Last week, the United Nations General Assembly opened its 52nd annual session with the issue of Security Council reform on the minds of many diplomats.
The United States caused a stir over the summer when the State Department announced its support for expanding the permanent membership of the Security Council by five countries, including seats for Japan, Germany, and three developing countries. This announcement was a cause for concern for some countries, such as Italy, which were left out of the restructuring formula.
Italy, which has the world's fifth-largest economy and ranks fifth in overall contributions to the UN, has participated in several multinational peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations in recent decades, including Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Mozambique, and Bosnia. Earlier this year, Italy led a multinational protection force in Albania following weeks of chaos in that country.
In response to the State Department's announcement, the Italian Foreign Ministry issued a statement suggesting the US proposal "privileged certain countries to the damage of Italy."
US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson was unable to calm Italy's anger during a summer trip to Rome, and he later said the matter "should not become a litmus test of our enormous friendship" with Italy.
But Italy is only one of several countries that view the issue as one of national prestige and have been mentioned as possible candidates for permanent seats. Besides Germany, Japan, and Italy, other candidates include India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa.
One of the most challenging problems facing the UN is choosing just five countries from the list of potential candidates. There is little consensus as to which of these countries and others ought to be added to an expanded Security Council.
For example, India is the world's second most populous country, but it faces serious opposition from its adversary, Pakistan, which has the potential support of other Islamic countries. India also suffers from the perception that while it is a major regional power in South Asia and a frequent contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, it hasn't proven itself a global military, economic, or political power.
While Germany and Japan have proven to be major economic powers, they've contributed less to international peace and security expected of a permanent member of the Security Council, although both countries have begun to participate in more peacekeeping operations in recent years.
None of the other candidates have anywhere close to the level of economic, military, or political capabilities that would make them a sure bet for a permanent seat.
Beyond the lack of consensus on which countries to add to the Security Council, there is some question as to whether any additional permanent members of the Security Council should be given the veto power now wielded by the US, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain.
Would an expansion in the veto power limit the ability of the council to reach consensus on security-related matters? Since the end of the cold war, the Security Council has functioned reasonably well. The five current permanent members have cooperated on most major security issues. Although they rarely did so during the cold war, Russia and China have begun to participate in some UN peacekeeping operations, and Russia agreed last year to participate in the NATO-led mission in Bosnia.
The UN working group is expected to make a formal recommendation regarding Security Council expansion this session. Given the controversies linked to the issue, expansion of membership on the Security Council might best be achieved by this formula:
* Permanent membership with veto power for the US, Russia, China, France, Great Britain.
* Semipermanent membership without veto power - five rotating seats for two-year terms from among Japan, Germany, Italy, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, and Ukraine.
* Nonpermanent membership without veto power - 10 rotating seats for two year-terms from the rest of the members.
Absent considerable international consensus, there is little chance of meaningful change in the current structure of the Security Council. We would argue that this issue needs to be settled at least in the short term, so that the UN can begin to deal with the many problems facing the international community in the next century.
* Timothy J. Penny, a former congressman from Minnesota, is a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Mark J. Mullenbach is a doctoral student of international relations at the University of Arizona.