Global Policy Forum

Eyes on the Prize:


By David M. Malone *

Global Governance
A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations,
vol. 6, no. 1

Jan-Mar 2000

With the era of euphoria spawned by Operation Desert Storm and the sense of empowerment it lent to the UN Security Council as of 1991 pretty well dispelled, excitement at the UN centers on small, often institutional events, barely discernible to the outside world.

Although debate in the UN General Assembly rarely proves rousing, certain activities within its ambit do galvanize member states, none more so than elections to some critical non-universal UN bodies. These bodies include the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (a fount of UN micromanagement by mostly unqualified delegates) and, of course, the UN Security Council (1).

In spite of widespread complaints that the council's composition is unrepresentative and in spite of the seemingly endless maneuvering among member states on its reform, membership in the council is seen at the UN in the late 1990s as more of a prize than ever. This view owes much to the increasingly active council agenda since the end of the Cold War. It also owes much to growing awareness of the council's role, through the UN Charter's Chapter VII provisions, in authorizing the use of coercive measures internationally (whatever may be thought of the council's performance in recent years in exercising, or rather not exercising, these powers). Potential candidates for nonpermanent seats seem undiscouraged by the apparent stranglehold exerted on council business by its five permanent members. They are undiscouraged by the special relationship the Permanent Five share with the Secretariat, although it often leaves other members in the dark. And they are undiscouraged by the daunting workload imposed by the council's formal agendas. They view with relative equanimity even the need to staff the many Sanctions Committees established to monitor and decide on exemptions to sanctions instituted by the council in recent years.

On the contrary, jockeying for seats is intense. Jockeying is nowhere more intense than within the Western European and Other Group (WEOG), which comprises members of the European Union (EU), Norway, a number of small European nations (Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, San Marino), the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Its members, in an effort at preemption, are announcing their candidacies further and further in advance. For example, Canada announced its campaign for the 1999-2000 term in 1994, Greece has announced its candidacy for a term in 2005-2006, and Austria has already announced for 2009-2010. Most of the other regional groups have, by and large, managed to produce agreed slates of candidates in the past (although Asia in 1996 and Africa in 1993 proved exceptions). Whether this can last, particularly in the absence of comprehensive Security Council reform, is open to question.

My aim in this article is to examine why and how member states pursue nonpermanent seats in the council. Some findings prove counterintuitive and invite further reflection on how international standing is assessed at the UN, but I confine this essay to major factors affecting such candidacies. I refer extensively to the campaign for two WEOG seats on the Security Council for the years 1999-2000, which pitted Canada, Greece, and the Netherlands against each other and culminated in elections in New York on 8 October 1998. In particular, I draw on Canada's campaign effort (2). I also touch on the WEOG and Asian Group candidacies of 1996.


The UN Charter, pursuant to Article 24, confers on the Security Council the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The council's functions and powers are spelled out mainly in Chapter VI (Pacific Settlement of Disputes) and Chapter VII (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression) of the charter, although they are also addressed in Chapters V, VIII, and XII. Membership of the council was initially set at eleven (five permanent members (China, France, the Soviet Union, the U.K., and the United States) and six nonpermanent members theoretically elected for two-year terms, although some degree of term splitting proliferated in the 1950s). The distribution of the six nonpermanent seats among the membership was not formally set at first. Nevertheless, an understanding soon emerged among the Permanent Five to press for allocation of the seats as follows: two from Latin America, and one each from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and the Commonwealth. As decolonization took root and the UN membership grew radically in the 1950s and early 1960s, this pattern came under pressure, producing a broader Africa and Asia grouping that superseded the Middle East (3). Other changes followed. In 1963, the General Assembly expanded council membership from eleven to fifteen, of which ten were to be nonpermanent. It also stipulated distribution of the ten nonpermanent members according to the following pattern: five from Africa and Asia, one from Eastern Europe, two from Latin America and the Caribbean, and two from Western Europe and Other (4). This pattern has been followed (although occasionally contested) ever since (5).

Practice on Security Council membership within regional groups has varied considerably. WEOG largely adopted a market-driven approach, allowing its members to test their chances freely. The African Group has favored a strict rotation among its members, although this pattern has been broken occasionally (6). The Latin American and Caribbean Group has developed a pattern allowing occasional membership of Central American and Caribbean states, with more frequent membership of Latin American countries, particularly some of the larger ones (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia) (7).

Given the consensus-driven nature of UN processes, "agreed slates" are generally preferred within the organization, but when such agreement has proved elusive, the ensuing campaigns and elections provide some relief from the tedium of committee work (8). They serve as battlegrounds for international clout between the contending parties. The most powerful (economically, militarily, or in terms of population or territorial grasp) do not necessarily prevail over the weaker. This attests to the strong sympathy of the vast majority of General Assembly members (who perceive themselves as "small") for perceived underdogs and to their dislike for the projection during such campaigns of power by those who possess it. That the small contenders do not necessarily win in these circumstances demonstrates how sensitive electors can prove to be to other factors as well (9). Although the need for small countries to be included in the council is widely supported in principle, concern exists over the capacity in practice of many small countries (particularly developing ones with acutely limited resources) to shoulder the full burden of council membership. Furthermore, these countries are not seen as fitting the primary criterion for membership set out in Article 23:1 of the charter, which discusses "the contribution of member states . . . to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the [UN]" (10). The presence of such states on the council might be expected to irritate some or all of the permanent members. But the representatives of small countries are sometimes easily influenced and co-opted, and they rarely disrupt the pattern of work and decisions on which the Permanent Five are able to agree among themselves.

Nonpermanent council members cannot, under current rules, succeed themselves. Voting occurs at the level of the membership as a whole rather than within the affected regional group.

Why Bother?

