U.N. Reform Potential

Last month, a high-level advisory panel recommended a revamping of the U.N. Security Council. Rather than the current system of 15 members, with five of them holding permanent seats—essentially the victors of World War II, who also happen to be the world’s official nuclear weapons states—the new plan would have a total of 24 members. According to the simpler and perhaps more credible of the panel’s two proposals, there would be six more permanent members—Japan, Germany, India, Brazil, Egypt and either South Africa or Nigeria. The new members would not enjoy the veto powers of the original “Perm 5,” but they would gain longstanding positions of influence on the world’s pre-eminent body charged with upholding international security.

This general line of thinking is sound. There is no reason that the five countries that were the world’s most powerful in 1945 should continue to be accorded the same disproportionate influence over security matters six decades later.

But the high-level panel’s plans need work before being formally considered by the U.N. membership next fall. At present, they have two main flaws. First, they seem to reward nuclear weapons acquisition. This is because India, which exploded a half dozen bombs in 1998 and remains outside the world’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty framework, is not asked to sign any nonproliferation accords before gaining permanent membership. Second, they appear indifferent to democracy, in that Egypt is to be given a seat.

To be sure, a new Security Council should have India within it. Representing one-fifth of humanity, and with a vibrant democracy, growing economy and great civilization, India deserves a central place in the world’s security architecture. But to grant it a permanent seat without asking for any steps to cap its nuclear capabilities is in effect to reward the very kind of nuclear proliferation that both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry rightly called the greatest threat to global security during the recent presidential campaign debates. India will not abolish its nuclear arms. But it should renounce testing, stop producing fissile material that could be usable in weapons, and agree to cap the size of its arsenal at or near its current size of several dozen weapons.

As for Egypt, it is clear that the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims deserve an important role in the future Security Council. While Muslim states currently obtain their share of two-year temporary memberships on the Security Council, and while permanent membership for India would indirectly give power to some 150 million Muslim inhabitants of that country as well, this is not enough. The world’s great Islamic states do need a more central voice.

But Egypt is currently the wrong choice. It is a sham of a democracy, with President Hosni Mubarak already believed to be grooming his son for possible succession. Presidential elections routinely generate 90 percent or more of the vote for the incumbent. Even at the local and grass-roots levels, Egypt leaves much to be desired politically.

There are at present three large Muslim countries with varying degrees of democracy—Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia. The first has about as many citizens as Egypt, the second twice as many, the third three times as many. For the foreseeable future, they should rotate the permanent seat of the Islamic world among them—even if none is in Africa (the high-level panel wanted geographic balance), and none is Arab. For example, a new reform plan might grant a five-year rotation to each between next year and 2020.

This need not and should not be the permanent state of affairs. The Arab world has a total population of 240 million people—roughly comparable to Indonesia, or for that matter Western Europe, which would have three permanent seats under the proposal. Pakistan and Iran are two additional large Muslim states that someday might have some claim to a seat—or at least a share of one, perhaps as determined by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (if that group can itself reform in the coming years). It is equally important and fair, however, that such a seat reward democracy and not authoritarianism.

Indeed, the message that democracy should be a precursor to any claim to a permanent Security Council seat would be heard in other parts of the world as well. It might not be so well received in Beijing or even Moscow, given their own strong-armed regimes. So be it. If it is to be useful in international security affairs, the U.N. Security Council needs to stand for the democratic and human rights principles that guide not only U.S. foreign policy but the actions of most countries in the 21st century. And since China and Russia would not risk losing their permanent seats or vetoes under such a plan, they could probably live with it in the end.

It is certainly true that democratization in the Arab world will have to come from within. Yet, external encouragement and incentives matter. Turkey’s impressive democratization in the last couple of years in order to join the European Union is a case in point.

Security Council reform should not just be about political correctness and geographic balance. It should advance those common interests and principles shared by a growing majority of the world’s countries—and desperately needed to guide the building of a secure international system for the new century.