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.
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"You see things in the council today you didn't see in the cold-war era: A great deal of flexibility, none of the old permanent alliances, the number of vetoes is way down, and the number of resolutions is way up," says Edward Luck, senior vice president of the International Peace Institute in New York with long experience at the UN. "These days the Russians and the Americans can be at loggerheads in the morning and on the same side of an issue in the afternoon, and I don't see either side wanting to lose that."Skip to next paragraph
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Although the council has not been able to end the crisis, it has approved a peacekeeping force and stepped up pressures on the Sudanese regime despite misgivings from China, the regime's chief international benefactor. Many observers believe China went along with stronger measures than it would have preferred as it weighed its broader international interests.
Yet even experts who doubt a new cold–war-style era is brewing on the council say something is afoot – that both Russia and China are maneuvering to encourage the emergence of a council less dominated by the US.
"There is a pervasive feeling among much of the UN community that there is a need to check the American unilateralism and the idea of a Pax Americana that especially typified the first years of the Bush administration," says Mr. Luck.
"The Russians are trying to reclaim the past glories of Soviet power," Luck says, "while the Chinese are seeking to carve out a role and recognition they feel their population and economic weight merits."
The next big test for the Security Council is likely to be Iran.
The so-called "P-5+1" group of countries that have been trying to dissuade Iran from its path of uranium enrichment – the Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany – agreed over the summer to consider another round of sanctions against Iran. That came after Iran once again rebuffed the group's offer of incentives (including from the US) in exchange for halting uranium enrichment.
But that was before the Russia-Georgia conflict in August, which has only aggravated the council's simmering divisions and may have deepened Russian reluctance to cooperate on the Iran issue.
Publicly, US officials are hopeful the council will be able to compartmentalize issues so that crucial topics can continue to be addressed.
But privately both US and European officials say they are unsure that the council will take up Iran this month as once anticipated – or that another resolution on Iran will move forward in the waning months of the Bush administration.
Still, some officials are counting on Russia's interest in an effective Security Council to keep it from blocking all action. As one senior European official in Washington says, "The Russians are very practical. They'll look at each situation and act in their interests. [And concerning Iran] I don't think they are very happy about the prospects of nuclear weapons on their southern border."