CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Although we live in an era of sad comparisons between the current status of the United Nations and the demise of the old League of Nations, let us hope and assume that the U.N. will survive its immense test without being relegated to “irrelevancy” and substituted by new formations of “the willing.” Without wishing to enter the fray of analyses on Iraq, I find it striking that references are being made continuously to the U.N. Security Council from all quarters without — at least to my knowledge — any mention of the body’s eventual expansion.

It would be gratifying indeed if the present turmoil, despite the frictions that exist between the Muslim world and the West, between the United States and Europe and among European Union partners, could at least lead to a reopening of discourse on the Security Council’s desirable composition.

In an imperfect world, the healthiest aspiration in the aftermath of the tragedy of World War II was to develop an undisputed center of international order. Shortcomings aside, the U.N. Security Council seems to be the best available and generally accepted guarantor of such an order. Of course, the issue of how to realign priorities and re-examine the Security Council’s composition is not new, as we have become familiar with a plethora of ideas as well as candidacies. Yet, on the eve of a possible devastating conflagration in the Middle East, it is urgent to revisit this issue.

Criticisms of the conduct of the current permanent members on the Security Council can be endless, depending on each observer’s position with regard to the crisis over Iraq. But at some point we must face more difficult questions:

Can the current format of permanent and nonpermanent members effectively address major problems such as a conflict with the Iraqi regime? Can it cope with other similar or more complex problems of the future? Does it really reflect a balance of today’s major international centers of power? Does it project convincing legitimacy in its actions? Can it effectively translate its resolutions to actions? In the final analysis, can it project the image of ultimate international authority that is binding both morally and in reality?

I believe that most people would agree that the issue of expansion deserves the highest priority. This is not to say that country A should be included and country B should be excluded. The real challenge is to tackle the absolute need for a new format that is accepted and respected. Figures for both permanent and nonpermanent members must be readjusted. Our world today is not the same as it was when the U.N. was born.

Additional and diverse streams of thought have to be incorporated. Complete and comprehensive participation is, of course, not only impossible but also meaningless. But readjustments that take a realistic account of present equations must be agreed upon and implemented.

The debate becomes more challenging if we try to get specific. Although it would be preferable to avoid naming countries, it’s impossible not to mention a couple of obvious examples. If the Security Council is to be “restructured,” a new configuration for permanent members’ would make little sense without the representative of one-sixth of humanity — India — or without the relevant voice of Japan.

The possibility, proposed by some, that the EU occupy a single permanent seat looks attractive, provided that the EU can overcome the dramatic fissures that have emerged during the current crisis and speak with one voice. (I cannot resist the temptation here to mention a separate proposal to merge the British and American seats. Such a scenario might be hilarious if the idea did not reflect so tragically on the EU’s disunity at present.)

Serious thought must also be given to the format for nonpermanent seats, for these smaller, more remote or “other” members of the U.N. have important roles to play in times of crisis. At present, CNN and BBC news broadcasts are reminding the international public of nonpermanent members’ specific opinions and expected voting patterns, something that receives little attention in times of normality.

With today’s crisis-management landscape becoming progressively more complex, the international community will soon need a restructured and respected central point of reference — an ultimate guarantor for avoiding international chaos. Failure to proceed in this way may lead to untested and problematic centrifugal mechanisms involving shifting coalitions of the willing.

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