A place at the top table

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  • Published 20100601
  • ISBN: 9781921656163
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

IN MARCH 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia would be a candidate for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2013–14. The bid has attracted many exaggerated and inconsistent criticisms. However, it would clearly be in Australia’s national interest for us to win a seat on the council – and it would be in the UN’s interest, too.

The Security Council consists of fifteen members: five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and ten members elected for two-year terms. The ten rotating seats are divided among the UN’s various geographical groupings. Australia has sat on the council on four previous occasions, but has not been present since the end of the Cold War. Now it is running for one of the two spots on the council reserved for the members of the Western European and Others Group. The election will take place in October 2012.

Australia has started behind the eight ball: its declared opponents, Luxembourg and Finland, announced their candidacies in 2001 and 2002 respectively. At least fifteen countries have publicly pledged support for Australia’s bid and a number of others are thought to have given private indications.

Getting elected will not be easy. Finland has a good story to tell, given its strong human rights record, generous aid budget and the UN work of prominent Finnish nationals such as Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Luxembourg is significantly smaller than Australia, but as a well-respected contributor which has never sat on the council it is also a formidable opponent. This is not to say that Australia’s task is impossible. Government sources report that it will be a difficult contest but the campaign is off to a credible start.

The truth is, though, that it is difficult for outsiders (and perhaps even for insiders) to draw conclusions about Australia’s chances, given the opaque process and the vote being three years off. There is simply too much campaigning in smoke-filled rooms – or, given that this is the UN, smoke-free rooms – still to come. We can, however, decide whether the candidacy is in the national interest.

The principal reason that Australia is right to run is that the Security Council is the world’s pre-eminent crisis management forum. Australians are joiners by instinct and practice. This is a wealthy nation with a small population occupying a large continent located a great distance from our historical sources of security and prosperity. We have always sought to further our national interest – and contribute to the global good – by joining international institutions, as well as by allying ourselves with the United States and building strong bilateral relationships with the countries around us.

Yet Australia is excluded from many of the world’s influential circles: for example, it is not a member of the G8, NATO or the nuclear weapons club. One pragmatic response has been to create new multilateral institutions – hence Bob Hawke’s efforts to establish APEC, Paul Keating’s work on the APEC Leaders’ Meetings, Kevin Rudd’s and Peter Costello’s efforts on the G20, and Rudd’s initiative for an Asia-Pacific Community.


THE ORIGINAL EXAMPLE of Australian institution-building was Dr HV Evatt’s contribution to the establishment of the UN at the San Francisco Conference in 1945. With energy and intelligence, Australia’s External Affairs Minister advocated a greater role for small and middle powers at the UN. He fought long and hard to limit the remit of the permanent members’ veto, and successfully amended provisions of the UN Charter relating to colonies and the powers of the General Assembly. ‘Assisted by a handful of very able officials,’ recalled his successor Gareth Evans many years later, ‘Evatt daily raced from committee to committee in a performance of energy, brilliance and judgement rarely seen…By the end of the conference, he was accepted by all there as the leading voice of the medium and small powers, the one with whom the great powers had to treat.’ Evatt’s efforts were not noticed only by Australians. In June 1945, the New York Times reported: ‘When Dr Evatt came here he was a virtually unknown second-string delegate…He leaves recognized as the most brilliant and effective voice of the small powers [and] a leading spokesman for the world’s conscience.’

Sixty-five years later, the world is again in flux, marked by lengthy conflicts, power shifts and a sense that old models of international governance need renewal. This is the perfect time, then, for Australia to speak up – and one way to strengthen its voice is to win a term on the Security Council. Membership of the council would increase Australia’s international leverage on all sorts of issues. It would add to its reputation as a country with global interests and capacities. Like the alliance with the United States, it would be a source of prestige – but it would be a different and complementary source of prestige. And it would help vaccinate Australia against its occasional tendency to try to retreat into its immediate region.


THE COUNCIL IS the pointy end of the UN, because of its power under Chapter VII of the Charter to take whatever means it sees fit, including the imposition of sanctions and the use of force, to respond to threats to international peace and security. The 2002-03 debate over the invasion of Iraq demonstrates the centrality of the council in conferring international legitimacy on the use of force, or denying it – which in turn affects the risks and costs of a military operation. As a former member of the tiny Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, Australia understands this better than most. Closer to home, how would the Australian-led INTERFET force have fared in East Timor in 1999 without the cover provided by a Security Council resolution? In the absence of imminent action on the council’s part, it seems unlikely that Indonesia would have acquiesced to the presence of foreign troops in East Timor, or that Australia would have provided them.

