UNITED NATIONS — Reform and redesign of the U.N. Security Council has long been on the diplomatic drawing boards. Few countries will argue against the necessity for that, but most balk at the specific details.
So when U.S. President Barack Obama descended upon New Delhi on an official visit earlier this month and told a joint session of Parliament that the United States supports India’s long-running aspiration to gain a permanent place at the green velvet table, hopes soared as high as the Himalayas.
With his princely entourage of political advisers, prominent businessmen and a splendiferous aircraft and limousine retinue worthy of a latter day maharaja, President Obama visited India to praise the merits of free trade, free markets and nonsectarian democracy. Included in his political basket was the golden gift of America’s support for India’s role on the Security Council, the decision-making forum for maintaining international peace and security.
It’s an oft-repeated mantra that the 15-member Security Council with its five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S.) represents the architecture of 1945 when the U.N. was founded — not the world of 2010. Membership has jumped from 51 members just after World War II to 192 today.
To say that the world has changed since the U.N.’s inception 65 years ago is hardly a revelation, yet the last time the size of the council was altered was in 1965. The world has indeed changed since Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House.
Anachronism aside, the U.N. General Assembly’s annual “debate” to discuss the “Question of Equitable Representation on an Increase in Membership in the Security Council” brought together the usual players, arguments and plans as to how to shuffle and reshuffle the diplomatic deck to get a better hand for the global community.
“The Security Council must reflect the political realities of the 21st century. Reform of the council is long overdue,” Japanese delegate Tsuneo Nishida said.
Reform proposals include raising the number of permanent members as well as nonpermanent members (now 10) who serve a two-year term. Interestingly, Brazil, Germany and India are about to take nonpermanent seats in January as Japan ends its two-year stint.
Group of Four countries Brazil, Germany, India and Japan have been lobbying for a number of years to get a permanent place at the table along with an African state. Part of the reform argument derives from the idea of regional or geographic representation.
Then there’s the undeniable bottom line of who pays the bills at the U.N. Besides the U.S., it falls mostly on the shoulders of Japan, Germany and the European Union states. Countries with the financial resources see themselves on the inside track.
India likes to make the case that it is a model developing country with a secular democracy. India equally stresses its longtime commitment to sending large numbers of troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations. Neighboring Pakistan’s and China’s opposition notwithstanding, India does command a deep reservoir of good will and support.
As Obama has specifically named India to the golden list, we should recall that previous U.S. administrations endorsed Japan and Germany for permanent places, including both Bush administrations and Bill Clinton.
Not to be outdone, Britain (Foreign Secretary William Hague) has backed Brazil. In Brazil’s case there is hardly agreement at the regional level. Predictably neighboring Argentina and Mexico oppose Brazil. The Latin American seat could go to a compromise candidate such as Chile, which would be a class act.
The African seat presents a conundrum. Oil-rich but chaotic Nigeria and stable South Africa see themselves as the rightful heir, and both are English-speaking countries. France would not stand for that, so expect a second African seat from a Francophone country, or no deal. Senegal and Morocco come to mind.
So it’s back to go. Barack Obama, despite his words in support of India’s cause, has not broken the political logjam and might have actually encouraged new aspirants while energized opposing coalitions. What has emerged is a plethora of political formulas that in the end may make the council more representative, but equally more politically unwieldy and unworkable.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues (firstname.lastname@example.org).