By KARL F. INDERFURTH
LOS ANGELES TIMES
As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs from 1993 to 1997, I had the not-always-scintillating experience of sitting through countless meetings of what was known as the Open-Ended Working Group on Security Council Reform.
The principal preoccupation of this committee was the important but politically thorny question of how to expand the 15-member U.N. Security Council to reflect the day's global realities rather than those of 1945, when the United Nations was created. Currently, the five permanent seats on the Security Council are held by the major victors of World War II -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China (each of which has veto rights) -- while the rest of the world rotates through the 10 nonpermanent seats.
Today, the reform effort that began more than a decade ago is still under way. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said two years ago: "No U.N. issue has been studied more with less to show for the effort than Security Council enlargement." Some have suggested that the committee I served on should have been called the Never-Ending Working Group.
But recently, a small window of opportunity opened for change -- and the United States should not allow it to slip away. At stake is the Security Council's long-term legitimacy and, by extension, its effectiveness. The window opened in March, when Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a major overhaul of the United Nations to meet the threats and challenges of the 21st century. Annan made it clear that no plan would be complete without reform of the Security Council, which, he says, "lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the developing world." Others agree. The Economist put it bluntly: The council is "dominated by rich white nations."
Annan wants the council restructured so that it is more representative of the United Nations' 191 members. (There were 51 in 1945.) He has suggested two models for expanding the council from 15 to 24 members. One -- the leading contender -- creates six new permanent seats and three new nonpermanent ones; the other creates nine new nonpermanent seats. Annan wants a decision before September, when world leaders convene in New York.
Key global players
The four leading candidates for new permanent seats on the Security Council are Japan, Germany, India and Brazil. All four will be key global players in the 21st century and certainly meet U.S. criteria -- they are all strong democracies with considerable economic status and large populations, and all make sizable contributions to the United Nations.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration has put forth its own plan, one that neither opens the door to these four aspirants nor provides sufficient new representation from other regions of the world. (Annan's first plan does both and his second does the latter.)
The Bush plan downsizes Annan's proposal from 24 members to 20, calling for two new permanent members (Japan and one from the developing world) and three new nonpermanent seats. In doing so, the Bush administration has backed off long-standing U.S. support for Germany's bid. Not surprisingly, some see this as payback for that country's opposition to the Iraq war. With India and Brazil, the administration has been noncommittal, even though India is only a generation away from becoming the world's most populous nation and Latin America has no permanent representative on the current council. (Neither does Africa.)
The Bush administration says it doesn't want the Security Council to grow so large that it becomes ineffective. Indeed a 24-member council could be more argumentative and time-consuming. But the expansion proposed by Annan is a modest one given the growth in member states since the end of the Cold War. Either of Annan's two proposals would increase the membership representation in the Security Council from today's 8 percent to 13 percent.
Annan's proposal also makes a significant concession on what has been described as "the thorniest issue in a thicket of thorns": It does not offer veto power to the new permanent members. This is important because U.S. officials have complained that handing out new vetoes would paralyze the Security Council. Japan, Germany, India and Brazil recently dropped their demand for the veto.
The United Nations, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, would not have come into being without the creative and farsighted leadership of the United States. Today, another demonstration of that leadership is required if the Security Council is to be reformed to meet the challenges of the next 60 years.
X Karl F. Inderfurth, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs, is a professor at George Washington University.