THE photograph of senior representatives of Brazil, Germany, India and Japan clasping hands at the United Nations this week was touching but also a little ridiculous. Each of them is a candidate for permanent membership of the Security Council of the UN in the event that its present structure were to be changed. The argument, of course, is that the existing members, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, owe their status to their roles in World War II and that the time is long overdue for the permanent membership to reflect the realities of the 21st century. This certainly makes sense in theory but will prove difficult, if not impossible, to implement in practice.

Of the existing membership the only question mark is over the presence of Britain and France; both are still important world powers but not on a par with the others and a single seat for the European Union would make better sense. Brazil, India and Japan each has strong claims but so have other countries from their regions. And what about Africa and the Middle East? South Africa and Egypt suggest themselves but, again, others would have to be considered.

The issue is not just representation, it is also the veto which permanent members hold. Would any resolution ever be passed by the Security Council if eight or ten members could use a veto? Ideally, the Council would be better off without any veto but China, Russia and the United States would never agree to this. So the solution may be a new second tier of permanent members without a veto, while retaining the present ten non-permanent members elected for two years periods. But any such change will come very, very slowly, if ever.