The U.N. Security Council’s Default Is Deadlock

In May 1954, less than a decade after the founding of the United Nations, then-Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold concluded an address to the University of California, Berkeley by asserting that the organization “was not created in order to bring us to heaven but in order to save us from hell.” His words now seem a clear-eyed description of both the world body’s raison d’être and its limitations: The U.N. cannot necessarily prevent wars, but it may be able to disincentivize their worst excesses.

The collegiate audience would have understood “hell” as referring to the horrors of World War II. Hammarskjold also spoke just one year after the end of the Korean War, the first conflict in which the U.N. took a side, supporting South Korea. The Korean armistice created the Demilitarized Zone, freeing those south of the line from the invading communists but trapping those north under a despotic regime. The decision was seen as preferable to allowing the entire Korean Peninsula to fall.

Today, the Security Council, the U.N. organ with primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, finds itself at an impasse. Council members are often unable to agree on when to make demands of member states, and when the council does make demands, they are seldom implemented. This institutional paralysis harms U.N. credibility and affects the conflicts currently dominating headlines—in Gaza and Ukraine—and those raging just offscreen, such as in Haiti and Sudan.

Some world powers, chief among them Russia, are using the deadlock on the Security Council to deflect from their own actions—distractions that can quickly reverberate around the world. Both Israel and the Palestinians have recently used the platform to hone their messaging on the war in Gaza. Palestine’s permanent observer to the U.N. has accused Israel of exaggerating some details of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, when militants killed around 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted 253 others. Israel has invited diplomats, politicians, and journalists (including this reporter) to view footage from the attack.

Nearly six months into the war, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry estimates that some 32,000 Palestinians have been killed, many of them women and children, and many more have been seriously injured. Israel says at least 134 hostages remain in Gaza, and some are presumed dead. On March 25, after months of back and forth, the Security Council adopted a resolution, drafted by the 10 elected members of the body, demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and the unconditional release of all hostages.

The United States abstained, allowing the resolution to go through—days after Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-drafted resolution also calling for a cease-fire. (A Security Council resolution requires nine votes in favor, with no vetoes from the five permanent members.) The United States used its own veto to stop three previous Gaza cease-fire resolutions. In those cases, it cited Israel’s right to self-defense, ongoing negotiations in the Middle East, or the council’s failure to condemn the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, which Washington and other capitals consider a terrorist organization.

The competing Gaza resolutions show how, in the 70 years since Hammarskjold’s speech, the body politic that makes up the U.N. has grown further apart. This polarization disturbs the heading of the organization’s moral compass. Increasingly, the needle swings according to the interest of the dominant faction during a given crisis, which has proved useful to parties seeking to reframe public perceptions—and to nudge this needle in the direction of their choosing.



From left: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield looks down as Algerian Ambassador Amar Bendjama and Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun raise their hands for a "yes" vote on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza during a Security Council meeting in New York on March 25.
From left: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield looks down as Algerian Ambassador Amar Bendjama and Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun raise their hands for a “yes” vote on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza during a Security Council meeting in New York on March 25.

From left: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield looks down as Algerian Ambassador Amar Bendjama and Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun raise their hands for a “yes” vote on a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza during a Security Council meeting in New York on March 25. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

In the clash of wills over Gaza on the Security Council, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, accused the 11 council members that voted for the recent U.S.-drafted resolution of “cover[ing] themselves in disgrace.” He then stated, without irony, that Russia understood its role as a founding member of the U.N. and recognized the “historical global responsibility we shoulder for the maintenance of international peace and security.” When both Russia and China vetoed the U.S. draft, it was a bit of déjà vu: Last October, the two powers vetoed a humanitarian-focused resolution on Gaza submitted by the United States.

Of course, the latest round of Security Council ping-pong has played out while Russia has a particular incentive to distract from its ongoing war in Ukraine. For her part, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Russia and China vetoed the U.S.-drafted resolution for two cynical reasons: first, she speculated, because they could not bring themselves to “condemn Hamas’s terrorist attacks on Oct. 7,” and second, because Russia and China simply didn’t want to vote for a draft written by the United States, because they “would rather see us fail than to see this council succeed.”

