Musical chairs at UN Security Council as world faces ’40 conflicts and 11 full blown wars’

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The annual round of musical chairs in the UN Security Council came early this year as elections for five new non-permanent members to the fifteen member council were held as to give prospective countries more time to prepare for their two-year tenure beginning in January.

But while the timing may have been shifted from the usual October vote, the broad political substance was largely unchanged.

The regional groups select the candidates which then must win a two-thirds majority of the 193 member General Assembly. In many cases however, the election is actually an unopposed selection, as in Africa and Latin America this year. In other contests, the competing countries either win an outright majority as in Asia or there’s a more complex contest of repeated votes as in Western Europe.

UNSecCThe five new members will join the Council whose Permanent Five, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States hold veto power on issues of peace and security.

So let’s take a look at winners and losers and reflect upon how the new Security Council dynamic affects U.S. interests.

Africa: The seat for the African group is held by Angola. The unopposed candidate was Ethiopia. Needless to say Ethiopia won but here’s some interesting backstory. Contrary to most African states, Ethiopia was never a colony, and in fact was one of the UN’s original members. Despite a turbulent history, Ethiopia is a largely Christian country with close ties to the USA. Moreover Ethiopia contributes the largest number of “blue helmets” to the UN’s far flung peacekeeping missions and has played a vital role in opposing terrorist groups in East Africa.

Asia/Pacific: This was an interesting contest with Kazakhstan facing the Kingdom of Thailand.
In past years U.S.-aligned Thailand would have been a slam dunk but there’s a new dynamic. Thailand has faced political turmoil and Bangkok’s military government did not seem to really press the case. Kazakhstan, an ex-Soviet state, however played a tough political game reinforced by a glitzy lobbying effort right down to the wire with a black tie gala for diplomats and friends at New York’s posh Plaza Hotel the night before the vote.

Kazakhstan topped Thailand 138-55 votes. The huge resource-rich Kazah landmass is a regional player in Central Asia but is ruled by the authoritarian government of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who’s been in power since independence from Moscow in 1991. Kazakistan’s emerging economy has long been a nexus for investors and a bailiwick for Clinton Foundation activities more than a decade ago.

This will be the first time Kazakhstan serves on the Council; yet the country’s record on human rights and press freedoms is sadly abysmal.

Latin America: This was an almost tag team effort; When Venezuela vacates the seat on the Council in January, it shall be replaced by Bolivia, an ideological comrade. The Plurinational State of Bolivia, led by the eccentric socialist Evo Morales won unopposed. My question is why didn’t Washington cause some mischief and encourage another competing candidate? Back in 2008, there were 48 rounds of voting between between Guatemala and Venezuela which ended up with Panama winning as the compromise candidate.

Western Europe and Others: The famous WEOG group which Canada, Israel, and New Zealand are among its members, had opening for two seats to replace Spain and New Zealand. There were three candidates; Italy, Netherlands and Sweden. Here’s where it got interesting.
In the first round in the General Assembly, Sweden won a convincing majority. Then came a series of ballots where neither Italy nor the Netherlands could gain the required 127 vote majority. Both were hovering at about 95 each.

Italy and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, allies and friends in both the European Union and NATO stood at a political precipice; indecisive knockdown ballots would cause political friction. The Foreign Ministers of Italy and the Netherlands decided on a grand bargain; split the two year tenure with a deal allowing for one year for each country to serve on the Council.
Both are eminently qualified. Italy for example is the European Union’s largest contributor to peacekeeping. The Netherlands offers a noble effort in global humanitarian aid.

What do these changes mean for U.S. policy when the countries assume their posts in January along with a still to be decided UN Secretary General and new American President?

For Africa, Ethiopia replacing Angola is a plus. Latin America’s unopposed choice is a draw though Bolivia is prone to bizarre theatrics. For Asia, pro-U.S. Malaysia moves over to Kazakistan. This is a complex draw. Western Europe sees two close allies, New Zealand and Spain, whose positive tenure on the Council will be missed, being replaced by Sweden and the split decision of Italy and Netherlands. All positives.

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom stated after the session, “With 40 conflicts and 11 full blown wars, it is a very, very worrisome world that we have to take into account.” So let’s get working on solving these crises!

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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