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The U.N.'s turf battle

Published Oct. 12, 2005

The new world order has not yet changed the shape of the United Nations, where the all-powerful Security Council still resembles an artifact from World War II. Pressure is intensifying to reshape the Security Council in ways that better correspond to today's political realities, but that seemingly simple procedural task threatens to precipitate a world-class turf battle.

Britain and France, two of the allied victors in World War II, have permanent seats on the 15-member Security Council, along with the United States, Russia and China. Germany and Japan, which lost the war, do not.

Purely in terms of the international influence of their modern industrial democracies, Germany and Japan obviously have earned a permanent place at the table. However, the politics of Security Council membership are not nearly so simple. Populous but poorer nations such as Brazil and India already chafe at the status afforded the five permanent council members. A move to add Germany and Japan might create pressure to expand the Security Council, which already is at the mercy of permanent members' vetoes, to an even more unwieldy size.

Meanwhile, neither Britain, France nor any other current member of the Permanent Five is going to give up its seat without a fight. And the other 172 U.N. members who currently are forced to share the Security Council's 10 rotating seats are in no mood to confer privileged status on two additional governments at the expense of reduced representation for themselves.

The result is a growing diplomatic dilemma that so far has perplexed even the exalted diplomats collected at the United Nations.

For now at least, Germany and Japan are being patient in their quest for permanent status on the Security Council, just as they have acted with great discretion in taking on new U.N.-related military roles that technically violate their postwar proscriptions. That could change quickly, though, whenever the council takes on an issue that directly affects Germany's or Japan's national interests.

No one has yet suggested a new Security Council configuration that fairly represents all those competing interests, but the United States and the rest of the Permanent Five are obliged to try. The Security Council's authority depends on the support of all of the United Nations' members, and that support has begun to erode.

If the United Nations can't muster enough diplomacy to resolve this kind of procedural dispute, it has no hope of resolving the far more violent and complex disputes that occasionally divide its members.