selective does not mean that it has not had an important range of effects on the international system as a whole. Among such effects have been those achieved by its action against clear acts of aggression in Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990, and its provision of peacekeeping forces in a notably wide variety of circumstances.

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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