Leading Article: Changes at the UN's top table

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The Independent Online
IT SAYS as much about the United States as about the rest of the world that the Clinton administration wants not just Germany but also Japan to be given seats on the United Nations Security Council. After a generation of looking towards Europe for its alliances and trade, America has turned its gaze eastward. It does more trade with Asia than with the European Community; and the growing number of US citizens of Asian origin in powerful positions in Washington and in business is a sign of that.

The global consequences of this policy change, however, are more profound still. The Security Council has never worked particularly well. With five countries occupying permanent seats and another 10 given two-year seats in rotation, it suffered badly from the harsh climate of the Cold War, when it was paralysed by walkouts, abstentions and vetoes by China and the Soviet Union.

Today, the council is underfunded and overstretched. Would it work better if its composition reflected the current realities of world power? Germany and Japan, dubbed 'enemy nations' under the UN's 1945 charter, have achieved great prominence by virtue of their economic weight that is unreflected in the UN hierarchy. It is to them that Washington and London must address their pleas in meetings of the Group of Seven industrial nations when they want to provide a stimulus to the world economy. And it is to them that poor countries look most naturally in search of aid or cheap loans. They also pay for security: after Saudi Arabia, whose territory was directly threatened by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the biggest contributor to the multilateral forces that expelled them was Japan - which imposed immediate taxes on tobacco and petroleum products to finance its share. That suggests that in today's world, money matters as much as blood.

It is often argued that Germany and Japan have proven themselves unfit to sup at the top table of world diplomacy because of their inability, or unwillingness, to commit troops to the world's trouble spots when asked. Yet their anti-militarist constitutions were, after all, written by the victors of the Second World War. Once those constitutions had been appropriately amended, full membership of the Security Council would undoubtedly force them to ask hard questions about their interests that they have evaded hitherto.

Unless the council were to swell to an unwieldy size, the entry of Germany and Japan would probably have to result in the exit of Britain and France. There is no case for change until the EC can find a single voice. When it can, a Security Council seat may eventually be given to Japan, and another to the country holding the EC's rotating presidency.

For Britain, that would be no bad thing. Its continued veto on the Security Council is a relic of a glorious but outdated military past, which distorts its domestic economy by channelling too much money into military spending and hampers its standing in Europe by raising the suspicion that Britain still hankers after special status outside it. Giving up a seat on the council would be painful, but an act of realism from which much good might flow.