Many commentators have noted that the timing and intensity of the recent surge in anti-Japan protests in China may be due in part to Tokyo’s push for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council. At the same time, during a highly successful and very visible visit to India, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao seemed to give only tacit and tepid support for India’s parallel bid.

The international law enforcement system is centered on the U.N. Security Council, but it has signally failed to function so. It suffers from a fourfold crisis of legitimacy: performance, procedures, representation and accountability.

The Security Council was not able to stop either Saddam Hussein’s brutalities on his own people or the 2003 U.S.-led war on Iraq. It has been unable to guarantee either Israel’s security or the Palestinians’ human rights and dignity. In far too many cases, it has failed to rise to grave occasions demanding urgent action — from Srebrenica to Rwanda and Darfur. These were and are failures of international civic courage.

The failure of performance has called into question the credibility of the international organization as the guarantor of world peace and security. But if the Security Council did become more assertive, forceful and effective, its authority would be open to serious question on the other three grounds.

Its procedures are undemocratic and less than fully transparent, many recent improvements notwithstanding. While United Nations membership has grown from 51 in 1945 to 191 today, the Security Council has only grown from 11 to 15, and the number of permanent members is still the same now as then, at five. Today the Security Council neither represents the membership at large nor the regions or peoples of the world.

American revolutionaries defined tyranny as the fusion of legislative, executive and judicial powers in one authority. The separation of powers became the main safeguard of freedom for the United States. It is thus ironic that some seem to want to use the Security Council as a forum of concentrated power to control the actions of all other countries.

Because of a growing separation between lawfulness and legitimacy in the use of force — as in Bangladesh and Cambodia in the 1970s, in Kosovo in 1999 and, according to the war supporters, in Iraq most recently — Security Council reforms are critical. This does not mean that the reforms are offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. It means rather that the proposals are aimed at balancing different interests, with some gains for all as well as some concessions in a mutual give-and-take from all.

Brazil, Germany, India and Japan have been pushing hard for six additional permanent seats alongside 13 elected members in an expanded 24-strong Security Council. These four contribute twice the amount of money to the U.N. as four of the five current permanent members (excluding the U.S.) and more troops to U.N. peace operations. If they maintain their impressive unity, they might all make it. If they are seduced by tactics of divide and rule, they might all falter.

Why should the permanent five (P-5) agree to others joining them at the top table? Because if major structural changes are blocked yet again, the Security Council really will become irrelevant. That would diminish the global status and influence of the P-5. Reform or die, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said of the U.N. She is absolutely right. The question is, will Washington insist on reforms that suit it while rejecting the rest of the package?

There is no stomach for giving veto rights to anyone beyond the P-5. So we would end up with 11 permanent members (P-11) but only five veto powers. This could mean yet another twist in the legality vs. legitimacy debate. During the intense but ultimately futile negotiations over a second Security Council resolution that would have explicitly authorized war against Saddam Hussein, Washington toyed with the idea of claiming legitimacy if it could get nine affirmative votes (and Japan at least publicly voiced support for such an interpretation), even if the resolution failed due to one or more vetoes.

The equation, and the politics, of legality vs. legitimacy is bound to be profoundly affected if there are six more permanent but veto-less members. For the very fact of permanence will enhance their stature and give them continuity, experience, expertise and institutional memory.

If China and Russia were the only two negative votes in a Kosovo- or Darfur-type crisis, and a coalition of the willing went into military action after such an abortive resolution in the Security Council, then the coalition could still claim international legitimacy and would be conceded that by the international community.

Given that nothing can be done against U.S. vital interests regardless of what the U.N. votes, in effect the new system would dilute the veto for everyone else without downgrading U.S. dominance. But because it would dilute the veto of the other permanent four, it should be attractive to many other countries.

The others would also gain from having Brazil, Germany, India and Japan (G4) plus two of Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa as permanent members. All continents would be represented, and the developing countries would have significantly improved representation and say in decision-making at the top table. Their interests would be far better protected with the full range of continents and constituencies among the P-11.

Other countries would have better chances of winning 13 elected seats, since the regional heavyweights would not be competing for them. And despite adding Germany, the European proportion would go down from 2:5 to 3:11 permanent members.

The G4 are likely to table a resolution in June supporting six additional permanent seats without specifying whom. If this is accepted, the next stage will be for the Africans to decide on their top two candidates in July. The third stage will be a clean slate of six top candidates for approval by the General Assembly.

Politics favors the rejectionists. A Charter amendments requires 128 affirmative votes (two-thirds of the total membership). Just 64 opposed or even abstaining will kill the effort.

The final stage requires agreement of the P-5. While Washington has voiced support so far for Japan, China has grave reservations regarding Japan.

If reforms fail, the P-5 might feel happy and regional rivals will be elated, but the key regional powers will start pulling back from the U.N. system with likely lasting damage to the cause of U.N.-centered international cooperation.

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