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.
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.
"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."
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."