A critical Review of N. Schia’s “Horseshoe and Catwalk: Power, Complexity and Consensus Making in the UNSC”.  

Indispensable, the United Nations plays a major role in our daily lives, and often without us even noticing it, our daily lives depend on what the United Nations accomplishes. Since its creation in 1948, the UN through the conduct of its main organ, the Security Council, has sought relentlessly to maintain peace and security and so engaged in 75 Peacekeeping operations, many of which (like Cambodge, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, Sierra-Leon, Timor-Est) were indisputable successes . Today, there are still 100 000 field personnel from the military, police and civilians deployed around the world in 13 Peacekeeping operations.

“In international politics there exists no legitimate overarching organ with the same functions as the state within its national borders. The Security Council may be the closest we can get on the international level. (…) Through its resolutions and by taking the initiative to establish UN organizations, the Security Council may deal with issues ranging from state sovereignty to individual rights. It is a unique organization, so it is important to understand how its actors relate to the structure and rules of procedure.” Wrote Niels Nagelhus Schia in “Horseshoe and Catwalk”, his analysis of the United Nations Security Council.

In it, Schia builds on six months of anthropological fieldwork, with three being in Oslo, and the remaining half at the United Nations Headquarter in New York, joining the Norwegian Permanent Mission to the UN, who was an elected member sitting in the Security Council at the time (2002). His work is a remarkable compendium of case studies and interviews, as well as a cross-checking of both the data and narratives he obtained from a variety of diplomats and informants. Interested in the front stage/ back stage dynamics in the work relations of the delegates, Schia was granted a wide access “to people, places, documents, policies and strategies, as well as workshops, meetings and informal settings” in order to study the interconnectedness between the formal and informal processes of the UN Security Council. Not merely “tagging-along” in his words, Schia’s participation took him further by interacting with UN officials and in following the work of the Norwegian delegation regarding the UNSC; hoping that through the lens of practice he would better understand the perspectives of the UN delegates as well as obtain a “bigger picture” of the Security Council’s dynamics. More than simply summarising the actions of the Security Council, in this piece, he draws from his experience with the Norwegian delegation to develop important reflections on the dynamics inside the Security Council. As this reading fascinated me lines after lines, I felt the urge to present to you the key features of Niels Schia’s work, accompanied of course, to my own reflections and critics. The following entries from “Horseshoe and Catwalk” were selected subjectively, I fully assume this choice and my views are my own.

‘Repeat Players’ and ‘One-Shoters’ ?

I must admit, I was extremely confused when I first read these terms, and I became even more so confused when I later tried to explain them myself. The concepts of ‘Repeat Players and One-Shotters’ were created by professor of Law Marc Galanter in order to map out the inequalities and different parties within the American legal system. In it, ‘Repeat Players’ (or simply RPs) are larger units of power, more resourceful, and engaged in numerous litigations. Their interests over the outcome of any litigations are said to be lesser in comparison to the ‘One-Shotters’ (OS). The latter are smaller units of power, less resourceful, they rarely engage in litigations. In short, they are the opposite of ‘repeat players’. Drawing from this theory, Schia assimilates the idea that members of the P5 are the “RPs” of the Security Council and that the elected members would be the “OS”; and that therefore, the former would exert a domination over the decision-making process. After all, his assessment can be supported by the shared similarities we can find between the members of the council and Galanter’s Repeat Players and One-Shoters: A permanent member such as the American delegation to the Security Council, represents a powerful actor due to its status within the council in comparison to elected members like Norway. As they have been involved in numerous resolutions over time compared to an elected member sitting in the council only for a two years term mandate, the experts of a permanent delegation eventually develop an advanced expertise over the elected members which becomes determinant in the process of negotiation and consensus-making in the council. As such, Permanent and Elected members resemble to the Repeat Players and One-Shotters of Marc Galanter. Yet, if we were to allow such assimilation like Schia, it would mean permanent and elected members share the exact same characteristics as their counterparts. And according to Galanter, the nature of the relationship between RPs and OS entails that the former has lesser interests at stake over the outcome of any litigation than the latter. I found this characteristic in particular, reversed in Schia’s study of the Security Council. As he depicts how in 2002, the US delegation strongly negotiated informally with the UNSC President to be the first to obtain Iraq’s weapons declaration, and for the document to be exclusively in the hands of P5 members. When the resolution was carried out, this proposal was voted and agreed informally on the phone by all members, including Norway. In explaining Norway’s vote, I would argue that the Norwegian delegation voted in favour of giving exclusivity of the weapons declaration to the P5 only because they had no interests at stake and no real position concerning Iraq. However in this case, the American delegation, a supposedly “Repeat Player of the Security Council”, is found in this situation to have more interests at stake than anyone else in being the first to obtain the report and managing its level of accreditation. In my opinion, this inversion of characteristics shows how P5 and E10 are not similar to Galanter’s RPs and OS, the assimilation presented by Schia is therefore incomplete despite the similarities. 

