SECRETARY OF STATE Condoleezza Rice was correct when she started off the administration's contribution to the U.N. reform debate by declaring that the burning question of who should join an expanded Security Council must not overwhelm other issues, among them, in her words, "management reform, secretariat reform, peace-building, issues about nonproliferation, issues about how we build a democracy fund." Indeed, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has put forward practical suggestions on how to reform his office to make it more effective. The administration is also rightly supporting Mr. Annan's proposals both to reform the U.N. Commission on Human Rights -- to make it smaller and to prohibit non-democracies from dominating it -- and to put together a "peace-building commission" that would expand the United Nations' expertise in postwar reconstruction. Not only are these changes good in and of themselves, but they will also strengthen the institution by making it less open to charges of hypocrisy on human rights and accusations of incompetence in post-conflict situations.
Nevertheless, because it is so difficult and because it could so deeply affect the entire institution, Security Council reform will be the most hotly debated part of any U.N. reform package. The self-designated "group of four" contenders for permanent membership -- Japan, Germany, Brazil and India -- have already been lobbying for so long, in fact, that the administration's belated declaration that it supports two new members, one of whom should be Japan, is sure to have offended three large countries.
But beyond pleasing Japan and offending Brazil, India or Germany, it isn't clear what any Security Council reform that does not involve more comprehensive changes will achieve. After all, even adding one or two countries will involve a huge commitment of diplomatic energy and a vote, or even multiple votes, by the entire General Assembly, taking time away from other issues. The result is unlikely to make the Security Council more "legitimate" in the eyes of most of the world or more reliable, from the American point of view. Without guaranteed African and Latin American membership, major geographic imbalances will remain.
Some in the U.N. community have talked about deeper changes, such as expanding the council's membership, but weighting the voting system to reflect population and economic strength. It is also possible to imagine the creation of "semi-permanent" council members that represent particular parts of the world. Such reforms would obviously entail major changes, even to the U.N. charter itself, but could go a lot farther toward meeting the administration's stated goal of creating a Security Council that looks "more like the world of 2005 than the world of 1945." Merely adding two or even four new members to an unreformed institution hardly seems worth the effort. Far better to concentrate, as Ms. Rice said, on other kinds of reforms.