The council’s responsibility for the peaceful settlement of conflicts under Chapter VI of the Charter, along with its Chapter VII prerogatives, also empowers it to authorise peacekeeping missions. The council is ultimately responsible for the 116,000 peacekeepers serving in seventeen missions around the world. This is a matter of no small importance to Australia, given that over the past sixty years Canberra has contributed nearly forty thousand soldiers, police and civilians to more than sixty UN operations.

It is hard to predict which issues will come before the Security Council in the 2013-14 term. Some may engage Australia’s national interests directly: for example, it seems likely that the Afghanistan war will be on the agenda. Other issues will be less directly relevant, but just as important. In recent years, the council has considered the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, terrorism and the ‘responsibility to protect’, the idea championed by Gareth Evans and others that there is a collective international responsibility to protect individuals in cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing and widespread violations of human rights. In future, the council may well spend greater time on non-traditional security threats, such as climate change. For nearly a quarter of a century, Australia has had to rely on others to represent its views and protect its interests on these kinds of questions. It is past time that Australia sat at the big table and made its own arguments.

Certainly, Australia deserves a term on the Security Council. From Evatt’s day on, it has been an active and generous contributor to the organisation. Australia deployed arguably the first UN military observers in September 1947, when four officers were sent to support the UN Good Offices Mission in the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia). Six decades later, many Australians still serve in multilateral peace operations. Australia is the thirteenth-largest contributor to the assessed UN core budget, providing US$44 million this year. This is only one element of its financial contribution, though: if you include contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget and the various UN agencies, the figure would be as much as ten times larger. The federal government’s interest in seeking representation on the UN’s ultimate decision-making body is, as one observer says, ‘like a major shareholder in a company wanting a seat on the board of directors’.

Finally, Australia’s membership of the Security Council would also be in the interests of the UN. As a western country located in the Asia-Pacific, Australia would make the council more representative: the only other South Pacific nation to serve on the council in the past twenty years is New Zealand. Should Finland and Luxembourg be elected instead, the council would boast at least four and possibly five members from the EU. By contrast, and notwithstanding the huge population disparity, there will be no more than two or three East Asian or South Asian members of the council, including China.

Given its national resources and the quality of its diplomats, Australia would contribute positively to the council’s deliberations, including during its one-month presidency of the Security Council and through its work in the council’s subsidiary bodies.

The best argument for Australia’s election, however, is the contribution the country makes to international security. Article 23 of the Charter provides that in the election of non-permanent members, due regard should be paid ‘in the first instance to the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization, and also to equitable geographical distribution’. The Security Council’s standing is reinforced by the membership of credible middle powers who have shown a willingness to spend blood and treasure to preserve international security. Australia has demonstrated this preparedness throughout its history: in the world wars, in UN peacekeeping operations, and in non-UN missions such as the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the regional mission in Solomon Islands. The British historian Paul Kennedy has argued in the Wall Street Journal that small and mid-sized candidates for the council ‘should be prepared to prove their qualifications, and that means by actions not mere words’. Australia has proved its qualifications.

If Australia’s bid for the council is prudent, it is also extremely popular. According to the 2009 Lowy Institute Poll, nearly three-quarters of Australians ‘partly’ or ‘strongly’ agreed with the bid; more than half agreed strongly. Twenty-two per cent had no view either way, and only 6% disagreed. Apart from a small rump of opinion, then, Australians are very supportive of the government’s bid.


THE 6 PER CENT of Australians who oppose the bid are very vocal. The reaction on the opinion pages of the nation’s newspapers has been overwhelmingly negative. Regrettably, the question of Australia’s bid for the Security Council has been subsumed by an old and barren debate about the value of the UN. This broader debate has been dominated over the years by two familiar tribes of pundits, groupies and bashers, neither of which takes a balanced and realistic view of the international organisation.

