Wrangling over an anticipated vote to enlarge the 15-member U.N. Security Council erupted into a four-way showdown Thursday, with Mexico and Canada proposing a new, third plan and the United States pledging to block any change at all.
The move by the so-called United for Consensus group just days before a month-end vote on expanding the council to at least 25 members makes it unlikely that the vote will happen in July, if at all before a U.N. summit of world leaders in September.
The latest proposal comes from a group made up of Mexico, Canada, Italy, Pakistan and nine other countries. Its proposal to add 10 two-year nonpermanent seats to the council directly challenges resolutions by the African Union, as well as by the so-called Group of 4 -- Japan, India, Germany and Brazil, which seek permanent seats on the council.
The Group of 4 seeks to expand the council to 25 seats, including six permanent seats without a veto. The African Union has a competing proposal for 26 seats, including seven permanent seats with a veto. The groups, along with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, want the Security Council expansion to be part of the wide-ranging reform package that world leaders are expected to sign on to in September.
But the U.S. said it would reject any change right now, including its own proposal for adding "two or so" permanent seats, because the issue was too divisive and attention should be focused on other U.N. reforms first.
Amending the U.N. charter requires the approval of two-thirds of the 191-member General Assembly, as well as ratification by the governments of those nations that support the change. If any of the Security Council's five permanent members -- the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia -- fail to sign on, the amendment dies.
In an interview in New York this week, R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, said: "We agree that the council needs to look like the world of 2005, not the world of 1945," when the U.N. was created. "But we don't think Security Council expansion has to be done now. We don't wish to be the skunk at the garden party, but we feel really strongly that expansion should be delayed."
To hammer home that message, the State Department twice in the last month formally urged leaders around the world not to support the expansion proposal. About a dozen countries backed off their support for the Group of 4's resolution, diplomats here calculate. But notably, some typical U.S. allies, like Palau, remain co-sponsors of the resolution.
Indian Ambassador Nirupam Sen said the reform must take place despite -- and because of -- U.S. arm-twisting. "Reform is genuine only if it succeeds despite pressure from the United States," he said.
The U.S. rejection of the Group of 4 proposal -- and specifically of the permanent inclusion of India, Germany and Brazil -- does not end the debate over Security Council expansion, he said. "It reinforces the debate on a unipolar world versus a multilateral one."
For most countries, the U.N. Security Council is the one place where they can engage with the United States on at least a shoulder-to-shoulder level, if not as true equals. But for the United States, a bigger Security Council is not better.
"We're a P5 member; we have a veto," Burns said, referring to the United States' status as one of the five permanent members. "We're not worried about the influence of the United States being diluted to an extraordinary degree, but we certainly want to preserve the influence we have, we want to preserve the veto, and we do not want to extend a veto to new permanent members."
The U.S. has been able to exert considerable influence on the current council, which has five veto-holding permanent members and 10 seats that rotate every two years.
The battle over Security Council approval for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a notable exception: six nonpermanent members withheld their votes, preventing the U.S. and Britain from receiving the majority support they required to act with the U.N.'s official blessing. The U.S. not only withdrew the resolution, but it also lost the legitimacy and international cooperation that would have come with the council's endorsement.
An expanded Security Council could find it more difficult to garner support and act quickly in times of crisis, Burns said.
"I wouldn't want to say it would be unmanageable," he said. "But we wouldn't want to see a situation that the council couldn't hack in a week's time."
Other nations argue that, just as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union have managed to work efficiently after expanding to include new powers, the Security Council can as well.
"The Security Council decides on life and death, war and peace," said German Ambassador Gunther Pleuger, part of the Group of 4. "How can you leave out half the world's voices?"