Pandora's Box at the U.N.

June 14, 1993

The Clinton administration is now officially on record in favor of giving Japan and Germany permanent seats on the Security Council. But, in the words of U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, this country wants to be "careful not to sacrifice the council's new-found effectiveness on the altar of reform." If there is a bit of hesitation and uncertainty in this caveat, it is solidly based.

If Japan and Germany join the council, would they get the veto power now limited to the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France? If Europe is to have three permanent seats and Asia two, what about Latin America and Africa and the Indian subcontinent? And if India, Brazil and Nigeria come aboard, how would Pakistan, Argentina and a black-ruled South Africa react?

The present structure of the Security Council is a throwback to the world of 1945 in the same sense that the U.S. Congress, with proportional representation in the House and equal state representation in the Senate, is a throwback to 1789. Both the Security Council and the Congress work imperfectly, to be sure, but one has to wonder (a) if it is politically feasible to alter their makeup and (b) if such a change is desirable.

During the long years of the Cold War, the veto or threat of veto by the United States and the old Soviet Union often paralyzed the U.N., making it, in Ms. Albright's words, "a sideshow, an elaborate debating society." That's part of the story. The other part is that these two antagonistic superpowers imposed a certain stability on the world, especially in Europe, that is fast breaking down. So the question for the major nations is how to establish or keep some kind of new world order.

Since the end of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow have changed from adversaries to near-allies in pursuit of this lofty goal. As a result, the Security Council, with China's grudging acquiescence, has for the first time performed as was originally intended. Use of the veto has been put in the closet and all permanent members have supported peace-keeping or peace-enforcement operations in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia and other places. U.N. involvement in regional conflicts has increased five-fold in two years, placing huge financial strains on an organization that had already been impoverished by unpaid pledges.

One reason the Clinton administration wants to convert Japan and Germany from the vanquished of World War II to permanent rank on the Security Council is to have them contribute more money and more peace-keeping troops to the U.N. These are worthy objectives. But in the real world, it will be difficult to get a two-thirds General Assembly vote for a Security Council expansion limited to Japan and Germany. It might be even harder to get Britain and France, with their wariness of Germany, to withhold their veto in the Security Council. A projected compromise would double the number of permanent members but deny them the veto. Any tinkering, however, opens Pandora's Box.

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