With the council increasingly dominated by the Permanent Five since the end of the Cold War, why would other countries attach value to council membership? Do they nourish the belief (or illusion) that they will be successful in engaging meaningfully with the permanent members where so many others have failed? Only New Zealand and Argentina can be claimed to have made much of a sustained difference in the council during the 1990s, and they did so mainly on procedural issues (11). Other countries mattered, if at all, mostly because of the skill of their representatives in helping to craft outcomes agreeable to the Permanent Five (or to as many of its members as possible). Is council membership seen as a cost-free means of enhancing international standing and relevance?

Yemen's tenure on the council, which coincided with Iraq's annexation of Kuwait in 1990, demonstrates that taking a stand in the council can carry political (and sometimes significant economic) consequences. When Yemen (in the company only of Cuba, with China abstaining) voted against Security Council Resolution 678 of 29 November 1990, authorizing the use of "all necessary means" to ensure Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, Kuwait's political allies responded with concrete reprisals. These included the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers from several Arab countries and the termination of U.S. aid (12).

International Prestige

The dominant view at the UN is that countries aim for membership in the council to underscore their international prestige. For countries that make significant contributions to the UN's peace and security functions or have strong views in this field of UN endeavor, membership can be construed as a means to ensure that their views are taken into account when the council takes decisions on the use of their assets (in effect, a response to the threat of taxation without representation). Dutch officials view Security Council membership as a duty of international citizenship among states willing to take on exposed positions and prominent responsibilities in the peace and security fields. In their view, the credibility of The Hague rests on its willingness to stand up and be counted (13).


Member states may wish to join the council to advance a national position in a dispute before it (14). During Morocco's most recent term on the council in 1992-1993, its influential permanent representative, Ahmed Snoussi, exerted considerable leverage over the Western Sahara file. The Polisario Front was unable to counteract directly or through its ally Algeria (then not on the council).

Broader Objectives

Increasingly, a belief seems to have taken hold that broader objectives can be pursued through council membership. For example, Canada made clear during its bid in 1998 that it intended to promote "human security" writ large if elected to the council, building on its earlier success in pressing for a convention banning antipersonnel landmines (signed in December 1997) and for the statute to create an international criminal court (agreed in Rome in July 1998). The extent to which the promotion of new norms, standards, and regulatory frameworks can be pursued in the council is open to debate, although there is little doubt that the cumulative impact of council decisions during the 1990s has eroded and redefined the concept of state sovereignty (15). There is growing tolerance among council members, however, for the council president, during any given month, to champion a substantive theme for broad-ranging discussion as distinct from the council's usual crisis-response mode of interaction. So far, striking results on this front have been few. Only time will tell whether Canada or other nonpermanent council members can make substantive headway on broad themes in this forum (16).

Several of these motivations (and others) may be in play at any given time.

Key Factors

A number of factors (some obvious, others perhaps more counterintuitive) should be taken into account by countries contemplating a Security Council bid.

National Reputation and Other Elements of a Campaign Platform

Broad national reputation is a poor guide to the likely success of Security Council candidates. What group of countries seems more admirable to international observers than Scandinavia? Yet Sweden was beaten for a term in 1993 - 1994 (in a close race with New Zealand and Spain). Likewise, Australia has contributed much to international cooperation and peace since the inception of the UN in 1945. It had played a key role in critical negotiations of the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in the run-up to the 1996 elections for Security Council seats. But it too was beaten for a term (in 1997 -1998 by a now successful Sweden and by Portugal, the latter not noted for its international credentials and lumbered with a reputation as an appalling colonial power until the 1974 revolution) (17). India, a standard-bearer for the Nonaligned Group (whose membership stood at 112 of the UN's 185 member states in January 1997), was soundly thrashed by Japan, a country somewhat isolated within its own regional group and known for its distinct nervousness over participation in international activities to maintain peace (18). Thus, national reputation in and of itself does not appear to be a key determinant of success in council elections. Indeed, an excessively complacent view of their own standing within the UN may have contributed to the Indian and Australian defeats in 1996.

Convincing themes can help a campaign. The substantive attention span of many member states is not impressive. Candidates need to develop one or two themes on which they can hammer away consistently over the months (and, increasingly, years) of a campaign. Canada in 1998 stressed its close connections to most member states through shared membership in a number of non-universal organizations - the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). And it highlighted its credentials as a committed and innovative leader in UN peacekeeping (19). Canada also articulated a program for its council membership that heavily emphasized the promotion of human security and humanitarian action as opposed to the state-security perspective through which the council had traditionally viewed its work. In a fairly clear attack on the Permanent Five (the UN equivalent of running against city hall), Canada campaigned aggressively for greater council openness, transparency, and accountability (20). Another theme that proved popular was its argument that the EU had been seriously overrepresented in the council since 1994, winning all four nonpermanent WEOG memberships on top of its two permanent ones (21). (This is about as close to a negative campaigning as this generally high-minded contest witnessed.)

The Netherlands focused heavily in New York on the fifty-four members of the Small and Island States Group, which it knew would be sympathetic to its outlook, UN track record, and foreign development assistance program. Dutch strategists assumed that many of the permanent representatives of these countries would have no instructions for the vote from their capitals and could profitably be cultivated at the UN.

The Dutch, who also enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as premier peacekeepers and could boast of model international citizenship on most scores, focused principally on their generous performance in official development assistance. The Dutch transformed development assistance into the major theme of their campaign only late in the day - approximately two months before the election - for fear of overkill and because of "Calvinist bashfulness" (22). Dutch ministers believed the Netherlands should not excessively flaunt its ability to engage in charity (23). To underscore graphically their excellent record on official development assistance, they handed out laminated cards that showed figures from the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic and Community Development (OECD). The cards showed that the Netherlands devoted 0.81 percent of gross domestic product to official development assistance, behind only Denmark (0.97 percent) and Norway (0.86 percent), with Canada bringing up an inglorious rear at 0.36 percent (24). The Canadians countered somewhat lamely that, although sharp budget reductions had been required in recent years to rein in government deficits and public debt generally recognized as out of control, the much-reduced foreign aid budget would soon resume growth. Oddly enough, although the Netherlands was clearly helped by its impressive aid figures, Canada does not seem to have been penalized, ultimately, for its weak recent performance (25).

Greece prepared an impressive brochure that was circulated in New York and in capitals. The brochure drew attention to Greece's geography at the crossroads of continents and civilizations and described the country's approach to many key UN issues (peacekeeping, human rights, UN reform) while alluding subtly to its role as the cradle (and future host) of the Olympic Games (26). Greece also made much of its past difficulty in gaining access to a council seat; it had served only one previous term (in 1952 -1953), although Canada had enjoyed five terms and the Netherlands four. This argument had been highly effective for New Zealand (with only two earlier terms) in 1992, but it failed to carry the day for Greece in 1998. Indeed, late in the day, Greek UN Ambassador Christos Zacharakis admitted that it was Greece's long-standing conflicts with Turkey that had kept it off the council for so long (27).

In retrospect, these platforms, taken on their own, do not seem to have been critical to success, perhaps surprisingly in view of the Netherlands' truly admirable official development assistance record.

Nature of the Campaign

At the international level, a contested campaign for a Security Council seat is a high-stakes political gamble. Although victory will be taken for granted by the home public, a defeat can be hard to explain politically (28). The failed Indian and Australian campaigns generated little political feedback in their respective countries, in part because both had recently changed governments and could relegate the blame to predecessors. Precisely because such campaigns revolve to some degree around notions of international standing and prestige, however, defeat can be extremely unattractive. Perhaps for this reason, the leaders of the three WEOG countries competing in 1998 seem to have steered well clear of active campaigning, leaving the heavy slogging to foreign ministers and their officials. (Another view is that they may have been holding themselves in reserve in case they were required for a last-minute push for votes.)

In Canada, senior political figures involved themselves in the campaign. Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy (especially after the landmines treaty had been concluded in December 1997), Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, International Development Assistance Minister Diane Marleau, and a number of others lobbied visitors to Ottawa and pressed for votes when abroad, not least in New York. Dutch foreign minister van Mierlo kept himself aloof from the Dutch campaign, reportedly because he was not comfortable in the "demandeur" role, being more used to lobbying in good causes (29). It was only following parliamentary elections in August 1998 that his successor, Jozias van Aartsen, took more energetically to the campaign. Openly criticizing his predecessor's performance in this regard, he lobbied dozens of foreign ministers during the "ministerial weeks" of the UN General Assembly in the run-up to the election. Even more effective was the dynamic Dutch minister for development cooperation Eveline Herfkens, who visited New York immediately before the voting. Greek ministers were also extensively involved in the Athens game plan for a Security Council seat, although the prime minister was not. There was little doubt in any of the three capitals that many of the votes would be decided at the political level and that the game was both too important and too potentially treacherous to be left merely to the diplomats.

Although considerable importance was attached in each capital to a successful outcome, no evidence reveals that any of the WEOG candidates subordinated their substantive positions at the UN to their campaign goals. For example, Canada and the Netherlands sided with the United States and the U.K. during the February 1998 showdown with Iraq. Both countries sent national reinforcements to buttress U.S. and U.K. units in the Gulf, a move hardly calculated to ingratiate them with a General Assembly membership increasingly skeptical of Washington's Iraq policy. Similarly, in keeping with its long-standing policy on nuclear nonproliferation, Canada reacted sharply against Indian and Pakistani nuclear testing midyear. It knew full well that this could jeopardize the votes of these two countries (and perhaps some of their friends in the Nonaligned Movement) in the Security Council elections. A belief seems to have existed in all three capitals that an effort to grab votes through last-minute conversion to new views on substantive issues would be neither credible nor sustainable for long (30).

Strategies - Every Vote Counts

The vast majority of General Assembly members wield a vote in Security Council elections. Only those struck by Charter Article 19 (under which members owing more than two years of contributions to the organization lose their General Assembly vote) can be discounted. And even they can retrieve their votes if the Fifth Committee (sometimes on the basis of a recommendation from the Contributions Committee) decides that their failure to pay results from circumstances beyond their control (31). Some countries are more equal than others, given that certain General Assembly members can influence the vote of others, actively or passively. France, Egypt, South Africa, and New Zealand, for example, each has its own individual sphere of electoral influence (32).

Shifting Electoral Dynamics at the UN

Since Greece and Canada last ran for a council seat in 1988, the electoral map of the UN had evolved considerably. East Germany had disappeared, the Soviet Union had been succeeded by the Russian Federation, and twenty-seven more member states had joined the General Assembly - many in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (with most of these a priori more likely to favor Greece than Canada). Issues barely relevant in 1988, such as EU expansion, were critical by 1998; several countries used their votes to build up credit with potential future EU partners. Solidarity within the EU had also grown, with Greece playing heavily on this theme in EU circles when promoting its candidacy (33). A new factor in Canada's case was its membership in the OAS since January 1990, which reinforced the latent sympathy for that country among its new partners in the Western Hemisphere (34). These constantly shifting dynamics are critical in such campaigns; no past election is a perfect model for future ones (35).

Electors Wish to Be Courted

Security Council and other votes are virtually the only leverage some member states possess at the UN, and they naturally milk them for all they are worth. Significant candidate countries often come calling only when elections are in the offing. Candidates must make clear, in New York and the relevant capitals, how and why these countries matter to them beyond the vote. They employ a number of well-established approaches.

