Is the UN About to Enter the Era of Chinese and Russian Dominance?
Image Credit: Flickr via JazzGuy

Is the UN About to Enter the Era of Chinese and Russian Dominance?


Although the race for the United Nations secretary-general position has all but been decided with former Portuguese Prime Minister and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres ascending to the top spot on October 6, a rising China and revisionist Russia both seek to fill powerful UN positions under Guterres’ leadership. With China rumored to seek leadership of the UN’s top peacekeeping office, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), and Russia eyeing the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), an increase in their influence over UN decision-making can be expected from 2017 onward.

Indeed, if successful, these moves would represent a significant change in the power arrangements underpinning the UN’s institutional framework. The French have controlled the DPKO since 1996, when Kofi Annan agreed to appoint a French national to head the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to secure the French vote in his bid for the position of UN Secretary-General. Humanitarian affairs, currently headed by Stephen O’Brien, has been a traditional domain of the UK, while Jeffrey Feltman is but the most recent chief of the long U.S.-controlled Department of Political Affairs. Chinese leadership of the DPKO and Russian leadership of the DPA would thus not only break this tradition, but along with it bring an end to the monopoly that Western powers have typically held over top UN posts.

However, while China’s move is not surprising, it is consequential. In recent years, the People’s Republic has stepped up its participation in UN Peacekeeping operations, overcoming its traditional reluctance to actively intervene in other states. In 2015, President Xi Jinping pledged 8,000 troops to the UN peacekeeping standby force, accounting for one fifth of total troops committed by fifty UN members, and the highest contribution of any other permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Furthermore, in a significant departure from previous peacekeeping engagements, in 2014, China, for the first, time dispatched 700 combat troops to the UN mission in South Sudan.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Yet Western diplomats and human rights advocates are concerned that China’s bid for the DPKO may spell bad news for UN peacekeeping. According to Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Chinese diplomats have recently signaled their strong desire to see the U.N.’s missions downplay human rights concerns and other progressive issues.” Fears abound that a Chinese diplomat in charge could undermine a vital aspect of the UN peacekeeping missions.

The current bureaucratic pathways at the UN are symptomatic of an international system that is in the midst of transitioning from a unipolar U.S.-led order to one that is multipolar or even multiplex, whereby rising and other powerful states can no longer rule on their own as international institutions, non-state actors, and multinational corporations interact interdependently. Today’s geopolitical realities, where the West represents merely 12 percent of the global population and is facing a steady decline in economic and military power, make it clear that international institutions representing only the Western mindset are no longer sustainable and need to become more inclusive, lest they be replaced by those who feel excluded. China has already begun to forge parallel structures of international governance designed to increase its autonomy in relation to the U.S.-dominated organizations, such as the IMF and World Bank. There already exists an expansive network of Chinese-backed parallel structures in a variety of sectors, including in infrastructure, security and technology policy and finance, the most prominent projects of which are the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the New Development Bank of the BRICS countries.

With China’s continuous inexorable rise, competition and potential accommodation with the United States and its Western allies will play out on many smaller stages, such as the UNSC. However, thinking in Western capitals, particularly in Washington, seems to remain inherently anti-Russian and anti-Chinese in nature. Indeed, Professor Anatol Lieven suggested that either a Clinton or a Trump presidency in the United States next January would merely perpetuate this reflexive hostility. While President Trump might want to try and reach strategic deals with China consisting of trade concessions in exchange for political concessions, the Washington establishment would bar this course of action.

Sadly, overly hawkish U.S. foreign policy and the attempt to avoid the inevitable – accepting China and Russia as partners on the world stage – create ample opportunity for tension and conflict in the international system, especially when these countries continue to feel compelled to erect their own institutions of international governance. As the recent Rhodes Forum, organized by the Berlin-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute pointed out earlier in October, dialogue between cultures is needed to face major global crises such as terrorism and ongoing conflict in the Middle East. China and Russia will inevitably need to be given more influence within the UN system.

A major point of contention is the UNSC, whose outdated structure has been criticized by China and other developing countries for its lack of inclusion. Furthermore, as a result of the current penholder system, China and Russia play only secondary roles in UNSC decision-making. In this system, the P3 group comprising of the U.S., UK and France, act as the leaders on all matters discussed, for it is always one of them presenting a draft, which is subsequently approved within the P3 group. Only then is the draft discussed with China and Russia, and later shared with the Council’s ten rotating members.

Because UNSC reform seems unlikely, it is only logical that China and Russia aim for greater control over other important UN departments. The bids for the DPKO and DPA may be just the beginning.

Andrew Witthoeft is a EU affairs advisor for an international consulting firm.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief