One More Seat at the Table

Parag Khanna

A special United Nations panel meets this weekend to consider how to make the organization, particularly the Security Council, more effective in a more dangerous world. No nation has more of an interest in its success than the United States. Far from undermining American power, a stronger United Nations can extend American influence while also making unilateral action by the United States unnecessary in the future.

The search for lasting security in postwar situations — Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan and Congo — will require the United States to fundamentally revise its strategy toward global peace enforcement. Only by promoting broad United Nations reform will other countries see incentives in committing to burden-sharing where the United States needs it. And only then will the United Nations be able to tackle the world’s other trouble spots, ultimately contributing to America’s goals of democratization and counterterrorism.

Every country agrees on the need to reform the Security Council, but no single proposal has ever had majority support. What is necessary — a comprehensive re-evalutaion of the council’s membership — has not been politically feasible. And what has been politically feasible — adding already overrepresented developed countries — is not necessary. The United Nations has grown to 191 members from an initial 51, yet the Security Council has been expanded only once, in 1965, to its present 15 members. However, the composition of the Security Council can be made both more democratic and more friendly to the United States if the White House works to win support for a framework that encourages responsible leadership from countries in the world’s more volatile regions.

A realistic proposal would continue to have the United States, Russia and China as permanent members, but would include Japan, the largest aid and reconstruction donor, and India, a crucial ally in the war on terror as well as potential contributor of troops. With Japan and India, the United States can work around Chinese intransigence and outweigh Russian opposition.

The French and British seats would be collapsed into one permanent seat for the European Union, to be occupied by the country holding the union’s rotating presidency. Having long argued for a strong geopolitical voice for the union, France would face a choice between selfishly blocking this proposal or achieving that vision, under heavy pressure from new powers that stand to gain from such reforms.

Furthermore, a more prominent role for regional organizations would result in deepened diplomacy within them as they work toward common positions. Permanent seats should be allocated to the Organization of American States, the League of Arab States and the nascent African Union, each represented by their members on a rotating basis.

This regional integration could accelerate the creation of regional peacekeeping forces, which could alleviate the strain on American forces in Iraq and the international forces in Afghanistan, as well as to stabilize Colombia and Indonesia. The Security Council has proved far more willing to approve regional peacekeeping efforts like the Nigerian-led mission in the Ivory Coast, particularly as the United Nations’ current peacekeepers are thinly stretched in more than a dozen conflict zones.

The inclusion of permanent seats for developing countries and regions would also enhance perceptions of American sincerity toward historically neglected states that truly value their voice in the United Nations.

But most importantly, if the United States sincerely wants a more effective Security Council, it will have to relinquish its veto power in favor of majority voting. No country has more frequently exercised its veto right, while simultaneously denouncing other nations’ use of it.


As the United States’ image abroad continues to be tarnished by slow progress in securing Iraq and Afghanistan, no step could more greatly contribute to restoring American credibility internationally than a reaffirmation of the commitment to work with, rather than around, a reformed and stronger United Nations.