Raising their diplomatic profile

Candidates need substantive and sometimes institutional diplomatic calling cards. Canada, long a keen participant in virtually all forms of multilateral diplomacy open to it, redoubled its efforts at burnishing its multilateral credentials in the run-up to the vote. It dispatched a secretary of state to head a sizable observer delegation to the meeting of the South Pacific (SOPAC) Forum in 1997 and again in 1998. Consisting mainly of small-island states, SOPAC endorsed Canada's candidacy on the latter occasion. Canada also upgraded its attendance at nonaligned meetings throughout 1998. Its foreign minister, for the first time, attended an Organization of African Unity Summit (in Burkina Faso, June 1998). Likewise, no opportunity was lost within the UN system to remind electors of the degree of candidate involvement in UN affairs.

Working through and with friends

Most candidates have close allies of some sort. For example, Sweden in 1992 and 1996 could count on energetic support from and lobbying on its behalf by its Scandinavian partners. Canada has long participated at the UN in an electoral alliance with Australia and New Zealand (the three forming the so-called CANZ subgroup). These three countries work to ensure that their candidacies prove mutually reinforcing and do not clash. They campaign for each other, with each bringing significant client constituencies to the table. Both Australia and New Zealand proved valuable supporters for Canada in 1998. Beyond these formal supporters, Canada was able to count on active support in New York and in capitals from a variety of diplomatic allies, several of them Caribbean and Latin American partners. The Canadian Security Council candidacy was mentioned in the run-up to the elections during both the Commonwealth and Caribbean heads of government meetings, with the latter providing a blanket endorsement and the former a degree of moral support. Portugal enjoyed strong, active, and valuable support from other Portuguese-speaking countries in 1998, most significantly from Brazil, which is thought to have worked hard on its behalf in Latin America. Diplomatic reach is important. Although it suffered from the effects of significant budget cutbacks domestically, Canada was able to maintain a global network of diplomatic representation throughout the 1990s, thus concretely signaling that it considered all parts of the world to be significant. Australia, on the other hand, has traditionally pursued a more targeted approach to diplomatic representation, concentrating on countries meaningful to its national interests (predominantly, but not exclusively, as appraised through the prism of trade). This proved problematic to Canberra's campaign in 1996, particularly as compensatory steps were not taken for budgetary and other reasons. For its part, Greece was able to capitalize on its EU membership; it shared credit for the growing EU development assistance program and took advantage of the huge network of EU relationships with countries around the world. Widespread diplomatic representation is obviously helpful in executing the multiple demarches in capitals around the world until the last minute to secure and maintain support. (One motto often heard during the 1998 campaign was "Never take "Yes" for an answer", premised on the fear that electors were subject to rival blandishments until the very last moment and could change their votes in the final reel. This proved to be the case in a number of instances.)

Special envoys

Generally chosen for their personal links to the countries involved and for their prominence, special envoys travel far and wide to make a pitch, preferably to the political leadership of elector countries, on why a candidacy should be supported. It helps when these visits are not isolated events. But even where bilateral relations may be virtually nonexistent, the arrival of a convincing plenipotentiary from a distant land bearing messages of political friendship and affinity can be very effective. Canada fielded more than a dozen such envoys throughout 1998. They included the speaker of the Canadian Senate (a very senior political figure), several members of Parliament with close personal ties to the countries they visited (often connected to their ancestry), and several individuals prominent in the development assistance field (36). Canada also ensured that its special envoys visited New York both before and after their field trips so the UN representatives of the countries involved would note the pains taken in the field (37). Greece also engaged in a systematic special envoy program that seems to have worked well, although the initial plan of having a special envoy visit each capital twice was defeated by budgetary and logistical constraints. The Netherlands came late to this game, which played a more limited role in its campaign. Wherever Canadian, Greek, and Dutch special envoys traveled, they risked bumping into each other.

The New York angle is critical

Seasoned observers at the UN estimate that up to a third of the votes are cast solely by New York-based representatives, who either will not have received instructions from their capitals or will ignore them (38). Any successful candidacy focuses extensively on these votes through substantive lobbying, hospitality, and diplomatic favors. Canadian foreign minister Axworthy devoted considerable time and effort to cultivating ties with New York-based representatives and with his colleagues in capitals.

Financial and Other Resources Are Required

The 1998 WEOG campaign yielded no evidence that votes were bought or sold, although suggestions surfaced during some earlier contests that development assistance programs had been brought into play and financial favors offered to some individuals (39). Canada feared that Greece (or the Netherlands) might play on the concurrent renegotiation of the Lome Convention, binding the EU to a number of trade preferences critical to many developing countries, but its fears apparently proved baseless (40).

The costs of campaigning are significant nevertheless. Canada admitted to a figure of CDN$1.9 million (approximately U.S.$1.3 million) for the cost of its campaign, but this included incremental staff expenses in both Ottawa and New York and a redesign of the Canadian permanent mission premises at the UN to accommodate additional personnel during Canada's anticipated term (41). Australia failed to budget adequately for its campaign and, as a result of having to scrounge for campaign funds, missed a number of diplomatic opportunities. Significant entertaining - additional to the regular social whirl in New York and capitals - is now seen as a necessary adjunct to any Security Council campaign, and it does not come cheaply. Special campaign-related events varied. The Netherlands hosted a cruise around New York harbor for UN representatives. Canada invited them to a performance of Cirque du Soleil in Manhattan. The numbers of lunches, dinners, and other functions hosted privately by candidate countries are impossible to tabulate but can be assumed to have been significant. Greece bested both of its competitors by hosting two cruises in the Greek islands during the summer of 1998 for UN permanent representatives and their spouses, ostensibly to advertise preparations for the Olympic Games in Greece in 2004 (42). This high-stakes maneuver doubtless gained Greece some votes (approximately 110 of the ambassadors invited are reported to have accepted), but many perceived it as evidence of desperation and decried the ploy as unduly raising the financial stakes in such elections (43). (It also drew attention to the proclivity of New York-based ambassadors to accept free travel from countries other than their own, an avocation generally kept quiet.)

Finally, an effective vote-tracking system needs to be devised and updated. This is time-consuming and consequently expensive. It requires close coordination among a variety of players in the candidate's capital, in its diplomatic missions worldwide, and in New York. The system must be sufficiently flexible to distinguish between expressions of support that can be assumed to be fairly firm and those that, at any given time, are less meaningful.

Permanent Representatives in New York Are Key

A popular, energetic permanent representative of a candidate country in New York can make all the difference in electoral success, particularly taking into account the number of votes actually decided locally. Canada's colors were flown in New York by the experienced, dynamic, activist, and well-connected Ambassador Robert Fowler, whereas the Netherlands representative, the recently arrived Jaap Ramaker, was recognized as quietly effective across a broad spectrum of UN issues. Both Ramaker and Fowler were popular within the UN community, the latter spectacularly so - not least for his fearless attacks on the modus operandi of the Permanent Five (44). Greek Ambassador Zacharakis, personally distinguished and highly regarded in New York, and his staff were perceived as more detached from most UN issues than the Canadians and the Dutch, perhaps because of the relative size of the Greek permanent mission and Greek reliance on EU presidency and commission representation in a number of negotiations. Most of the action on the candidacy seemed to be generated by and in Athens, as viewed from New York and the capitals of other candidate countries.

Evidence of the importance of the personal standing of the New York representative of a candidate country can be found in the case of Australia's Richard Butler. A tough, hard-driving, and cerebral veteran of multilateral forums, Butler bruised a number of egos in New York in several negotiating processes in the run-up to the 1996 Security Council elections. Australia's loss in 1996 is widely chalked up to "the Butler factor", although many other factors were also clearly relevant (45). Representatives in New York who make up their own minds on their country's vote will frequently vote with their personal friendships in mind.

Lessons from Previous Campaigns Must Be Closely Scrutinized In 1996, Australia and Sweden were understood to have forged an active alliance during the campaign. Portugal seized on this as evidence that the larger, richer candidates were ganging up on it and was able to generate a considerable sympathy vote as a result. Subsequently, Canada and the Netherlands, although very close partners in most foreign policy fields, avoided any hint of collusion in 1998. Canada learned much from both New Zealand's successful campaign in 1992 and Australia's failed effort of 1996, not least about the dogged persistence of New Zealand and its appealing determination to make clear that all votes mattered keenly. A lesson doubtless drawn by a variety of Asian observers of the 1996 elections is that it does not pay to take on Fort Knox, as New Delhi clearly established.

How Much International Profile Is Too Much?

The reach of some countries notoriously exceeds their grasp in terms of international candidacies. Canada has generally done very well in the sweepstakes for international profile. Its citizens have achieved international office at regular intervals. (For example, current OECD Secretary-General Don Johnston is a Canadian.) Canadians have frequently been offered senior UN positions. The appointment of Louise Fréchette as the UN's first deputy secretary-general in early 1998 led some UN observers to wonder whether Canada was not being greedy in persisting as well with its Security Council bid. Ottawa responded that it had never sought Fréchette's slot, which was entirely within the UN secretary-general's personal purview, and had little trouble selling this line given Fréchette's widely recognized credentials and earlier close professional ties with Kofi Annan. (Indeed, Ottawa was so little involved in her appointment that it came as a major surprise to most foreign affairs officials in Canada's capital.) Potentially more troublesome was the candidature of former Canadian international trade minister Roy MacLaren for the position of director-general of the World Trade Organization, a bid the Canadian government was preparing to promote actively. Although it advanced this candidacy strongly in a few key capitals, Ottawa decided to postpone campaigning broadly for MacLaren until after the Security Council voting. Ottawa reasoned that two active, high-profile, and simultaneous Canadian campaigns risked canceling each other out. This problem arose neither for the Greeks nor for the Dutch. (The Dutch had lost out spectacularly on several recent high-level jobs, notably at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU, although they succeeded in nailing down the European Central Bank for Wim Duisenburg earlier in 1998.)

Second-Ballot Strategy

One key lesson learned from New Zealand in 1992 was the importance of a second-ballot strategy. Only countries fielding two-thirds or more of the ballots of those present and voting are immediately elected. Other countries must participate in potentially treacherous runoff votes. New Zealand, having gained the second-ballot support of a number of countries that had pledged their first ballots to Sweden, emerged from behind to win (46). Whether Sweden had worked to maintain support through all ballots or had assumed it would win straight off is not clear, but New Zealand's ability to locate a chink in its armor was decisive. Canada in 1998 faced the classic dilemma of the clear front-runner: Beyond seeking support in every ballot, could it afford to betray a lack of confidence in itself by seeking the second-ballot support of countries it knew to be committed to its opponents on the first ballot (as Greece was understandably doing in capitals and in New York)? Ultimately, Canada developed an assertive floor strategy for the day of the vote but did not need to test it.

Rotten Lying Bastards: The "Discount" Factor

Given the secret nature of balloting, considerable latitude exists for economy with the truth on voting intentions. Many states - mostly mature diplomatic actors with long experience of the UN elections game - are privately straightforward about their voting intentions (counting on reciprocal courtesy where their own candidacies are concerned). Many others - fearing to indispose often more powerful states or simply hoping to get credit for a vote they will not cast - actively mislead others on their voting intentions. This factor seems to have badly tripped up Australia in 1996. In a press conference after that vote, Richard Butler referred to "rotten lying bastards" as the explanation for Canberra's loss. The recognized master of the electoral game at the UN, Italy's Permanent Representative Paolo Fulci, has developed a formula many believe foolproof: 10 percent of those commitments received in writing and 20 percent of those conveyed orally must be discounted. Failure to factor this formula into projections can lead to disaster (47).

Trading Votes

A surprisingly brisk trade in votes occurs among member states. The swaps frequently extend beyond the UN itself, sometimes involving promises of votes in regional or other non-UN organizations against a Security Council vote. Although resisted early on by a number of countries viewing themselves as too principled for this commerce, it now involves virtually all countries. A few, notably the Permanent Five, refuse trades involving the Security Council. Any country running for the Security Council benefits greatly from the vastly enhanced pool of available trades provided by simultaneous membership in the Economic and Social Council.

