The United Nations has never reached its potential. Plagued by financial problems and authority struggles, the U.N. badly needs reform, new energy and new resources. The absence of a strong U.N. is partially responsible for the spread of nuclear technology to North Korea and Iran, the deteriorating situation in Darfur and the crisis in Iraq. It is because the U.N. is so weak that the world community relies so much on the strength of the United States — a reliance that is unfair to everyone and fails to represent the diversity of world opinion. The place to start the reform, then, is with the membership of the Security Council.

In September, the governments of Japan, India, Germany and Brazil banded together and launched a joint bid for permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. The addition of these countries to the high council of the U.N. is essential for the continued relevancy of the world body; the current permanent members — France, the U.S., the U.K., Russia and China — were designated back in 1945 and represent an outdated, World War II-era balance of power.

Japan and Germany, excluded due to their aggression in that war, are today peaceful democracies and economic powerhouses. India is the world’s largest democracy, already has the world’s 12th-largest economy and is a nuclear power. Brazil would be a critical addition for diversity, has the world’s 15th-largest economy and arguably leads Latin America. While Brazil and India are both not yet at the same level of development as Japan and Germany, it is unquestionable that their economies and geopolitical strength will both expand enormously in this century. They are both critical additions in representing the developing world.

The possibility of reforming the Council’s membership has exposed a host of international tensions. The United Kingdom and France have both endorsed all four candidates, while Russia backs India and the United States backs Japan. China, however, has dismissed the subject, saying it is the wrong time to act. Wary of two other Asian nations gaining permanent seats, China’s veto power could, if exercised, put an end to any reform. Meanwhile, Pakistan has raised strenuous objections to India, while Mexico and Argentina have argued they should represent Latin America instead of Brazil. Italy and Spain contend that they are as qualified as Germany to sit at the council. Many nations, including Britain and France, have argued that the absence of any African or Middle Eastern nations would be a critical error if the council is to reflect the modern world.

The goal of the reform should be to make the Security Council and the United Nations both more active and effective bodies for the 21st century. If the reform process devolves into a competition among rival nations, it will only further debase the organization. A permanent seat at the Security Council should be an earned responsibility, not a trophy for prestige. Japan, Germany, India and Brazil each are strong nations with bright futures that will each add a new voice of international authority to the Council’s. Nations petitioning for permanent seats should be prepared to bear a greater percentage of the U.N.’s cost and contribute more to its peacekeeping operations. Countries who are neither capable nor willing to do so should not be included.

The United States has spent the 15 years as the world’s policeman — from mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to spearheading the drive to remove Slobodan Milosevic, to footing the bill for much of the U.N. This is a complicated role incommensurate with our resources and our will. The U.S. is by far the world’s richest nation and, thus, should take the lead in the international arena, but we should not have to be the global watchdog. By supporting this expansion of the Security Council, the U.S. can send a strong signal that it welcomes other nations’ opinions, but also expects other nations to contribute to the financial and military costs of the world police duty.

As a meeting of equals, the council should promote discussion, compromise and understanding in an effort to develop a peaceful multipolar world. The presence of the veto, however, sends the message that one nation’s opinion can override the consensus of the others. It prohibits the council from being effective and promotes unilateral action, as the whole world saw with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the same time, the veto is what separates the permanent members from the rotating members. One possible solution is to have nine permanent members without the veto, and 10 or more rotating members with speaking privileges, but no vote.

Preserving a Security Council with five veto-holding members will render the U.N. progressively more irrelevant. We need a Security Council that accurately represents the range of world opinion, includes members of the developing world and encourages the international community to stop relying on the United States to single-handedly solve its problems. Four new permanent members is a good step in that direction.

Peter Hamilton is a sophomore in Berkeley College.