Additionally, when looking closer at the theory from which Schia draws on to build his analysis, we see it was a concept to map out and explain the inequalities underlying the structure of the American legal system. A system, which supposedly sets all parties as equal in court, yet is actually an arena where power is unevenly distributed between the opposing parties. But, can it really be argued that the Security Council’s structure is similar than that of the American Legal System? With the signing of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945, the main rules of the Security Council were established, and it recognises in its core that members are not equal: Five members are made to remain, they are permanent, whereas ten others are elected for two years. In addition, the P5 hold another characteristic which deeply increases the inequality, they have a right to veto any resolutions, allowing them the exclusive right not to be bound, unlike other members, to resolutions agreed by the majority. In other words, Galanter’s theory cannot be fully applied on the UNSC, because its architecture simply isn’t the same. Despite the similarities found by Schia with Galanter’s approach, I find the Security Council remains a different entity, having no institution matching its structure, and with actors having their own particularities. 

On this point, I recalled from the words of former Ambassador of France to the United Nations and Security Council, Gérard Araud, saying “we should have no illusions on what the United Nations can do: They have been very useful in responding to conflicts but let us not forget that we made a choice of realism with this institution.  The first multilateral organization, the League of Nations saw the successive withdrawal of all great powers. (…) This is what the United Nations sought to avoid by giving the veto power to the five permanent members sitting in the security council. As of today, none of them has left the UN, but they have blocked resolutions when they considered their national interests were at stake.” Realism is at the core of the United Nations, power is indeed unevenly distributed, but it could be argued it has helped in preventing greater threats and maintaining peace.

The ‘Rule’ of the P5?

In Schia’s research, it is argued that due to their status in the Security Council as well as their formal advantages, members of the P5 are able to manifest various strategies and control the outcome of the council’s decision-making process informally. They would be able to avoid the input of the E10 and control the process without the formal use of their veto power. In other words, just like the title of Schia’s piece, the formal process occurring around the horseshoe table of the Security Council, would become a ‘catwalk’ or a parade, in which are presented resolutions already agreed behind closed doors. When looking for other views to that matter, I found that many whom observed or experienced the dynamics of the Security Council support Schia’s argument. Former Ambassador of New Zealand to the UN, Colin Keating, is one of them. Having represented New Zealand in the security council, he argued that the ‘Closet Veto’ – to hint informally, that one will veto a resolution if it is proposed in a formal Security Council meeting – can be an efficient strategy for the P5. This way, one will drastically change the resolution before it meets the chamber in order to remove what troubles the permanent member hinting a veto. But reading along Schia, one can sense that he argues that members of the E10 are being marginalised from the decision-making process. When explaining the reasons why the Norwegian delegation accepted to vote in favour of a resolution informally imposed by members of the P5, he says that the elected members had no other choices but to ‘adapt’ or  ‘go native’, since they cannot influence nor change the decision-making process controlled by the P5. However, when reading from Ambassador Keating, it is defended that this sense of marginalisation of the elected members over the decision-making can be exaggerated. As a former elected member within the Security Council in 1993 and 1994, Keating depicted an environment opposite to Schia’s, in which elected members were able to participate and express leadership concerning issues entering the chamber of the Security Council. He also argued that he personally participated and led resolutions informally, regarding crisis the council faced like North Korea. In short, his claim was that elected members are not being left out or dominated by the P5 as argued in the piece, and if it were the case, they would have the power to counter the permanent members’ control of the decision-making process. Indeed, following the article 27 of the UN Charter on the vote of the Security Council, to pass a resolution, it needs nine affirmative votes from its members, including the concurring vote of the permanent members. And so Keating presented the idea that there is a “Sixth Veto” in the Security Council challenging the previous five. It would consist of the collective no-vote of at least seven elected members, therefore preventing a resolution from obtaining the nine affirmative votes needed to pass. Surely, one must acknowledge that the P5 members could easily influence enough elected members on an informal level to obtain the needed votes and therefore avoid such situation; nonetheless, if the elected members were truly in a position of marginalisation from the permanent members like Schia depicts, the possibility of the ‘Sixth veto’ could allow them to reverse the situation of dominance from the P5. 