Meanwhile, Israel has continued its own lobbying. As months dragged on without the Security Council condemning the Oct. 7 attack, Israel’s U.N. envoy began calling on the U.N. secretary-general to resign and addressing Security Council meetings wearing a yellow Star of David. Two weeks before the council considered the latest cease-fire resolutions, Israel’s foreign minister came to New York—accompanied by family members of hostages—to speak to a Security Council meeting about a U.N. report detailing sexual violence on Oct. 7 and to demand that the council designate Hamas as a terrorist organization and impose sanctions.

Israel’s messaging has made some impact. Some countries have paused their financial support for UNRWA, the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees, over Israeli accusations that it employs Hamas members, including some involved in the Oct. 7 attack. The U.N. created a working group chaired by Catherine Colonna, who was until recently France’s foreign minister, to restore confidence in the agency; she is due to release a report in April with recommendations on how to strengthen its neutrality.


People carry supplies and belongings as they walk down a street piled with rubble in front of a barbed-wire topped and pock-marked wall with a sign for UNRWA on it.
People carry supplies and belongings as they walk down a street piled with rubble in front of a barbed-wire topped and pock-marked wall with a sign for UNRWA on it.

People walk past the damaged Gaza City headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees on Feb. 15.AFP via Getty Images

Until recently, the fiercest tug of war on the Security Council was over Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Kyiv has now shifted its diplomatic strategy away from the U.N., two years after Moscow’s veto power blocked the Security Council from condemning the invasion. In February 2022 and 2023, the 193-member General Assembly twice voted overwhelmingly to demand Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine—votes that are nonbinding but are widely seen as reflecting global opinion. However, by the time of the second anniversary of the invasion, the mood had darkened.

The General Assembly did not hold another symbolic vote, but if it had, diplomats say some Middle Eastern countries that once supported Ukraine may have abstained because Kyiv abstained on resolutions calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

When Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba emerged from the session marking the second anniversary in February, asked what he expected from the U.N. General Assembly, he told reporters, “My main audience today was our fellow colleagues from Asia, from Africa, from Latin America.” His priority was to explain Ukraine’s peace formula and the peace summit the country was planning with Switzerland, he said: “We want them to understand this initiative. We want them to understand that Ukraine wants peace more than anyone else.”

Kuleba’s answer was telling. He has clearly grasped the need to shore up Ukraine’s support in the global south, where Russia has made headway, and Kyiv is venturing further afield of the Security Council. At the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, last year, G-7 leaders declared their intention to work on a series of bilateral security arrangements with Ukraine. Today, more than 30 countries are in bilateral negotiations to help shore up Ukraine’s defenses.

And when it comes to pursuing peace, the center of gravity has also shifted away from the U.N. headquarters in New York—to Switzerland for Ukrainians and to Qatar or Egypt for Palestinians. “I think that everyone quietly understands that the political deals necessary to end the Hamas-Israel war and the Russia-Ukraine war will not come out of the U.N.,” said Richard Gowan, the International Crisis Group’s U.N. director. “Instead, the U.N. is a platform for governments to vent and cast symbolic votes. It’s a venue for public messaging in these cases, not real diplomacy.”



Two men wearing suits and ties stand in between flags of the United Nations on flag stands. The logo of the U.N. is seen on the wall behind them.
Two men wearing suits and ties stand in between flags of the United Nations on flag stands. The logo of the U.N. is seen on the wall behind them.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) greets U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres before a meeting at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Jan. 23. Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov turned up in New York for a series of meetings on Gaza in January, a week after the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—where Russian officials and oligarchs have not been welcome for two years. An old hand at the U.N., Lavrov swept through the U.N. headquarters as if it were his own Davos. He convened a side meeting of envoys of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and held bilateral meetings with the Palestinian permanent observer to the U.N. and with foreign ministers from a swath of Middle Eastern countries, including NATO member Turkey, current Security Council member Algeria, and Iran, which financially backs Hamas.

