Vreeland, James Raymond, and Axel Dreher 2014. The Political Economy of the United Nations Security Council: Money and Influence (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 312 pp.

Reviewed by Clayton J. Cleveland (Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Villanova University).

Can powerful states buy legitimacy by trading money for political influence in international organizations? This question is the focus of The Political Economy of the United Nations Security Council: Money and Influence (2014) written by James Raymond Vreeland and Axel Dreher. It is an excellent book that connects money and legitimacy in the study of international politics at the United Nations. To put their book into perspective, let me start with an example. In 1990, the United States worked to build a coalition of states to oppose Iraq’s attempt to redraw the borders in the Middle East through force. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) became a crucial part of the Bush (41st) Administration’s diplomatic strategy for the Persian Gulf War (Rosegrant 1994). On November 29th of that year, the UNSC voted on a draft resolution that would provide Member States authorization “to use all necessary means” (UNSC-R 678 1990) to enforce UNSC resolutions condemning Iraqi aggression (UNSC 1990). The resolution was passed, despite the negative votes cast by the representatives from Cuba and Yemen (while China abstained). The former U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, responded to Yemen’s vote as “the most expensive no vote they have ever cast” (Baker 1995, 325). The United States subsequently pulled $70 million in aid that had been promised to Yemen (Vreeland and Dreher 2014, 15). This episode in international diplomacy shows one of the ways in which powerful states have used their financial resources to influence outcomes within international organizations.

Security Council Considers Situation in Yemen. photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

While side payments in exchange for support are expected to be a part of the politics of the UNSC (Voeten 2001), Vreeland and Dreher note that identifying the actual connection is profoundly difficult. Security Council vote trading is not visible to the public (Vreeland and Dreher 2014, 25). Vreeland and Dreher’s interviews with top level diplomats also indicate that there is no explicit quid pro quo between diplomats (Vreeland and Dreher 2014, 26). Even the case of Yemen only shows circumstantial evidence about the disposition of the United States towards a foreign government, where readers can fill in the connection. Additionally, ten out of the fifteen council members are elected for two-year terms, thus complicating detection of any systematic pattern in the delivery of foreign aid. Despite these problems, the authors present a compelling argument about how the United States (and others) have used their financial resources to influence decisions of the UNSC —in effect, using foreign aid to buy legitimacy for their foreign policies. Using statistical analysis and formal modeling, Vreeland and Dreher establish that UNSC’s elected members receive more aid when they sit on the UNSC council and show that this relationship is not spurious.

Vreeland and Dreher develop their argument by crafting a formal model and through statistical analysis. They also look at specific instances supported by evidence from interviews with high-level diplomats, including the former Secretary of State, Madeline K. Albright, and the former Ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton. The authors begin their argument by examining the logic behind the United States’ attempts to convince others to support their initiatives in the UNSC. One conceptual virtue Vreeland and Dreher employ is their focus on the UNSC Member States that are pivotal. These are the states who may be willing to support the United States’ initiatives. These states are contrasted with the members that are always expected to support the United States (e.g. Colombia) or those states inherently in opposition (e.g. Cuba), such that an offer of aid will not change their position on any given issue. In addition, most votes in the UNSC are not controversial. Therefore, the United States would only need support in rare but specific instances. The logic of the authors’ argument draws upon the methods used by the character of Don Vito Corelone in the movie The Godfather (1972) by Francis Ford Coppola. In an anticipatory move, the Don tells a father that he will do him a favor; in return, the Don may call in a favor for what he does today. The authors liken this pattern to what powerful states do within the UNSC. These states provide financial resources, either through direct bilateral aid or indirectly by supporting loans from multilateral lending institutions, as an investment to ensure that the weaker state will support the United States’ position when the time comes. This strategy is adopted in an anticipation that there may be a controversial vote in the UNSC. If the given state does not provide the expected support, it will receive a punishment, such as the one Yemen received in the earlier example. For those conversant in game theory, the authors present this logic in a formal model.

The authors then examine who gets elected to the UNSC and why. The most important chapter for their argument is the fifth one. In this Chapter, the authors focus on a systematic statistical test of the argument. They find that pivotal states do receive more financial aid during the times when they serve on the UNSC. The authors also explore the consequences of such aid. Their findings suggest different domestic outcomes for democracies and autocracies. Democracies seem to employ these resources effectively to promote economic growth, while autocracies seem to use this windfall resources to prop up their government’s rule without promoting social welfare. Vreeland and Dreher’s last chapter focuses on the prospects of reforming the UNSC and explores what these different reforms would mean for the current practice of deploying money and influence at the Council.

The weakest part of this book is in the presentation of the examples. The authors’ logic is certainly plausible and it does display internal coherence. However, with many stories about money and politics, the motive for the actions matters. To establish a connection between the action and the outcome, it is important to identify the motive that connects them. Vreeland and Dreher attempt to make the connection beyond the overarching pattern of financial disbursements and the UNSC voting patterns in their third chapter. In this case, most of their evidence would be considered as circumstantial. This kind of test that connects the actions of powerful states to the votes of the elected members of the UNSC is what Stephen van Evera (1997, 32) described as a straw in the wind test. Such tests do support their argument, yet do not disprove alternative explanations. The strongest evidence connecting vote outcomes to financial aid comes from Australian investigative journalist, John Pilger (1992, 2002b). There is, however, controversy about the research and validity of the claims made by Pilger (Cheetham 1992), including a criticism that Pilger cherry-picks his evidence to support politicized conclusions. For example, Pilger claimed that Iraq had been entrapped into attacking Kuwait in 1990 (Cheetham 1992) and he described the 9/11 terrorist attacks as crafted by American powers to be a new “Pearl Harbour [sic]” that would allow America to dominate the world’s resources (Pilger 2002a). The credibility of Vreeland and Dreher’s argument would be substantially improved if they did not rely on a lone source to establish a direct connection between money and influence in the UNSC. It is important to note that, while Pilger’s depiction of the trading of votes in the UNSC as malevolent, Vreeland and Dreher’s is not. The authors suggest that there are some advantages to having the system work this way, including the transfer of resources from powerful states to developing countries, regardless the motive. Often, situations where powerful states try to bolster support for their goals in the UNSC do not directly affect the interests of pivotal Member States. Elected members get to benefit from their vote only if they are offered a side payment.

This criticism should not overshadow the valuable contributions made in this book. Classic theorist, Niccolò Machiavelli (1999) pondered the question of whether it is better for a ruler to be feared or loved. This question indicates two different mechanisms of behavioral power: coercion and authority. Machiavelli’s depiction of the levers of power subsumed inducement as one of the means through which a ruler generates fear. Inducement is a third mechanism to wield power, which involves using resources to prompt others to act (Hurd 1999). In the study of international relations these three approaches to behavioural power closely align with realist, institutionalist, and constructivist schools of thought. This characterization of power suggests that force is mutually exclusive with authority. All too often in the study of international relations one neglects how one kind of power affects the others. This book is one of those instances where the focus of the study is not on which aspect of power is more important but on how one mechanism of power is used to generate more power in a different area. Vreeland and Dreher’s examination is thorough, thought provoking, and rigorous. It will appeal to those interested in foreign aid, international organizations, the UN Security Council and international politics more generally.


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Vreeland, James Raymond, and Axel Dreher 2014. The Political Economy of the United Nations Security Council: Money and Influence, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.