Sunday, January 8, 2006

The happy few

The issue of Security Council expansion, an intractable 20-year-old goal that looms and recedes like a distant comet, took an intriguing twist last week.

Tokyo has begun to distance itself from the so-called “Group of Four,” the coalition put together a year ago to win permanent council seats for Brazil, Germany, India and Japan.

The other three members resubmitted to the General Assembly on Friday a slightly updated draft of their initial proposal, to expand the council from 15 to 26 seats, with increased representation for Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Japan said last week that it still supports the draft but questions the usefulness of resubmitting it now, when the African Union still has no candidate for a permanent seat, and the well-discussed proposal remains far short of the two-thirds majority support needed.

Tokyo is drawing closer to Washington, which long has supported Japan’s candidacy for a permanent seat without a veto, but not the others.

“Japan has no intention of leaving the G4,” said Shinichi Iida, a spokesman for the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations.

“But,” he added, “we need to make the distinction between the G4 as a framework and the G4 as a group.” Mr. Iida said Japanese and U.S. officials were crafting a new resolution, or possibly a draft to the G4 proposal, that would win broader support.

The Bush administration has warned Japan that it will not support the G4 proposal for several reasons, and that resistance could compromise Tokyo’s aspirations.

Japan is so focused on the Security Council that it will not field a candidate for secretary-general this year, mindful of the handshake agreement that the permanent council members will not amass too much power by also holding the top office.

The U.S.-Japanese alliance has strengthened in the past five years, a partnership cemented by Washington’s reducing its contribution to U.N. peacekeeping and its regular budget to just a few million more than Tokyo’s.

The Bush administration and that of President Clinton before it were not shy about swinging the financial stick to demand appointments of Americans to U.N. posts and promote U.S. policy goals in the General Assembly and various programs.

Now that Japan is starting, somewhat uncomfortably it seems, to adopt the same strategy, the two nations are working closely to use their combined financial clout.

Washington and Tokyo, which pay a combined 41 percent of the regular U.N. budget, proposed late last month to pass a modified two-year budget that still would emphasize the need for management reforms.

It is doubtful that any other two nations could have won approval of such a radical plan with less than a week of negotiations.

Security Council expansion long has been a contentious issue among U.N. member states, which widely agree that Africa deserves a permanent seat and that the permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — more accurately reflect 1946 than 2006. Many would like to see the veto retired.

More than a dozen countries want a permanent seat, and none of the existing powers are willing to give up their privileges.

Washington, in particular, notes that the council will be even less efficient if it takes on 10 new members and wants to limit the new chairs to no more than a half-dozen.

World leaders agreed in September that they want to expand the council by next autumn, when this session of the General Assembly closes. However, that goal may prove as elusive as it has been for a generation.

• Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at

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