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Big players elbow on U.N. Security Council

Russia and China are looking for new influence as the council deals with knotty issues like Iran.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 18, 2008

Emergency meeting: The UN Security Council gathered last month to discuss the conflict between Russia and Georgia. The next big test for the council is likely to be Iran.

David Karp/AP


United Nations, N.Y.

As the United Nations Security Council took up Russia's invasion of Georgia last month, a heated repartee ensued between the Russian and American representatives that had longtime UN hands wondering if the bad old days of the cold war had returned.

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After an eyebrow-raising Russian veto of a Security Council resolution on Zimbabwe in July, the council's inability to reach any consensus on the Georgia crisis is reinforcing fears that a newly assertive Russia – one increasingly joined by a China that in the past was reluctant to stand in the way of consensual action – means growing paralysis for the council.

Evidence that the concerns are taking hold can be seen in recent proposals from both within and outside the Security Council countries.

There is growing resignation among some Western diplomats, for example, that the next wave of action against Iran is likely to come from like-minded Western countries – not anytime soon from additional council sanctions.

At the same time, calls are mounting in some diplomatic circles to establish a new "community of democracies" that could sidestep a paralyzed Security Council unable to take on the major global security issues of the day.

US officials and many diplomatic experts say they realize a new Russia has arrived on the international stage, one set on ushering in a multipolar world. At the same time, they recognize that China also favors a less Westcentric and US-dominated international system.

Still, this new Russia is not likely to want to take the world back to a cold-war-style world, they say. That's true if only because both Russia and China value the clout the Security Council offers, and because a functioning international diplomatic system is too useful for promoting their own interests to risk its paralysis.

"Before the Georgia crisis we disagreed on certain things and agreed on others, but overall the Council was becoming more active and was taking decisions on more issues in a wider range of areas, and that was certainly true in the years since the cold war," says one US official involved in Security Council work not authorized to comment on sensitive aspects like the council's balance of power. "We would expect Russia would understand its interests lie, like all of ours, in a council that's able to get its work done."

Some longtime observers of the Security Council's workings agree, saying the council's five permanent members – the US, Russia, China, Britain, and France – all have too much interest in keeping the council as the venue for taking up the world's security issues to risk a return to the council's cold-war-style blockages.