It's time to expand the UN Security Council. But who gets a seat?

Nigeria and South Africa are potential African members. Japan and India would serve as democratic counters to China. Brazil and Mexico are potential Latin American representatives. Italy and Germany argue they deserve seats. The decision will be challenging, but it is long overdue.

During his Asian trip last November, President Obama expressed support for installing India as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the power center of the international body. It was an intelligent proposal for enlarging a critical UN institution whose membership (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France) has remained unchanged for decades. But it is not a question of adding one worthy nation. It must come as part of a major rearrangement.

This will not be easy or quick. It will require deft diplomacy from the US, which must seek support for new Security Council members favorable to its global interests. However, the US cannot be seen to be imposing its will upon a membership of more than 190 nations with diverse agendas. Africa and Latin America, unrepresented in the permanent five, will demand seats. Europe (with Britain, France, and Russia) will be declared over-represented.

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Though the five original members might agree to enlarging the permanent membership to more realistically represent today’s world, they are unlikely to extend to newcomers the rite of veto bestowed on them at the time of the UN’s creation. When all the politicking and jousting is over, enlargement of the Security Council would have to be approved unanimously by the five original members, and by two-thirds of the UN membership, let alone the US Senate.

Origins of the Security Council

The UN was born in 1945, a creation of Britain, France, the US, China, and the Soviet Union, who saw themselves as guardians of the post-World War II peace, with dominance of the new international entity. Beyond the Security Council’s five permanent, veto-bearing nations, there are 10 elected, nonpermanent members with two-year terms.

The Security Council has remained the UN’s largely controlling body, for example authorizing peacekeeping operations in dozens of countries. The secretary-general, usually chosen in rotation from various regions of the world, has some influence depending on his personality, but he is basically the Security Council’s executive officer, implementing its major decisions.

A recent Council on Foreign Relations report argues that the original members of the Security Council were chosen for their ability to guarantee world peace, not their regional representation. “The same should be true, presumably, of any additional permanent seats,” says the report written by Kara McDonald and Stewart Patrick.

Pros and cons for potential additions

President Obama’s vote for India, then, should be a reasonable choice. It is a vibrant Asian democracy and a major contributor of troops to UN peace operations. It is also an economic counterweight to China and looked to by a number of smaller nations in Southeast Asia as offering a potential military balance to China’s fast-growing naval power.

But what about another Asian power center, Japan? This is a democratic counterweight to undemocratic China, and the second-largest contributor (after the US) to the UN’s budget. But Japan has modest military forces and an aversion to military confrontation.

African diplomats raise Nigeria and South Africa as potential UNSC permanent members, but Nigeria’s democracy is fragile, despite it being a major contributor to UN peacekeeping operations. South Africa, post-Mandela, has troubling aspects of its government, and slender military forces.

In Latin America, Mexico contributes much more to the UN budget than Brazil, but Brazil is a booming would-be superpower that considers itself worthy of permanent UNSC membership. Meanwhile, Germany and Italy are substantial donors to the UN. Both argue that they have as much claim to UNSC permanent seats as Britain or France.

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The UN complex on the banks of New York’s East River is a sanctuary where problems are supposed to get solved by diplomatic discussion. Expanding the permanent membership of the Security Council will be a challenge. But it is overdue.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served in 1995 as assistant secretary-general of the UN and as its director of communications.

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