At the time, Russia’s hard-fought battle to capture Avdiivka, a city in eastern Ukraine, was reaching its climax—and Moscow was arguing vociferously in the Security Council for a cease-fire in Gaza. This strategy has distracted from some of Russia’s other actions, including making North Korea a key supplier for ammunition, artillery, and missiles in violation of Security Council resolutions. Last week, Russia used its veto power to shield North Korea from a long-running U.N. monitoring program to enforce these sanctions after April. (China abstained, and the 13 other council members voted in favor.)

In February, South Korea and Japan, two current Security Council members, both expressed concern that Russian weapons transfers could end up aiding North Korea’s ballistic missile or nuclear weapons program—another global security threat.

There are benefits to dialogue between adversaries at the U.N. The closed-door meetings of the Security Council, where resolutions are hashed out in advance of a public meeting, provide rare opportunities for U.S. and Russian diplomats to interact. “I heard Americans saying that they appreciate talking to Russians at the closed meetings, even if they fight, but that’s the only place where they can actually interact with the Russians,” a diplomat recently said, speaking anonymously under diplomatic rules.


Soldiers in camouflage uniforms and blue berets stand with their hands behind them in an airplane hangar.
Soldiers in camouflage uniforms and blue berets stand with their hands behind them in an airplane hangar.

German soldiers stand in line after leaving a transport plane on return to Wunstorf, Germany, from Mali on Dec. 15, 2023, following the termination of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the African country.Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

But when the Security Council approves resolutions, there can be little to show for it on the ground. Last October, the council authorized a peacekeeping force manned by Kenyan security personnel to grapple with the breakdown in public order in Haiti, but the deployment has been delayed amid spiraling violence. In Mali, where Russia’s Wagner Group forces have sealed a protection deal with the country’s military leaders, the junta forced out U.N. peacekeepers in December. The Security Council recently called for a Ramadan cease-fire in Sudan; three weeks into the Muslim holy month, the guns have not been silenced.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative that followed Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was one of the bright spots of U.N. diplomacy—until it wasn’t. The U.N. and Turkey brokered a deal to permit Russian and Ukrainian food and fertilizer shipments through the Black Sea. When the Kremlin withdrew from the arrangement last summer, the U.N. warned that the end of this deal might result in sharply higher global food prices and even famine in vulnerable countries.

In the end, the worst didn’t come to pass, in large part because Ukraine called Russia’s bluff that it would sink commercial vessels and kept the sea lanes open by sinking Russian military vessels in a series of sea drone and missile strikes. It wasn’t the United Nations’ moral compass that averted catastrophe—it was warfare.



Men around a table at the United Nations raise their hands. Rows behind them and several people at a central table watch the vote in a historical photo from 1955. An ornate painting hands on a wall behind them in a large chamber.
Men around a table at the United Nations raise their hands. Rows behind them and several people at a central table watch the vote in a historical photo from 1955. An ornate painting hands on a wall behind them in a large chamber.

The Security Council votes on whether South Korea should gain entry to the United Nations in 1955. All hands are raised in favor of the vote, except that of Soviet delegate A.A. Sobolev (third from right), who later vetoed the entry of South Korea.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Some analysts have unfavorably compared today’s U.N. to its predecessor, the League of Nations, which failed to prevent World War II. Others have suggested that it should be condemned to the dustbin of history. Things have changed since Hammarskjold’s 1954 speech. The Security Council’s commitment to support South Korea would not happen today; at the time, the Soviet Union was boycotting the council, and China was represented at the U.N. not by the Chinese Communist Party, which had just seized power, but by the Republic of China, the government that had fled to Taiwan.

But the challenges that the U.N. faces now are not new. The most significant change to the body in the last eight decades was the composition of the Security Council, and there have long been calls for reform to better reflect today’s world. The council expanded from 11 to 15 members in 1965, but there is no consensus on how to fairly add more. And more to the point, increasing the number of council members with veto power might enhance equity while further impairing the body’s effectiveness. Focusing on reforming procedures, including the veto power, may be more productive.

None of this accounts for the fact that the U.N. has become more polarized over the last decade because the world has too—both between countries and within them. But in the end, it would be a mistake to write off the U.N., which still ultimately aims toward Hammarskjold’s vision. The international community must hope against hope that these good intentions push the needle back in the right direction.

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