On October 17, Saudi Arabia was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council. The next day, Riyadh made a stunning announcement: It was declining the seat, because of the council’s longstanding “inability to perform its duties and responsibilities” due to “the manner, mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the council.” As examples of Security Council failures, the Saudis cited Syria, weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (probably a reference to both Iran and Israel), and, de rigueur, the Palestinian issue.
While these specifics are disputable, the broader diagnosis of the council’s systemic failure is not. Saudi Arabia may yet change its mind, but even if it does, its initial repudiation alone will have told the truth about the Security Council: The emperor has no clothes.
The New York Times said “the sudden about-face came across as a slap to the United Nations and the United States.” Russia professed “bewilderment,” saying that criticizing the council on Syria was “particularly strange.” Diplomats in New York said the move was “totally unexpected.” This is apparently the first time a country has actually secured a nonpermanent seat (five of these are filled by election each year for staggered two-year terms) and then declined it, a breach of precedent sure to cause migraines at Turtle Bay. (“That’s not the way things are done at the U.N.,” a British diplomat said to me in my early days as U.N. ambassador, as if I would find that compelling.)
By custom (rather than formal rule), the 10 nonpermanent council seats are allocated among geographical regions. The respective regional groups typically decide by consensus which of their members will serve, thus essentially guaranteeing candidate countries an unopposed victory in the General Assembly. The real politicking is done well before the General Assembly actually votes. In large groups, like Asia, which includes the Saudis, council seats also rotate among subgroups, and a special protocol protects Arab states (spanning both the Asia and Africa groups), ensuring they are never shut out.
So the cost to Riyadh in the short term is diplomatic and bureaucratic. The Saudis look somewhat amateurish in the timing of their announcement; had they withdrawn at any point prior to election, the effect would still have been shattering, but the self-inflicted diplomatic wound would have been smaller. By elbowing everyone else aside and then backing out once elected, Riyadh has doubtless irritated many Asia-group countries and Arab colleagues. Now, another Arab state in Asia will have to step forward and quickly assemble the necessary resources and personnel before the term begins on January 1.
But for all the diplomatic angst, Saudi Arabia’s decision also has a positive aspect in the short term. Although U.N. members strive mightily for seats on the council, almost all heave sighs of relief when their terms end. While service on the council may bring tangible benefits like increased foreign aid or even the occasional personal bribe, smaller U.N. members typically tire of the endless pressure on them to vote one way or the other. By contrast, the countries (like Germany and Japan) that feel they deserve permanent seats use their terms to burnish their credentials. Saudi Arabia would have fallen somewhere in between, but the main regrets will be those of Saudi diplomats now doomed to postings elsewhere than New York.
In reality, the influence of the 10 nonpermanent Security Council members is minor. Council decisions—good or bad, significant or meaningless—are made almost entirely by the 5 permanent members. This exclusion from real authority is what frustrates the rotating countries, which seldom can affect council decision-making, yet are lobbied mercilessly by the permanent members. While there are exceptions (Japan, for example, played a key role in 2006 when North Korea launched ballistic missiles on July 4 and subsequently tested its first nuclear weapon), they are rare.
Thus, on balance, Saudi Arabia’s decision to decline a nonpermanent seat will have little effect during 2014-15, which would have been its term. Instead, the real significance is long range: Saudi Arabia has just fired a diplomatic cruise missile into the U.N.’s engine room.
The Saudis have been entirely candid: They think the Security Council is broken. For nearly three years Riyadh has watched Moscow and Beijing stymie every effort to have the Security Council weigh in against Syria’s Assad regime, while U.S. diplomacy has been inconsistent and ineffective. Weak American policies toward Iran, moreover, combined with Russian and Chinese political cover for Tehran, have largely rendered the council a bystander to the Iranian nuclear problem. Now, with President Obama yearning for a negotiated “resolution” of Iran’s nuclear weapons threat, the Saudis have snapped.
Make no mistake: For Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, an Iranian nuclear weapon constitutes an existential threat. The dangers are as great for Riyadh as for Jerusalem, and very similar in nature: a religious conflict that has existed almost since the birth of Islam, ancient ethnic disagreements, and the continuing inability to establish stable conditions for regional peace and security. That is why, if necessary, the Saudis (and most other Gulf Arab states) would privately welcome an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The Arab governments will not say so publicly and, if Israel did attack, would likely join the international chorus of disapproval. But I for one would dearly love to see the private message that Saudi Arabia’s king would transmit to Bibi Netanyahu after a successful Israeli strike.
Saudi Arabia is essentially saying, correctly, that the Security Council, even after the Cold War, is unable to resolve crucial Middle Eastern issues. But beyond these regional issues, Riyadh has exposed the council’s larger problems—indeed, the paralysis that has crippled the U.N.’s political decision-making bodies from the outset and probably will forever. The Saudis have done us a favor with their unexpected frankness, and the Obama administration in particular would do well to remember their admonitions.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations