After the UN Summit, Japan May Have to Lower its Sights

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

October 1, 2005

The UN summit that took place in New York last month—the largest gathering of world leaders ever—was not the unmitigated disaster its critics said it was, but it was pretty close. The “outcome document” adopted by the General Assembly on September 13 included some modestly useful steps, such as endorsement of the Millennium Development Goals on the eradication of world poverty; a condemnation of terrorism “in all its forms,” and a recognition that UN member states have the “responsibility to protect” their populations from genocide and ethnic cleansing. But in at least two other areas—both of direct interest to Japan—the UN summit’s results were disappointing even when judged against deservedly low expectations.

The first of these was nuclear nonproliferation. The United States favored greater efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Others, however, insisted that the price of those efforts be a greater commitment by the existing nuclear powers—not least the United States—to fulfill their own nuclear disarmament pledges and to better support the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The result was a failure to agree anything at all, an outcome that—given the widely acknowledged importance of the issue for global peace and security—was rightly called a “disgrace” by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The other main failure was of even greater direct relevance to Japan—UN Security Council reform. For several years now, Annan and others have argued that the structure of the Security Council—currently made up of the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France as permanent members and 10 rotating members—is anachronistic, and should be made more representative. Most UN member states, in fact, agree—but they completely disagree on just how it should change.

In the run-up to the summit, the main proposal for reform was the so called “Group of Four” plan, sponsored by Japan, Germany, India and Brazil, who all agreed to work together toward their common goal of permanent Security Council membership. The G4 plan would add six new permanent seats—the G4 itself plus two African countries—as well as four new rotating seats. It would thus expand the overall membership of the Council from 15 to 25. Veto rights under this proposal—at least according to the G4—would be reserved for the current permanent five.

G4 leaders claimed significant support for this approach, but ultimately it foundered. They simply could not muster the agreement of the two-thirds of the General Assembly—128 of its 191 members—plus all five permanent and veto-wielding Security Council members, required for Security Council Reform.

The countries of the African Union—who could have delivered 53 votes for the new arrangement—not only could not agree on which two of their members should represent them, but they insisted on veto rights for new permanent members, which made the proposal a nonstarter for the current ones. Another set of countries, led by Italy, Pakistan, South Korea, and Spain, opposed permanent membership for their rivals in the G4, and advocated a different reform plan, which would have added only nonpermanent members to the Council. And the United States also made clear its opposition. Washington said it wanted to limit the size of the overall Security Council to 20 and that it would support adding no more than two permanent members, one of which would be Japan. The Bush administration worried that too wide an expansion would dilute American influence on the Council, and that many of the proposed new permanent members (including Germany, India, Brazil and the Africans) would more likely side with France and Russia than with the United States on many key issues.

The result of these conflicting positions was that there was no consensus on Security Council reform, and the project had to be shelved. The summit leaders were only able to say that they “support early reform of the Security Council” and to “request the General Assembly to review progress on the reform” by the end of 2005.

So does Japan have any remaining hope to join the Security Council as a Permanent Member, and if so, how? On its merits, the case for a Japanese permanent seat is strong and widely supported. Japan is the UN’s second largest financial contributor (over $800 million per year, or just under 20% of the overall budget), a responsible democracy and a major strategic player in East Asia. Its membership, moreover, would break the link between Council permanent membership and nuclear weapons-state status, thus helping to undermine the notion that such weapons are needed to win global prestige. Japan’s case for a permanent seat is supported by the United States, the European Union countries, and almost the entire developing world.

The problem is how to get the change adopted, and that is where the trouble starts. There is still a chance that the G4 proposal will be agreed by the General Assembly by the end of the year, but frankly that is unlikely—for all the same reasons it was not possible in September. With so many other issues to deal with, such as winning support for an effective Human Rights Council and ironing out the details of the Peace-building Commission, General Assembly President Jan Eliasson is unlikely to give top priority to selling the G4 proposal, especially when many of the countries whose support he needs on the other issues do not support the G4. And even in the unlikely event the African Union could finally decide on its candidates, the United States, for one, is unlikely to support Germany, India and Brazil, nor to embrace the wide council the G4 proposal entails.

The United States, of course, does still support Japan’s permanent membership, a point emphasized by the U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN John Bolton in hearings before the House of Representatives International Relations Committee on September 29, 2005. But even with U.S. support, it is hard to imagine Japan winning 128 votes for a unilateral candidacy, especially if such a change were proposed by the United States. By seeking to go it alone, moreover, Japan would probably lose the support of many member states that supported the G4, out of fear that such a small expansion would be a final expansion and make a later, broader widening of membership even less likely. Also, while Japan has widespread support in the developing world, where its generous financial assistance is appreciated, it should be noted that China—which strongly opposes a permanent seat for Japan—also has growing leverage over such countries, and might be inclined to use that leverage to stop Japan. And of course China would always have the last resort of a veto, a more viable option if Japan is the only candidate.

So Japanese who still hope for a permanent seat are likely to be disappointed. UN Security Council expansion has been good idea for a long time, but that has not yet made it possible. With such clear and widespread opposition to various aspects of the G4 plan—and to Japan going it alone—Tokyo’s best hope of a Council seat may end up coming through some alternative arrangement, perhaps in the form of a “semi-permanent” seat. In such an arrangement, Japan and a handful of other worthy countries would be eligible for rotating memberships that would last longer than the current two years and which could be renewable on the basis of votes. For example, member states could agree to expand the overall Council from 15 to 20 members, with the new members all to be drawn from a pool of say 20 candidates, which would include Japan, India, Brazil, Germany, Nigeria, South Africa, Italy, and other member states with a claim to more frequent and lasting membership. These countries could be voted onto the Council for perhaps five years, and if they were seen to have done a good job their memberships could be extended (unlike the current rotating membership, whose re-election is prohibited in the UN Charter.) In such a system, a country like Japan would not be a permanent member, but it could expect to serve on the Council for a very long time, and perhaps indefinitely.

“Semi-permanent” status is obviously not the same thing as a permanent UN Security Council seat, and it may be far less than Japan deserves, but it is probably all that it is likely to get, at least in the near term. It would obviously be a step back from Japan’s initial aspirations, but it would still be better than the current arrangement, for Japan and for the world.