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UN Security Council reform: Brazil, Germany, India and Japan seek permanent status

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Reform and redesign of the UN Security Council has long been on the diplomatic drawing boards.  Few countries will argue its wisdom or necessity, but most will balk at the specific details.  So when Barack Obama descended upon New Delhi in a official visit and told a joint session of Parliament that the USA supported India’s long- running aspiration to gain a permanent place at the green velvet table of decision, hopes soared as high as the Himalayas.

With his princely entourage of political advisors, prominent businessmen and a splendiferous aircraft and limousine retinue worthy of a latter day Maharaja, (reportedly costing taxpayers $200 million a day to field),  President Obama visited India to praise the merits of free trade, free markets, and non-sectarian democracy. But in his political basket he bore 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 a oft-repeated mantra that the fifteen member Security Council with its five  permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the USA), represents the architecture of 1945 and the UN’s founding, not 2010 and where the world is today.  Membership alone jumped from 51 original members just after WWII to 192 today.

To say that the world has changed since the UN’s inception 65 years ago is hardly an revelation and only made more implausible by noting that the last time the size of the Council was altered were in 1965, nearly a half century ago.  

The world has indeed changed since LBJ was in the White House!

But anachronism aside, the UN General Assembly’s annual “debate” discussing 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 wider global community.

“The Security Council must reflect the political realities of the 21st century…Reform of the Security Council is long overdue,” stated Japan’s delegate Tsuneo Nishida.

Reform deals with both permanent members and widening the number of the ten non- permanent members who currently hold a two year terms.

The G- 4 countries namely Brazil, Germany, India and Japan have been lobbying for a number of years to get the permanent place at the table along with an African state.  Part of the reform argument rests with Regional representation,  namely geography.

Interestingly Brazil, Germany and India have won two year non-permanent seats starting in January — Japan will be leaving its two year stint.

 Then there’s the undeniable bottom line whose paying the bills at he UN? Besides the United States, that falls clearly on the shoulders of Japan, Germany and the European Union states.  Countries with the financial resources see themselves on the inside track.

Then there’s India’s strong case of being a model developing country which is also a secular democracy.  India equally stresses its longtime commitment in sending large numbers of troops for UN peacekeeping operations.  And neighboring Islamic Pakistan    and People’s China opposition to the contrary, India does command a pretty deep reservoir of goodwill and support.

But now that Obama has specifically named India to the golden list, recall that previous U.S. Administrations had endorsed both Japan and Germany for the permanent places as well.  Both Bush Administrations, George HW and  George W backed Japan and Germany, as did Bill Clinton. 

Not to be outdone, Britain has backed Brazil; UK Foreign Secretary William Hague called for Brazil to have a permanent seat on the Council. But in Brazil’s case there is hardly agreement, especially on a regional level. Predictably neighboring Argentina and even Mexico oppose it. The Latin American seat could go to a compromise candidate such as Chile which would be a class act.

Then there’s the African seat conundrum.  Both oil rich but chaotic Nigeria and stable South Africa see themselves as the rightful heir; but even forgetting only one can get the nod, that would select an English speaking country.  France would not stand for that, so presume that there would be a second African seat from a Francophone country or no deal.  Senegal and Morocco come to mind.

Others say what about an Islamic state?   Indonesia has long striven for this goal and is in a better position today, than a few years ago.   Still as the world’s most populous  Islamic state, that will not play too well in symbolism either. 

So it’s back to go.  Barack Obama, despite his kind words for India’s cause, did not break the political logjam and may have actually encouraged new aspirants and energized opposing coalitions. What does emerge are a plethora of political formula which in the end may make the Council more representative, but equally more politically unwieldy and unworkable.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.

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