Kaddafi Is Right About the U.N.

There was plenty to dismiss in Muammar Kaddafi's endless tirade at the United Nations this afternoon─like the idea that the H1N1 epidemic might be a corporate or military weapon that escaped from a lab, or his oft-made call for a single Israeli and Palestinian state called "Isratine." And he didn't even go into his proposal to abolish Switzerland.

But the Libyan leader's critique of the U.N. Security Council is right─the body's makeup doesn't make sense in today's world. As The New York Times reports, Kaddafi "said the organization's power dynamic should be reversed─to make the Security Council an instrument designed to 'implement the will of the General Assembly.' " Though the rhetoric he used, decrying the current system as "terrorism," is calculated only to inflame, Kaddafi is repeating a plea that respected statesmen─including former secretary-general Kofi Annan─have made themselves.

The council's structure─five permanent members and 10 rotating members─is a relic of the Cold War, designed to allow the East and West to balance, but not well calibrated to a world with many power centers and only one superpower. Of course, it didn't always work that well then, either─on several crucial occasions the General Assembly was forced to take up cases in which disagreements had hamstrung the Security Council (including the Korean War and the Suez crisis, both of which Kaddafi demanded today ought to be investigated).

Annan's 2005 U.N. reform proposal, "In Larger Freedom," recommended expanding the council from 15 to 24 members:

The council's present makeup reflects the world of 1945, not that of the twenty-first century. It must be reformed to include states that contribute most to the organization, financially, militarily, and diplomatically, and to represent broadly the current membership of the UN. Two models for expanding the council from 15 to 24 members are now on the table: one creates six new permanent seats and three new nonpermanent ones; the other creates nine new nonpermanent seats. Neither model expands the veto power currently enjoyed by the five permanent members. I believe the time has come to tackle this issue head on.

Several groups, including the World Federalist Movement─Institute for Global Policy, the Center for UN Reform, and the Global Policy Forum, have also advocated changes. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy recommended permanent seats for Brazil, India, Germany, and Japan, as well as a devoted, permanent African seat, in a March 2008 declaration.

But Kaddafi goes too far. Although broader representation is an important goal, the Security Council should not just follow the General Assembly's will. It makes sense to delegate big decisions to a smaller group. Furthermore, a system that abolished permanent seats for the world's biggest powers would have the same flaw as the U.S. Senate─it would give disproportionate power to states with small populations─but without the balances to which the Senate is subject.

Unfortunately, Kaddafi's involvement will probably only set the issue back, since so many of his other suggestions make little sense. But even a blind squirrel finds an acorn occasionally, and with Security Council reform, the colonel has stumbled across a prize nut.