Moreover, reflecting on the environment depicted by Schia in 2002, where the permanent members, led by the American delegation, seemed to control the decision-making process of the Security Council both formally and informally; couldn’t this period represent nothing but a temporary phase? A part in the various dynamics evolutions the Security Council has known, and will continue to do so? As an example, during the Cold War, the elected members were facing a profound marginalisation due to the duel of ideology between the US and the USSR. Former Ambassador Araud even argued that, the Security Council then, seemed ‘constrained’ and ‘used to meet once every month with an empty agenda’. But with the end of the Cold War came what was considered a ‘Renaissance’, or a new phase, in which the dynamics of the council were felt less constrained. Keating, being Ambassador during this period, explained how his role was as relevant as any other delegation, permanent or not. It could therefore be argued that the effect of dominance shown from the American delegation over the Security Council, in the case depicted by Schia, be supported by historical circumstances encouraging such dynamics. The Presidential address by US President Bush in 2001, following the the 9/11 terrorists attack that struck the United States, could possibly serve as an antagonising element of this dynamic. By declaring ‘either you are with us or against us’, may have cemented in the minds of foreign nations and elected members of the council that standing up against the US delegation or the P5, would represent a too high political risk. Hence, this effect of dominance from the P5 over the E10 could be due to either the ‘non-action’ or the passivity of the delegations toward this change of dynamic. Nonetheless, to look at the historical process of the UNSC allows us to comprehend the evolution of the council’s dynamic and to believe that the analysis given by Schia represents another temporary turn in its history. Either way, Schia provides in his research an important depiction of the UNSC’s process in the early 2000s.

A Conclusion

In short, Schia presented an intriguing description of the UN Security Council and its dynamics. What’s more interesting is that he did so, through the lens of practice itself, by watching, listening and participating everyday with the delegations and their work. He was at the centre of the action. With this study, I believe it expends one’s view of how our diplomats work together in order to negotiate and reach agreements. This reading also shed light on the five duties of the Ambassadors, recognised by the Vienna Convention of 1961 on Diplomatic Relations: To represent, protect, negotiate, to inform itself and finally to promote and develop friendly relations between states. ‘Horseshoe and Catwalk: Power Complexity and Consensus-Making in the United Nations Security Council’ from Niels N. Schia can be found in ‘Palaces of Hope: The Anthropology of Global Organisations’ Edited by Ronald Niezen, McGill University, Montréal, and Maria Sapignoli, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology


  • Araud, G (2020) ‘A rendezvous with former Ambassador of France Gérard Araud’ interviewed by Julien Nourian for The Political, 16 March. Available at: https://thepolitical.blog/2020/03/16/a-rendezvous-with-former-ambassador-of-france-gerard-araud/
  • Galanter, M. (1974) ‘Why the « haves » Come out Ahead: Speculations on the Limits of Legal Change’. Law and Society Review. Vol 9 n°1. Pp. 95-160 : 
  • Keating, C. (2016) ‘Power Dynamics Between Permanent and Elected Members’, in Von Einsiedel, S. Malone, D & Stagno Ugarte, B «  The UN Security Council in the 21st century ». Lynne Rienner Publishers. Pp. 139 -157 .
  • Presidential address to congress on terrorism. Bush (2001) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zB145D3XJzE
  • Schia, N. N. (2017) ‘Horseshoe and Catwalk: Power, Complexity, and Consensus-Making in the United Nations Security Council’, in Niezen, R. & Sapignoli, M. (eds.) Palaces of Hope: The Anthropology of Global Organizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • UN Charter (1945) : https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/ctc/uncharter.pdf . (1) Article 27 concerning vote. (2) Article 23 concerning the members and mandate (paragraphs one and two).
  • United Nations (1961) ‘Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961’, available at: https://legal.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/conventions/9_1_1961.pdf

Published by juliennourian

Founder and President of The Political. Specialised in International Politics and European Studies.

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