Biden Cannot Achieve UN Reform Without Confronting Hypocrisy
On September 12, 2022, the Biden Administration proposed a series of novel, uniquely practical UN modernization policies, part of a larger move to make global institutions more responsive, equitable, and equipped for the challenges of the 21st Century. Senior Biden administration officials made their case for UN Security Council (UNSC) reform by harnessing global outrage at how easily Russia could use its veto to snarl the UN’s work, first in Syria and then following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
As Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S.Ambassador to the United Nations, put it in November 2022, for the Security Council to meet this moment, “all permanent members of the Security Council must also live up to our obligation to maintain international peace and security. And that means exercising the veto authority responsibly. As I’ve said before, the United States will refrain from use of the veto except in rare, extraordinary situations.” Or, as she said a year later, “More than ever before, we cannot afford a crisis of confidence in this body… We will need to re-examine long-held national positions, ask ourselves tough questions, and remain open to compromise in order to effect lasting change.”
But since Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack on Israeli civilians and Israel’s subsequent four-month bombardment of Gaza’s civilians, the U.S.has vetoed two UNSC resolutions on Gaza, obstructing globally–popular multilateral efforts for conflict resolution and humanitarian relief. These vetoes demonstrate once again how a single permanent member can grind collective conflict management efforts to a halt in face of intense human suffering. By exploiting the inherent unfairness of the UNSC’s structure when it’s in its interests to do so, these vetoes also threaten the Biden administration’s specific and careful case for UNSC reform.
If the Biden administration truly believes we cannot afford a crisis of confidence in the UNSC, and if it wants the UN to play an enduring, active role in maintaining international peace and security, it must behave in line with its own proposal for reform and help facilitate a multilateral solution to the war in Gaza instead of single-handedly gridlocking the Council with its veto. As the staggering human costs of this war mount—at least 25,000 dead and 60,000 wounded in Gaza, widespread hunger and impending famine among survivors, a collapsing humanitarian response system—US policymakers should weigh the costs of undermining the UNSC alongside them.
The UNSC is the sole international body that can authorize the use of international force and enact multilateral sanctions. Its resolutions are legally binding for UN member states and advance a specific vision of politics that still centers the protection of civilians in conflict, international humanitarian law, and a prohibition against aggressive war. The Council is unfair by design, with membership rules and a voting structure that explicitly marginalizes most of the world while allowing the permanent five members (P5) to steer the Chamber. This unjustness is written into the very foundation of the UN system as the price of keeping the victors of World War II invested in multilateralism, and this price is steep. When the P5 violate the UN Charter and then use their vetoes to protect themselves, or when they use their vetoes to shelter their allies’ transgressions, they undermine the UNSC’s legitimacy; bolster its reputation as a front for great power interests instead of a law-bound body; impede conflict resolution efforts; and leave people living in danger without even the few protections that international law offers.
Proposing UNSC reform is accordingly very popular—and because the P5 know it’s popular, permanent members periodically call for expanded membership. These calls have often been effectively empty because they’re made knowing no one agrees on who the new permanent members should be or what powers they should have.
Yet in contrast, the Biden administration’s reform ideas have been uniquely pragmatic and serious. They’ve advanced a broad UN modernization agenda that includes explicit proposals for both formal charter-level changes and informal shifts in diplomatic practice, centered on six key principles for responsible behavior by Council members. These principles include a pledge to defend and act strictly in line with the UN Charter’s text and values; engaging pragmatically with other Council members to address threats to international peace and security without allowing bilateral disputes to obstruct the Council’s efforts to fulfill its mandate and responsibilities; refraining from veto use except in rare and extraordinary circumstances; exercising leadership in defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms; enhancing “cooperation, inclusivity, and transparency” through frequent engagement with other UN bodies, including the UN General Assembly (UNGA); and advancing efforts for UNSC reform. The US has taken several practical steps in accordance with this last principle, including co-sponsoring a resolution that generates an accountability mechanism for UNGA to ask the P5 to come before the General Assembly to explain their vetoes, and, for the first time, calling for permanent seats for Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Biden administration’s reform agenda includes both proposed shifts in the U.S.’s diplomatic practices and specific benchmarks for others to use when assessing the U.S.’s behavior. In their proposal, the UNSC chamber could become more just, equitable, legitimate, and transparent if the U.S. behaves differently—if it supports the multilateral norms for transparency and accountability from the P5 that other states have advanced and agrees to forgo the veto.
