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The Price of Membership

Japan deserves a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, but the chances aren’t good. Why? Because writing fat checks is no substitute for leadership.

Japanese diplomats are working long hours these days. The countrys Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows that its best chance to gain membership to that most exclusive preserve of international diplomacythe United Nations Security Councilwill come this September, when the General Assembly convenes to take up Secretary-General Kofi Annans proposals for reforming the world body. A chance like that comes once a generation, if at all. No one can dispute that the United Nations political high table is an anachronism: The councils five permanent members, Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, reflect the global power structure of 1945, not 2005. The body is ripe for change, and Annans recent reform push offers Japan a brief window of opportunity.

Unfortunately for Japan, the United Nations is many things, but one thing it is not is a meritocracy. The staffing of senior political positions often shows more concern for regional diversity than qualified expertise. Regimes that are serial human rights abusers have long occupied seats on the world bodys Human Rights Commission. And, if the exclusive membership of the Security Council is reformedand that remains very much an ifa countrys bona fides for membership will only be one factor among many.

No matter how skilled a campaign Japan wages, opening the councils doors wider isnt going to be easy. Expanding the body requires the support of 128 nations, or two thirds of the United Nations 191 members. When Annan asked 16 respected diplomats and public servants to study the issue and make a recommendation as to how to expand the body, even they couldnt agree on a single blueprint. And political rivalries and past grievances ensure that every aspirant has a countervailing foe: Italy opposes the German bid, Pakistan cant stomach the thought of Indias elevation, Argentina and Mexico are gunning for Brazil, and China, of course, isnt about to relent in its opposition to Japan.

Of course, based on the merits, Japan is a natural candidate to take a permanent seat at the councils table. Its share of financial contributions to the U.N. budgetnow at 19 percenthas been second only to the United States since 1986. Indeed, its share is greater than the combined contributions of Britain, China, France, and Russia. During those years that the United States was in arrears to the world body, Japan actually stood as the single greatest underwriter of the U.N. system. Although Tokyo has trimmed its official development assistance in recent years, scores of Japans fellow U.N. members have benefited from the countrys generosity for decades. Nor are Japans diplomats strangers to the Security Councils corridors. This year, Japan is serving its ninth term as one of the nonpermanent members to the council. Aside from Brazil, no countrys diplomats have logged as much time in this role.

But these same qualifications raise an important question: Has Japan truly conducted a foreign policy worthy of a world leader? What difference does it make if Japan frequently serves as a rotating member of the Security Council if its diplomats are seen as wallflowers? When has Japan introduced bold new initiatives or helped build coalitions to lead an international effort? How much stronger would Japans bid for membership be if Tokyo had led a global effort to address the crisis in Darfur? How many times has Japans foreign ministry offered to help broker a peace between disputing parties? Critics are mistaken to assume that a pacifist nation has no place on the Security Council. (You could argue that Japans modern incarnation is one of the most in keeping with the United Nations mission.) But its also true that Japan cannot use its peace constitution as an excuse for its own diplomatic inaction or lack of imagination.

Japans foreign policy has allowed its critics to characterize it as an international lender, not a leader. Many of the high-water marks for Japanese diplomacy have come from the number of zeroes that appear on their checks. In an era when the costs of international action too often limit what can be accomplished, Japans financial contributions are important and needed. Nevertheless, Japans critics have successfully pigeonholed Japan as being a country not willing to pay the human price for membership. It may be infuriating for the Chinese foreign ministry to say that Japan should not equate the Security Council with a board of directors. But it is also true that the comment receives many approving nods.

Tokyo will claim that taking a leadership role is the very thing that stokes regional fears. And they are right. Japans dispatch of its Self Defense Forces to assist in medical and engineering projects in Iraq was met by howls of protest from South Korea and China. But that shouldnt dissuade Tokyo; its regional rivals will resist Japans assuming a larger role regardless of how they go about it. More important, in the eyes of the rest of the world, a robust Japanese foreign policy will make its claim to positions of leadership more convincing. Tokyos dispatch of naval vessels in support of the war in Afghanistan, its participation in a growing number of peacekeeping missions, and its deployment of forces to Iraq has done more for Japans international image than any amount of checkbook diplomacy.

Japans Security Council aspirations have roots that go back farther than most people know. As early as 1959, three years after Japan joined the United Nations, it was Ambassador Koto Matsudaira who proposed setting up a committee to study the expansion of the Security Councils membership. Whether the Japanese public realizes it or not, Japans diplomatic corps knows its chances are slim. If the bid fails, it will be tempting for the country to turn inward once again, to reduce its contributions to the U.N. system, or to reevaluate its involvement in other international efforts. Of course, its up to the Japanese people and their politicians to decide how much money they want to contribute from their own bottom line. But the truth is that, when it comes to showing the world the significant role the country can play, Japan has only begun to come into its own. And there is certainly merit in that.

This article first appeared in Newsweek Japan.

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