Experience tends to demonstrate that all Security Council candidates play the vote trading game aggressively. Voting patterns also suggest that countries tend to respect promised trades in roughly the same proportion as they do other promises. Assurance of votes for several other bodies is often needed to pin down a Security Council vote, given the latter's importance. Predictably, some countries prove more reliable than others in vote trading over time. As well, a degree of judgment is exercised in deciding on trades: the human rights record and political regime of partner governments would be factors for some candidates in assessing whether to seek a swap. Vote trading is essential for Security Council candidates, as the margins of victory can be very narrow indeed.

The Permanent Five

The Permanent Five treat voting for nonpermanent council members quite differently from other UN electoral processes. They do not (openly) trade. They also claim never to reveal their voting intentions or record. The U.K. argues that it does so because it wants never to be in the position of having to work on the council with a country that knows London did not support its council candidacy. Nevertheless, practice is highly uneven on this score. A wink and a nod are sometimes received from a permanent member in exchange for a badly needed favor or simply in recognition of diplomatic friendship. Sometimes this takes place at a strictly personal level, sometimes more formally. In October 1998, the visiting Chinese foreign minister announced publicly in Ottawa that Beijing would support Canada's bid (48).

Suffice it to advance here that Permanent Five voting intentions are usually fairly clear to seasoned observers in the immediate run-up to a vote, if only because they can be assumed to make sense. For example, all other things being equal, was the U.K. more likely to support the Netherlands, which had consistently and in limited company backed its stand on Iraq, than Greece, which had not? As with all other aspects of the vote, an element of uncertainty is nevertheless always present, with only the individual actually casting a ballot knowing for sure what it would reveal. There is no evidence that any of the Permanent Five campaigned for or against any of the WEOG candidates in the 1998 race, although some UN players thought they detected a certain lack of U.S. enthusiasm for Greece's bid (49). In the 1996 race, some Australians complained that France might have been campaigning against Canberra's candidacy - particularly in Africa, where French influence remains strong - in response to Australia's vocal opposition to French nuclear testing in the South Pacific (50). The French, however, always denied these claims.


Although a significant element of power politics underlies the UN electoral game, I attempt to illuminate a number of other factors that can powerfully affect voting outcomes. The strongest country does not necessarily win. A considerable sympathy vote from other, often disenfranchised small countries can be courted successfully by less prominent General Assembly members, even though this contradicts the guidance set out in Article 23:1 of the UN Charter. Article 23:1 places emphasis in the first instance on the contribution of member states to the maintenance of peace and security and to the other purposes of the organization and only secondarily on equitable geographic distribution. Issues of personality, the risk of overbearing national attitudes, generous approaches to development assistance, rapacious and careless pursuit of national standing in the UN (and elsewhere), the size of campaign budgets, and the nature of the campaign platform are all relevant. No outcomes are assured. In New York, it is widely noticed that those consistently featuring the best electoral results, notably Italy, work the hardest to achieve that distinction. International prestige should almost certainly not be measured through the outcome of such contests, but to a considerable extent it is so assessed in New York. No wonder these contests attract so little comment in the broader world but rivet attention at the UN and within many other multilateral bodies. popular, energetic permanent representative of a candidate country in New York can make all the difference in electoral success, particularly taking into account the number of votes actually decided locally.

David Malone is president of the International Peace Academy. As director-general of global issues and international organizations in the Canadian Foreign Ministry from September 1997 to October 1998, he oversaw Canada's campaign for a UN Security Council seat. The views in this article in no way represent those of the Canadian government.


1. Those rare UN commissions in the economic and social fields seen as playing a valuable (or at least a notable) role, such as the Commission on Human Rights and the Commission on Sustainable Development, are subsidiary bodies of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). ECOSOC has become mostly a shell relative to the sweeping formal role and functions assigned to it under the UN Charter. Its role as the electoral forum for these commissions and other such bodies, however, helps explain its remaining importance to those wishing to shape the composition of other, more relevant bodies or merely to exert influence UN?wide through elections processes.

2. Elections in 1988 pitted Canada against Greece and Finland. Canada won on the first ballot with 127 votes, and Finland emerged to win on the third with 110 votes against 47 for Greece. This lent the 1998 race something of the air of a grudge match for Greece.

3. The early years of participation in the Security Council are brilliantly and exhaustively covered in Sidney D. Bailey and Sam Daws, The Procedure of the UN Security Council, 3d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 141B153.

4. UN General Assembly, Resolution 1991A (XVIII), eighteenth session (1963). These amendments came into effect in 1965 with ratification by more than two thirds of the UN membership, including all permanent members of the council. See General Assembly Official Records, UN Doc. A/6019 (XX), 1965, Annexes, Agenda Items 15B16, pp. 1B3.

5. Numerous groups at the UN have nothing to do with electoral matters. For example, on many substantive issues Japan negotiates alongside the WEOG countries, but most of its Asian neighbors negotiate under the Nonaligned Movement Group or Group of 77 umbrellas. In this article, I refer almost exclusively to the electoral groups.

6. In 1993, Nigeria challenged the two small African states earlier endorsed by the African Group and won election to a term in 1994B1995 along with Rwanda.

7. Since 1981 (after only its second term on the council), Mexico has not sought election. It reportedly objects to domination of the proceedings by the Permanent Five, particularly the United States.

8. Every effort is generally made within each geographic group to produce a slate of candidacies endorsed by the group. Ideally, the state then simply requires confirmation by General Assembly members. (Confirmation is not automatic, and Aagreed slates have occasionally been challenged late in the game by new candidacies.)