Whether the Biden administration would use its veto to insulate Israel from calls for conflict resolution or accountability for documented violations of international humanitarian law has always been the acid test of its commitment to this reform agenda. The U.S.’s rare use of its veto since the Cold War has almost always been on questions related to Israel. American rhetoric on Russian use of the veto, from Samantha Power’s famous speech asking whether Russia was incapable of shame in face of civilian casualties in Aleppo, to Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s stirring efforts to build global support for Ukraine in face of Russian war crimes, has made the U.S.’s vetoes even more notable.
By framing its vetoes on behalf of Israel as uniquely acceptable while other UN member states, the UN Secretary General, and humanitarian and aid agencies all point to credible evidence of mass civilian death and mounting humanitarian disasters in Gaza, the U.S. invites accusations of hypocrisy, and of being willing to use its outsized powers under the UN Charter in service of its own national interests when it wants to do so while criticizing Russia for doing the same. Using the veto in defiance of global popular opinion and international humanitarian law interest undercuts global confidence in the body.
But the Biden administration, like the rest of us, needs a functioning, legitimate UNSC if it wants a more peaceful world. As Alex de Waal has argued, we tend to undersell 20th century multilateralism’s astonishing achievements because we understandably fixate on its real shortcomings. Even with its fundamentally unfair structure, the UNSC has overseen a remarkably successful peacemaking and peacekeeping apparatus across the world. The revolutionary reporting systems it supports for human rights violations and crimes against civilians subject governments to historically unprecedented levels of international scrutiny.
Where none of the P5’s primary interests are engaged, it has facilitated conflict resolution and humanitarian relief. And, critically, it remains a place where peaceful dispute resolution and civilian protection are central to the conduct of international peace and security. A world without a UNSC that other states view as legitimate—a world where the UNSC is seen as a mere tool for great power interests—is one where those states have fewer incentives to bring their problems of peace and security to the Chamber, and one where both its machinery of peace and these norms of peaceful conflict resolution fade ever further away from the daily conduct of international politics, with real consequences for the lives and dignity of the most vulnerable people in the world.
There is still space for the U.S. to bolster the UNSC’s legitimacy instead of threatening it. At the end of December, the UNSC spent a week negotiating the text of a resolution to get more aid into Gaza with the specific aim of avoiding a U.S. veto. Although the resulting watered-down text did more to establish a floor for humanitarian action than to guarantee more aid would flow into Gaza, the process revealed both that the U.S.did not want to veto a humanitarian aid resolution and that members of the UNSC wanted to find space for them to sign on to a resolution. It also revealed real fracture lines between the U.S. Mission to the UN and the White House, with the U.S.Mission to the UN negotiating directly with both Washington and other UN member states to find mutually acceptable language that would allow the resolution to pass.
If the Biden Administration wants its plans for UN modernization to take root, it has to give the U.S.delegation to the UN full freedom to make the shifts in daily diplomatic practice that underwrite meaningful multilateralism. This means more efforts like December’s effort to find common ground in resolutions that establish a floor from which other efforts at humanitarian relief can proceed, and it means taking the threat of the veto off the table, allowing other states to lead on Gaza, even at the Security Council, and facilitating the Secretariat’s humanitarian efforts without placing U.S.interests at the center of any debate on civilians in Gaza.
While these moves are politically loaded, they are not practically complicated. The U.S. Mission to the UN already has experience in these daily diplomatic practices, having previously deployed them to facilitate multilateral humanitarian assistance in Syria despite Russian obstructionism. Without making sweeping political statements or speeches, the U.S.Mission to the UN can give the UNSC’s elected members lead roles in managing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and can divide the humanitarian and political portfolios on Gaza to enable humanitarian relief. The elected members of the UNSC already have substantial experience with this kind of work, developed across nearly a decade of trying to facilitate relief in Syria despite Russian obstructionism. It would require little from the Biden administration to allow these efforts aside from the political will to help save Gazan civilians.
Anjali Dayal is an associate professor of international politics at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. She is the author of Incredible Commitments: How UN Peacekeeping Failures Shape Peace Processes (Cambridge University Press, 2021). She can be found online at @anjalikdayal on twitter and @anjalikdayal.bsky.social on bluesky.