Bill Richardson has succeeded Madeleine Albright as United States ambassador to the United Nations, and one of his tasks for this political season is to keep the Security Council in fighting trim.
The momentum for UN reform in Secretary-General Kofi Annan's new reign could be deflected in ways we don't like - linking management and financial reform to unwelcome changes in political structure. Ismail Razali, the Malaysian president of the General Assembly, is pushing for a vote by next fall on the Security Council's political future. Ideas bandied in the delegates' coffee lounge are to expand the Council by two-thirds, ballooning to 24 or 25 members.
Developing countries, and some major financial donors to the UN, believe that the Council is unrepresentative, all the more since it now makes sensitive decisions on intervention in civil conflicts. The Perm Five - the US and World War II allies France, Britain, Russia, and China - have permanent seats on the 15-member Council and veto power to block decisions, and most business is still conducted behind closed doors.
But Security Council operations are more transparent than the old days - troop-donating countries enjoy regular consultations about peacekeeping operations, and upcoming Council agendas are announced in advance to the General Assembly.
Though Security Council reform has been around a long time, the US team needs to keep a watchful eye. In 1965 the Assembly successfully forced our hand, expanding the Council from 11 to 15. Redoing the UN Charter requires only a General Assembly nod to go to national capitals, and the US enjoys no veto in the Assembly.
There are evident drawbacks to unfettered Council expansion. More players complicate bargaining. Political side-payments will be needed to assemble votes for security operations - even to continue ongoing peacekeeping deployments. Witness the frolicsome Chinese, blocking the Haiti mission and caviling over military observers in Guatemala.
Autocracy's the thing back home
A "democratized" Security Council may be more reluctant to address the civil and ethnic conflicts that have roiled Africa and Asia. Many developing countries enjoy autocratic one-party regimes back home.
And then there's realism about military power. Diplomacy without force, a distinguished diplomat has quipped, resembles baseball without a bat. The UN came to grief in the former Yugoslavia by failing to quell the fighting early on. Many developing countries feel even more halting about robust use of force by the UN.
Not least, there is the problem of Israel. The UN works - with a rigidity not always advertised - through regional groups. Each regional caucus chooses its Council candidates, and the choices are routinely endorsed by the Assembly. But Israel has been refused membership in every regional group. Like a man without a country, Israel is the only state without a region and thus the only state ineligible for the Council.
In January, Mr Annan advised Council members that the "WEOG" group - West Europeans and Others - might admit Israel as a "temporary member." But the temperature has since cooled.
Another sore issue is new permanent members. The US favors permanent seats for Germany and Japan, and a total cap of 20 or 21 countries. The US hopes Germany's and Japan's increased share of peacekeeping assessments will help meet congressional budget limitations.
But the Italians blanch at the idea of a new permanent seat for Germany. (Italy is the sixth largest contributor financially.) Other Asian high-performing economies won't easily accede to Japan. And the Nonaligned Movement objects to any new permanent seats for developed countries only.
Perhaps the most thwarting issue is how to choose new regional representatives. Regional rivals like Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Chile will not yield to each other. Ditto for Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa. The Asian footrace includes India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Italy has proposed accommodating all the major players through a new aristocracy of 30 countries, to rotate among 10 new seats.
Germany has floated an eclectic "2-3-4" solution in a "non-paper paper" issued via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Germany's and Japan's new permanent seats would be supplemented by three new regional permanent seats, to be filled by Asian, African, and Latin American countries through any method preferred in each region. Four nonpermanent seats would also go to these regions and Eastern Europe.
No consensus has yet emerged, either in the General Assembly working group or in the rump "Butler Group" started by Australia's Ambassador Richard Butler. But both groups have also vowed to act this spring.
These fix-ups overlook one simple interim possibility: Keep the Council at 15 but allow countries in nonpermanent seats to be elected to consecutive terms, which is not permitted now. The competition for spots could be, in part, a financial and peacekeeping bake-off. Germany and Japan, as prime financial contributors, might well be elected for several terms.
One thing is clear: In the name of democratization, don't dull an effective working tool. The Security Council should not be diluted into a second General Assembly.
* Ruth Wedgwood is a professor of law at Yale University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.