Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 03:05 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 03:05 | SYDNEY

For sale: One permanent UNSC seat


Mark Thirlwell

6 November 2009 10:19

There has been much talk about how the global financial crisis will have geopolitical as well as economic implications. One way this might play out is on display in this story in the FT, which suggests that the 'UK's cash-strapped Foreign Office is leading the charge in a looming battle over the rising cost of funding the United Nations and who should pay for it.' In their new, financially-reduced circumstances, economies like the UK and France are reportedly pushing 'for new economic powers such as Brazil and India to take on a larger burden.'

That would be the same Brazil and India that would like a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, of course, which immediately suggests the possibility of a mutually beneficial trade: the UK could sell its seat to Brazil or India. 

Such a proposal faces an immediate and obvious objection: it's not the best way to maximise the return that London could get for this potentially valuable asset. Instead, the UK should consider a competitive auction for its permanent security council seat. This proposal has several attractive features:

  • It could raise a significant amount of revenue for a UK Government that is now facing large fiscal deficits, a big increase in public debt, and a politically unpopular combination of tax hikes and public spending cuts as a result of the financial crisis.
  • It would give emerging new powers (not to mention older ones like Japan and Germany) a shot at something they have long wanted.* Moreover, by ensuring that the seat goes to the highest bidder, the UK could guarantee that its successor would be a country that really valued the position.
  • Once the bidding process was over, we could finally put a dollar value on what a UN permanent Security Council seat is actually worth to the world's nations.**

There are, of course, a range of potential objections to this suggestion. 

Some might worry that the successful bidder might be 'unsuitable' in some way. But that's largely a question of auction design: if there was a danger of a rogue state providing the winning bid, and if this was really seen as extremely undesireable, then presumably concerned countries could band together to trump its offer – which could mean even more money for the hard-up UK Government.

A second problem could arise if another government — say France — also wanted to sell its permanent seat. That could reduce the scarcity value of the offer and so the money that the UK could hope to raise. But this really argues for London moving quickly before Paris grabs the idea.

Finally, some might worry that the outright sale of the permanent seat could irrevocably damage the UK's international standing, and also tarnish the image of the Security Council. In which case, perhaps London could sacrifice some of the potential revenue and consider a two-year leasing arrangement instead.

* Presumably, there would be nothing to stop a coalition of middle powers pooling their resources and launching a joint bid. If Canberra could get a few mates together, Australia mightn't have to settle for the low-rent non-permanent seat it's currently after.

** And this would also be a more transparent process than the lobbying and back-scratching (financial and otherwise) that currently goes on to secure a successful vote for a non-permanent seat.

Photo by Flickr user David M Hepburn, used under a Creative Commons license.