March 24, 2021

UN Security Council in Times of Great Power Rivalry: How Can Small States Make a Difference?

“Multilateralism is back” – this is the message of the new US administration regarding the United Nation and its Security Council, after a period of some disengagement. Great news, but what does that really mean for small states that have entered the Security Council as elected members?

“The role of small states depends very much on their ambition,” knows Sven Jürgenson, the Permanent Representative of Estonia to the United Nations. “We have decided that if it’s only for two years and it’s once in a generation, then let’s be as ambitious and active as possible.”

A discussion on the effectiveness of the UN Security Council from the perspective of small European states took place on the 24th of March. High-level experts on the topic elaborated on the following key questions:

  • How can small states promote their priorities alongside the major powers that are permanent members of UNSC? What are the experiences of Estonia, Norway and Sweden as elected members? Estonia is a non-permanent member of the UNSC in 2020-2021; Norway in 2021-2022; Sweden was there for the 2017-2018 term.
  • What are the new dynamics to be expected in the Security Council during the new administration of the US?

Sven Jürgenson, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Estonia to the United Nations, noted that there was a debate in all small states before joining the UNSC, whether it is worthwhile and what can they achieve as members of the Council. There is the perception that the five permanent members, P5 are “running the show”, while the question remains, if the people of the country understand what is being done at the UNSC. Jürgenson admitted his surprise that most of the discussions actually take place among the fifteen UNSC members as equals. He pointed out that the secret to success is to have a great legal team and supporting team back in the member state’s capital. Estonia’s priorities as a member of the UNSC are international law, rules-based world order, handling new threats such as climate and cyber security, and working methods of the Council. Estonia is the co-penholder with Norway on Afghanistan, a major topic on the UNSC agenda.

Mona Juul, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations, noted that the support from Nordic and Baltic countries has been important during the campaign as well as during membership in the UNSC. “We are really very impressed by the performance of Estonia in UNSC,” admitted Mona Juul. She pointed out that this is the first time when two Nordic-Baltic countries are members of the UNSC simultaneously. Juul agreed with Jürgenson that “from the practical point of view there is not much difference between the P5 and E10” (between the five permanent and ten elected members). Juul talked from the Norwegian delegation’s experience that “through careful and creative diplomacy it is possible to achieve consensus on most issues. Regarding the new dynamics expected in the UNSC with the new US administration, Juul noted that Biden’s approach towards multilateralism is very much welcomed, especially regarding climate change and the current pandemic, but also racial and gender-based violence.

Richard Gowan, UN Director at the International Crisis Group, started off by calling off the rumours about the Security Council being paralyzed. “The Council was paralyzed in 1959 when it passed one resolution during the entire year. Today, the council has already passed eight resolutions in three months”. Gowan found it “striking” that “despite the geopolitical differences, relations seemed to be pretty good” among representatives of member states in the UNSC. Nevertheless, he highlighted that the tensions among the P5 remain a problem, while Russia and China have grown “increasingly aggressive”, which is visible for example in the issue of the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria. “Russia and China are willing to pick fights”. Gowan expressed his concern that as the Council is working in a very constrained environment, tensions between Russia, China and Biden’s administration of the US will reinforce those constraints.

Gowan gave five suggestions for Estonia and Norway on what to focus on as members of UNSC in 2021:

  1. The European members should move forward the issue of climate change and conflict.
  2. Vaccine planning in conflict areas such as South Sudan. More work is needed on understanding how to implement vaccine cease fires both in political and medical terms.
  3. Top priority: Afghanistan. If the peace process will succeed, next challenge is to confirm the outcome and build on the peace agreement.
  4. As for Syria, Russia is trying to kill off the mechanism, currently mandated by Security Council, for getting aid to rebel held areas. It is crucial for countries like Estonia, Ireland and Norway to rally together in the Council for preserving humanitarian aid to Syria.
  5. In the case of Sudan, countries with a lot of experience in the region such as Norway, and Estonia as the chair of the Sudan sanctions committee, should focus hard to resolve the conflict and promote humanitarian assistance.

Ulrika Möller, Assistant Professor at the University of Gothenburg, introduced the results of a survey among the UNSC members conducted two years ago. The survey identified several reasons of candidateship: the wish to influence, to take responsibility, to network, to gain status, to improve diplomatic competence, and some economically oriented purposes. From the perspective of the Nordic and Baltic countries, the survey singled out three preferred reasons for candidature – to influence, to network and to gain status. According to Möller, “while all states had similar expectations towards networking, small states had generally lower expectations in gaining influence but higher expectation on gaining status during the term”.


The event took place as part of the project „Estonian-Norwegian cooperation in the United Nations and its Security Council: Defending and renewing multilateralism”, implemented by the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the ICDS and Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. The project is funded by the EEA & Norway Grants.

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