9. Small nation status and the so-called Avis factor (of having to try harder) worked well for New Zealand in 1992 and Portugal in 1996 but failed Greece in 1998. A variant on this theme that of southern and poor countries running against rich, generous, and consequently popular northern countries worked for Portugal in 1996 but failed for Greece in 1998.

10. Equitable geographic distribution is the other factor mentioned in Article 23 as secondarily relevant to these elections.

11. One permanent representative who left a strong personal mark on the council was Pakistan's Jamshid Marker. During his term in 1993B1994, he frequently rallied the nonaligned council members behind efforts to shore up Bosnia Herzegovina's interests, often joined by the United States. The fact that these efforts rarely succeeded in the council needs to be measured against the moral weight they carried internationally.

12. Politicians in potential candidate countries may wonder what the advantages of Security Council membership will be for them, particularly as the rites of membership are typically performed by career diplomatic staff. Politicians may fear the diplomats will get to enjoy the game while any significant costs will be borne at the political level. A degree of disengagement by several political figures from the 1998 WEOG contest may owe something to this factor.

13. Dutch official, interviewed in confidence by the author.

14. Article 27:3 of the charter stipulates that parties to a dispute shall abstain from voting on substantive proposals under Chapter VI. Practice has varied, however, with the definition of dispute sometimes hotly debated. Furthermore, members of the council, whether they abstain on a formal vote or not, are in a much better position than nonmembers to influence the outcome of council debates.

15. For a more thorough discussion of this assertion, see David Malone, The UN in the Post Cold War World, 1987-97, Security Dialogue 28, no. 4 (December 1997): 393-408.

16. Canada adopted "Civilians in War" as the theme for its presidency of the council in February 1999, which resulted in two lively, public council debates on this topic touching on such issues as the proliferation of small arms. The medium? and long?term impact of such debates is, however, hard to assess.

17. Australia's rout proved fairly spectacular. Sweden breezed through on the first ballot with 153 votes. Portugal and Australia with 112 and 91, respectively, were left to duke it out in a second ballot in which Portugal surged to 124 votes and was elected, whereas Australian support collapsed to 57. Losing to Portugal, which has consistently championed the cause of East Timor in the UN, may signal that Australia's acquiescence to Indonesia's stance on this issue won it few friends internationally, although East Timor did not figure prominently in the campaign. See Ramesh Thakur, Australia's Unsuccessful Bid for the UN Security Council, Pacific Research 9, no. 4 (November 1996): 48-49. Portugal campaigned aggressively as a small state (as had New Zealand in 1992), whereas Australia, not unnaturally, cast itself as a middle power. Australia in 1996 campaigned mostly on its (excellent) UN credentials but found this ineffective.

18. Japan breezed to a first ballot victory with 142 votes, leaving India with a mere 40. Earlier, India had fought efforts to rescue the CTBT. The treaty was ultimately approved by 158 votes in favor and 3 against (India, Bhutan, Libya) with 5 abstentions (Cuba, Lebanon, Syria, Mauritius, and Tanzania) on 10 September 1996. Some UN observers believe India's position cost it support in the Security Council race. India's rather dated brand of posturing in the Nonaligned Movement at the UN and Japan's appealing foreign aid programs were also important factors.

19. Summits of each of these organizations in late 1997 and in 1998 represented key campaign opportunities for Canada that the other WEOG candidates could not access. A November 1997 summit in Vancouver of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc could have served a similar purpose but seems not to have played much of an active role in Canada's Security Council campaign. Perhaps this was because APEC was already enmeshed in the Asian economic downturn and other problems that would lead that body into troubled waters at its 1998 summit in Kuala Lumpur.

20. For an interesting discussion of Security Council transparency as a possible campaign theme, see James Patrick Sewell, The Questionable Authority of the United Nations Security Council, Working Paper No. 7 (Toronto: Centre for International and Security Studies, York University, January 1997), p. 14.

21. New Zealand played effectively on this theme in its 1992 campaign, but Australia made little headway with it in 1996, perhaps because of New Zealand's term, concluded only at the end of 1994.

22. Dutch official, interviewed in confidence by the author.

23. Ibid.

24. Actually, Canada's aid performance had by then declined to about 0.31 percent. The Dutch card also listed impressive Dutch financial contributions to the UN and Bretton Woods financial institutions and its contributions for UN peacekeeping operations, both financially ($18 million) and in human resources (1,650 individuals including some non-UN multinational operations). This approach proved somewhat brash by genteel UN standards but was highly effective.

25. The Dutch may have been helped somewhat locally in New York by a lead article stressing recent growth in Dutch aid performance, published on 6 October 1998 in Terraviva, an information sheet published by the Inter Press Service and widely read among UN delegates. Thalif Deen, Dutch Boost Aid to Poorer Nations amid Global Decline, Terraviva.

26. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Greece, Greece's Candidature for a Non Permanent Seat on the Security Council (1999-2000), Athens, June 1998. 2. The excellent Dutch campaign brochure "Low Country, High Profile" touched on a broad range of substantive themes including Dutch involvement in promoting sustainable development, dispensing humanitarian assistance, and advancing international law and justice.

27. Paul Knox, Canada Eyes Security Council Seat, Globe and Mail (Toronto), 23 September 1998. Curiously, Greece's problems with Turkey over Cyprus were emphasized rather than played down in Greek foreign minister Theodorus Pangalos's address to the UN General Assembly on 24 September 1998.

28. There seems to have been little fuss in Australia over defeat in 1996, perhaps because a new government had recently taken over from the one that initially launched the candidacy. The new government seems less activist internationally than its predecessor. Some see the defeat for the council as either heralding or symbolizing a degree of international withdrawal by Australia since then.

29. Dutch official, interviewed in confidence by the author.

30. Confidential interviews reveal that on this point the capitals may have had firmer positions than those of some of their New York delegates (who worried constantly that this or that national stance could alienate fragile voting support). In this area, the more detached view of capitals may have been useful in counterbalancing the sometimes inevitably myopic perceptions of the New York crowd.

