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There’s a reason that America and Russia are slinging mud at each other at the Security Council

No other international forum commands the same level of attention.

- February 6, 2022

The U.N. Security Council resembled a flashback to the Cold War era last week as U.N. representatives exchanged heated words on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The United States had requested the meeting in response to Russia’s mobilization of military forces on Ukraine’s border.

The Security Council meeting quickly became another platform for U.S.-Russian acrimony and offered little promise of resolution. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned that any Russian invasion of Ukraine would have “horrific” consequences. In response, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya said the United States was “hysterical” and “provoking escalation” by falsely charging Moscow with preparing to invade Ukraine.

Such contestation with the U.N. Security Council is nothing new, our research shows, but such encounters have decreased dramatically since the end of the Cold War. According to the U.N. Charter, the Security Council is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. In the past 30 years or so, it has embraced that mandate and increased both its activity and its perceived legitimacy. The council meets nearly every day and passes more than 100 resolutions a year.

If the U.N. Security Council wants to continue to build its reputation as an effective and legitimate organization for peace, why hold a meeting where contention and failure are the likely outcomes? Our research suggests that the United States and Russia are using the Security Council as a visible platform for their domestic publics.

If Russia invades Ukraine, what happens next?

Seeking consensus at the U.N.

The legitimacy of the Security Council rests on its ability to reach consensus — and that makes it more likely to take up issues when members think they are likely to agree. We collected data for every issue appearing on the Security Council’s post-Cold War agenda, analyzing what types of issues council members discussed, how frequently they considered each issue — and whether they successfully passed binding resolutions or failed to gain enough support.

Our evidence confirms that the Security Council is more likely to take action on issues in which the preferences of the five permanent members — the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China — are closer together. In fact, the outcome of a vote on a Security Council resolution is rarely a surprise since the members (15 in total, with 10 rotating members elected by the U.N. General Assembly) discuss details of resolutions frequently in closed-door consultations before holding a public meeting to vote.

This makes the recent meeting over Ukraine especially puzzling. With Russia and China holding veto power, no resolution was ever possible. If the Security Council already knows it can’t reach agreement on an issue like Ukraine, why would members spend time discussing it? And why would they do so in a public way that highlights their inability to act?

The U.N. Security Council has become a grandstanding venue

Given the Security Council’s broad mandate, there are far more potential threats to international peace and security to discuss than there is time available for discussion. We might expect the Security Council to avoid holding meetings on topics like Ukraine, on which there is little to no possibility of agreement. No resolutions, presidential statements or meaningful diplomatic action is likely to arise from these discussions.

A majority of Ukrainians support joining NATO. Does this matter?

Our theory provides a potential clue about why these occasionally rancorous public meetings take place. While nations on the U.N. Security Council often work together to reach resolution, they balance this goal with other geopolitical and domestic interests. While each country benefits when the world sees the Security Council as effective and legitimate, at times this venue also offers members opportunities to speak to other audiences, particularly their domestic populations.

It is likely that the primary audience for the discussions of Ukraine are stakeholders beyond the Security Council chamber. Neither Russia nor the United States is offering draft resolutions for action to be taken within the framework of the council. Instead, they are both looking to build support for their proposed paths forward outside the council.

In addition to its role as an important international organization, the United Nations also provides a large stage. During the Cold War, the council, as well as the General Assembly, were frequent sites for political theater. When First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev angrily brandished his shoe during his speech at the 1960 U.N. General Assembly meeting, this was meant to be seen by his hard-line domestic audience.

What are the benefits of making disagreements visible at the United Nations? Detailing alleged villainy by the other side, for instance, might bolster support for an otherwise unknown or even unpopular foreign policy plan at home. And members can use the public debate in the Security Council to shape their competing narratives.

While Russian and U.S. diplomats have been in bilateral talks on Ukraine and engaging via NATO, no other international forum commands the same level of attention as the U.N. Security Council — as evidenced by the flurry of headlines last week.

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Is there a diplomatic solution on Ukraine?

That’s the outcome many leaders are counting on, of course, but a diplomatic solution to the current tensions over Ukraine is unlikely to be found at the U.N. Security Council. Given the vast difference of opinion on the issue — and the ability of Russia and the “Western Three” to veto any resolution — if Western nations successfully avoid a war over Ukraine, the diplomatic solution will probably come from elsewhere.

The heated speeches on Ukraine at the United Nations may affect the outcome, but they will do so by influencing public perceptions of the conflict rather than leading to a U.N. resolution. In the end, this appears to be a game of who can rally more resolute domestic and regional support while also searching for a diplomatic exit.

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Susan Hannah Allen (@lady_professor) is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi. Her research focuses on how power is employed the international system.

Amy Yuen is an associate professor at Middlebury College. Her research explores international intervention.