Assessing the Security Council’s record, the conclusion balances its weaknesses – such as inaction and intelligence failure – with its strengths – such as its role in great-power cooperation – and also addresses the implications of selective security for UN member states.

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 for it in the Charter. Others have seen it primarily as a success – because of the diminution in inter-state war, for instance, and the Council’s role in assisting great-power collaboration, however limited and flawed this may be. Yet it is possible to make a more fine-grained and evidence-based judgement than the classic ‘glass half-empty’ versus ‘glass half-full’ debate might suggest.

Our summary of the weaknesses and strengths in the Council’s record is necessarily imperfect. It is not always easy to distinguish the effects of Council action and inaction from the role played by other factors in world politics, or indeed from the effects of other UN agencies, particularly the General Assembly. Moreover, aspects of the Council’s record are deeply ambiguous and hard to categorise as either strengths or weaknesses.

Despite the ambiguities, it is clear that for many policymakers, the role of the Council remains pivotal. As the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty put it in 2001: ‘There is no better or more appropriate body than the United Nations Security Council to authorise military intervention for human protection purposes. The task is not to define alternatives to the Security Council as a source of authority, but to make the Council work better than it has.’ This view was echoed by both the High-level Panel in 2004 and the Secretary-General’s reform proposals of 2005. These statements reflect a desire to maintain the Council’s status within international society, and to avoid any further erosion of the social capital it draws upon to encourage the cooperation of UN member states.

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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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