31. This opening led Canada to campaign actively in the Fifth Committee on 7 October 1998 (the day before the Security Council election) for an exemption for several countries. The committee exempted Guinea-Bissau and Georgia and endorsed an earlier recommendation from the Contributions Committee to exempt Tajikistan and the Comoros. This left the following countries struck by the provisions of Article 19 and thus deprived of a vote on October 8: Bosnia Herzegovina, Republic of Congo, Iraq, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia, and the former Republic of Yugoslavia. The Netherlands and Greece, under the EU umbrella, were neutral in this Fifth Committee debate.

32. France's spheres encompass former French colonies in Africa and such dependencies as Monaco. Egypt's sphere includes smaller Arab countries, which are often sensitive to its lead. South Africa's is African nations, particularly those of southern Africa. And New Zealand's encompasses the states of the South Pacific forum, often sympathetic to New Zealand views although sometimes resentful of Australia's regional big brother image.

33. That Greece clearly was not successful in securing the support of all, or perhaps even the majority of, EU states in the 1998 election suggests that there are limits to such solidarity. Some arise out of subjective considerations of good EU citizenship, others from a fear that EU bloc voting behavior at the UN could lead to insistence by other member states that the EU be assigned a single unified vote. In confidential interviews, Greek interlocutors identified Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa as their sources of greatest strength. They noted that some Eastern European countries clearly count on future Greek support for their membership in predominantly Western European institutions.

34. Shifts in the electoral chessboard at the UN underscore how dated and artificial the makeup of its current electoral groups is a subject of growing topicality. The International Peace Academy and Australia hosted a consultation in New York on 6 March 1998 to explore possible alternatives.

35. New Zealand in 1992 frankly targeted Asia and Commonwealth countries for first ballot support, knowing it could expect only second ballot support from most others. Its clearheaded and unsentimental approach allowed it to focus its effort effectively. Canada in 1998 knew it enjoyed overwhelming support in the Western Hemisphere, worked hard to consolidate the sympathy normally demonstrated by African countries (more than 50 votes) toward its candidacy, and played heavily on its rapidly expanding ties to the Asia Pacific region. It also devoted much effort, with some success, to convincing EU countries that EU bloc voting for the two EU candidates would be counterproductive in the long run. Its campaign strategy also aimed to be fairly focused. Vague attempts to court all votes equally and with indiscriminate arguments rarely seem to work.

36. For an account of Canadian special envoy Royce Frith's electoral diplomacy in the South Pacific, see Christina Spencer, "Courting Votes in Vanuatu", Ottawa Citizen, 8 August 1998, p.5.

37. Canada's focus on special envoys and the importance of diplomatic profile during a variety of international meetings drew on Portugal's impressive campaign in 1996, which led to its upset victory over Australia.

38. Dutch officials consider this estimate to be high. They believe no more than a quarter of permanent representatives act without instructions (or without reference to them).

39. This was notably the case in connection with the Asian contest of 1996, with India quietly complaining of Japanese vote buying.

40. Greece and the Netherlands did, however, play in a positive manner on the important economic links binding these developing countries to the EU.

41. Mike Trickey, Canada's UN Bid Expensive but Worth the Cost, Ottawa Citizen, 8 October 1998, p.5.

42. The funds for this expensive venture were apparently left over from the campaign for Athens to host the Olympics in 2000 (which failed) and 2004 (which succeeded). Otherwise, according to confidential interviews with Greek sources, a Security Council bid would never have been viewed in Athens as sufficiently important to command resources of this nature.

43. "Une croisií¨re pour ambassadeurs seulement", La Presse (Montreal), 14 July 1998, p. 10.

44. For an account of Fowler's highly successful campaign tactics and style, see Allan Thompson, Canada Stages Bid for Seat on Security Council, Toronto Star, 2 August 1998, p.2.

45. In Butler Denies Being Creature of Washington, Financial Times, 19 December 1998, p. 2, Michael Little johns writes: His in-your-face diplomacy . . . may have cost Australia in a race against Portugal two years ago for a key Security Council seat. (Balloting is secret and can easily be influenced by personality and friendship, regardless of government instructions.) See also Thakur, Australia's Unsuccessful Bid for the UN Security Council. He quotes French and Papua New Guinea sources in support of Butler as a factor in Australia's defeat.

46. Spain won on the first ballot with 118 votes, with Sweden scoring 109 and New Zealand 108. In the second ballot, New Zealand performed strongly with 99 votes, and Sweden dropped to 74. In the third and final ballot, New Zealand emerged victorious with 117 votes, while Sweden sagged to 55.

47. In Canada's case, the formula proved roughly accurate, with promises of support estimated at 165 and the final count yielding 131 votes. The Dutch experience was apparently similar: approximately 155 promises and 122 votes. (First ballot victory required 118 votes, so both countries made it through for a clean win) Greece believed it had secured 128 votes but received 87. (Confidential interview with Greek interlocutors for the Greek vote count.) Many of those countries thought to be less than forthcoming on their actual voting intentions used to belong to the Soviet Union, and a few Arab and African countries may also attempt to mislead. Those fibbing on voting intentions are not, however, confined to any particular region: any foreign minister and UN permanent representative can sin under this heading as the spirit moves them, and many do.

48. See "A Show of Support", Vancouver Sun, 6 October 1998.

49. Greece bruited about (and Turkey did not deny) in New York as of early 1998 that Greece and Turkey had reached an understanding not to oppose each other's candidacy. (Turkey had declared its candidacy for a seat on the council in 2001-2002.) This represented a useful development for Athens, because active Turkish opposition to Greece might have cost it some votes.

50. Thakur, Australia's Unsuccessful Bid for the UN Security Council.

More Information on SC Terminology, Pressures and Priviledges
More Information on Membership


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.