LOS ANGELES — Reform of the United Nations — that terribly tarnished crown jewel of post-World War II global order — is, as everyone agrees, urgently needed. For all its imperfections, it is the best world political organization we have.
After the war, it soon morphed into the one institution that the world would turn to in a crisis. Without the U.N., we might have to invent some institution like it. Indeed, if the U.N. is unreformed, it may well crumble underneath its own antiquated weight — and then something like a new geopolitical wheel would have to be started up from scratch. Time, money and lives would be lost.
Key to any real reform, for sure, is the long-overdue restructuring of the Security Council — the U.N.’s political body. Its shape today reflects merely the global power grid after World War II. The two conspicuous losers then were Germany and Japan. Defenestrated, they were marginalized and left without permanent U.N. council status thereafter.
Under one proposal under consideration, the refurbished and modernized Germany and Japan (respectively, the third- and second-largest economies in the world) would be merged into the current core of permanent council members: China, the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia. The argument for restructuring is plain enough. It is the simple acceptance of contemporary reality in an organization that often seems too distant from reality.
A main argument against the integration of Japan — to focus on that one issue — into the council core seems more emotional than analytic, and in effect goes like this: Having committed atrocities of the unimaginable kind more than a half century ago, the newer generations of Japanese should be denied what makes eminent sense today because of what made no sense back then: Japanese savagery against its Asian neighbors.
On the continent of Asia, the campaign against Japan appears to be led by the Koreans, both North and South (with potential opposition from China lurking ominously in the background).
The North’s objection can be ignored because Pyongyang’s views about U.N. reform do not merit notice until that government reforms its own internal tragic-comic act. But the objection from the South is very serious, precisely because its achievements — economic, educational, and technological — merit such great respect.
The South’s complaint: Despite Japanese achievements, its leaders, in thought and action, have failed to express sufficient contrition for their atrocities; their educational and media systems pay inadequate factual respect to the gruesome details of the misdeeds of the past; and their territorial yearnings (regarding disputed islands with neighbors, particularly China and South Korea) show they haven’t learned their lesson.
Worse yet, similar sentiments appear to be sweeping China, the pivotal player, which possesses a veto option on the Security Council and so could upend any reform simply by exercising that veto.
In reality, the arguments against Japan are misconceived. Permanent council membership for a defeated power should not be viewed as a reward for that country, but as a necessity for the U.N. organization. Inclusion passes no judgment on the issues of the past, but is aimed at rejuvenating the organization so that it can better deal with the issues of the future. The U.N. loses without Japan fully engaged.
Moreover, denying Tokyo permanent council status would hurt Asia at least as much as it would hurt Japan. Asia is a far less cohesive region politically than Europe (with its not-half-bad European Union). Boosting Japan to the top council tier would increase the region’s clout in the U.N. Whatever their differences, Asian nations have many problems in common — from currency stability to regional epidemics to nuclear proliferation. This is why Japan’s Security Council seat is not South Korea’s, or China’s loss, but Asia’s gain.
Beijing should weigh very carefully the cost of vetoing the application of Japan, with which its international trade is now huge. For more than a decade, China’s leadership has wisely prioritized economic development, with impressive results, in large part by never allowing its eye to be diverted frivolously from the prize: “to get rich is glorious,” to coin a phrase.
What’s more, China needs to ponder whether history demonstrates that trying to shun or isolate the Japanese ever pays off. In fact, it does not: History shows that, when cornered, the Japanese do not roll up and die; they come out fighting. Thus, a Japan thoroughly engaged in global institutions and politics is a healthier, more productive, more predictable player and better Asian neighbor.
Indeed, if the Security Council chooses to exclude Japan, Japan might someday morph into exactly what its worse critics say it was — who knows? Thus, Beijing will not only be shooting itself in the foot but possibly creating new risks for its neighbors as well.
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