WASHINGTON — The recent reports about UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's secret meetings and shakeup of senior management remind us that public interest in the UN's future has sadly been lost to personalities. The UN and its members face critical decisions that extend far beyond the current crisis of confidence. Top on the list is the proposed expansion of the Security Council to include as many as six new permanent members.
Mr. Annan's own commissioned report on the subject received hardly any serious attention when it was released a month ago. That is too bad, because it includes many worthwhile points about the future of global security. But it falls short in one critical respect - the role of regional organizations.
Ever since the governments of Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan launched a joint effort this past summer to seek permanent Security Council membership, expansion has been taken for granted. For nearly 60 years, council seats have been reserved for the victors of World War II - Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States. The four aspirants made a good case that reform is long overdue. Without doubt, all four countries are global powerhouses. Consigning them to second-class status no longer makes sense. But wouldn't more permanent members weaken an already fractious Security Council? And what about other aspirants - South Africa? Nigeria? Mexico? Where does the UN draw the line?
The best place to start would be with the UN Charter - beefing up Articles 52 and 53 to begin the process of transferring permanent membership from the hands of a privileged group of nation-states to well integrated groups of regional organizations.
The most thoroughly integrated of these is the European Union, but other organizations that might qualify include NATO, the Organization of American States, the African Union, the Asian Regional Forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
Offering a seat to one of these organizations - the EU, for example - could be made contingent on an understanding that others will be accepted when they have incorporated procedures that encourage them to act as a single unit in foreign affairs. In the case of the EU, its new constitution would permit its president or foreign minister to represent the EU or to designate representatives to the Security Council.
Leadership within the other organizations might rotate according to some formula acceptable to all. The status of each organization accepted for council membership would be permanent, but without the right of veto until such time as regional organizations completely displaced nation-states on the council.
Reorganizing the Security Council along regional lines may mean that some major powers, such as the US, would be represented in more than one organization. This should not be an obstacle but rather an incentive to veto-holding members to allow regional organizations to act for them in the council.
The process of change obviously must be evolutionary; if managed wisely and prudently the result should be a Security Council that will be more representative, more effective, and more in tune with needs on the ground. Regional organizations already bear the brunt of peacekeeping and peace enforcement (Iraq being the exception), and they probably would be the chief beneficiaries of these new arrangements. But more power-sharing between them and the Security Council is very much in the interest of global security. No longer would universalism and regionalism be opposing trends. They can and must be complementary.
Skeptics will argue that reform of this kind is premature. Most regional organizations around the world are too weak to be taken seriously. And intervention in civil conflicts is one thing; deterring large-scale aggression is another. Would regional organizations be able to confront rogue states any better than the current Security Council?
The answer is, yes. If UN member states work together to build stronger regional alliances and institutions, they will find it easier to nip regional threats in the bud. After all, they have the most at stake in keeping the peace in their own backyards. Surely they would be better organized to enforce preventive action than an arbitrary group of nation-states with disparate interests. It is often regional rivalries that make consensus impossible in the council. What better antidote to rivalry than a deliberate program of regional cooperation?
If the ultimate goal is to make the UN Security Council both more effective and more representative, the best solution is to do so in a way that balances national and global interests by mobilizing regional organizations. The alternative can only be a vicious scramble among nations for the best seats on the top deck of a sinking ship.
• James Goodby is a former member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff and is now affiliated with the Brookings Institution; Kenneth Weisbrode is a councilor of the Atlantic Council of the United States.