UN groupies defend the organisation come what may. The blame for mistakes is always laid at the feet of the member states, never the secretariat. The serious problems pointed out by critics are waved away, to the long-term detriment of the organisation the groupies think they are protecting. National interests are always seen as suspect, especially American interests. Groupies are often reflexively anti-American, ignoring Washington’s financial contributions, which account for a fifth of the UN budget; the personal contributions to the institution made by American presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Bill Clinton, and other US nationals such as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning UN official Ralph Bunche; and the fact that the success of most UN operations depends on US support.

In the opposing trenches squat the UN bashers, for whom UN peacekeepers (most of whom give honourable service and risk their lives in a decent cause) are ‘pedophilic sex tourists with guns’; talk of a rule-based international order is ‘intellectually degenerate’; and the UN system is ‘a toilet’. The UN, we are told, is ‘historically corrupt’ and ‘an abject failure’. It is ‘the most ridiculously hopeless organisation in the world’. It is the ‘United Nations of Despots’.

The UN is deeply flawed. But many of its agencies do essential work. Even more importantly, it provides a venue for creative statecraft – the UN is the forum where countries come together to discuss mutual problems. Do we like all the regimes represented in New York? No. But we have to deal with the world as we find it. Perhaps it would be congenial to confine relations to countries like our own, but it would not be sensible. Even the Bush administration found in its later years that the UN had its uses – and last year President Barack Obama became the first US president ever to chair the Security Council in person. If even the global hegemon needs the UN, how much more important is it for a country of twenty-two million?

Not all of the four main arguments that have been put forward against Australia’s Security Council campaign have been affected by the jaundice of the UN bashers. But none of them is convincing.


THE FIRST OBJECTION is that the process of campaigning is forcing Australia to compromise its foreign policy values. The Australian‘s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, asserted that ‘Australian foreign policy is in danger of being seriously distorted by our bid,’ and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop claimed the government has ‘thrown many longstanding foreign policy principles to the wind in its pursuit of a seat’. Former foreign minister Alexander Downer mused that ‘to be successful we will have to change the emphasis of our foreign policy’ and warned of backsliding on human rights in Zimbabwe or corruption in the South Pacific. (These concerns did not worry Alexander Downer sufficiently six years ago to prevent him from proposing, unsuccessfully, that the Howard government launch a council bid.)

All manner of government decisions have been characterised, without much evidence, as attempts to curry favour with UN member states. According to the Opposition, the Australian Government’s first compromise was to ‘let the Europeans off the hook in regards to committing troops to combat zones in Afghanistan’ at the NATO meeting in Bucharest in April 2008. (It will come as a surprise to European capitals to hear that they were ever on Australia’s hook.) In March 2009, Greg Sheridan was concerned by ‘circumstantial evidence’ that Australia might attend the Durban Review Conference. In June 2009, Julie Bishop blamed the government’s inability to repatriate the ‘Merauke Five’ (a group of Australians who had been detained in West Papua after apparently flying there without visas or flight clearances) on a desire to win Jakarta’s support for our UN candidacy. Others have hinted that Canberra soft-pedalled its protests to Beijing over the treatment of Stern Hu in deference to China’s influence over African states in the UN.

Most of these specific claims are unconvincing. Australia decided not to participate at Durban. The visitors to West Papua were eventually released, due no doubt in part to Australian diplomatic involvement in the matter. At a more general level, though, it is pointless to deny that candidates for election will adjust their behaviour from time to time and make some compromises. Compromise is inherent to realpolitik. The critics imply that, absent the Security Council bid, Australia could get back to running a ‘pure’ foreign policy. Yet, as Gough Whitlam once noted, only the impotent are pure. Both Labor and Liberal prime ministers have found that foreign policy success requires a pragmatic approach. In late 1996, for instance, after a dreadful start to the bilateral relationship with China, John Howard settled on an approach which involved acknowledging certain Chinese prerogatives and de-emphasising human rights. Equally, even the staunchest defenders of the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement of 2003 would admit that it was an imperfect arrangement.


THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT will no doubt take steps to maximise its electoral support – if not, why enter the race at all? It will, I hope, practice all the dark arts of politics. But Australia will not compromise its values, because the whole point of this exercise is to promote our values, as well as our interests. In any case, a race to the ethical bottom is rarely a winning Security Council campaign strategy. It is usually more valuable to be seen as a reliable and consistent player. And Australia is not, after all, competing for election with countries that possess wholly different value systems: it is competing with Finland and Luxembourg. The foreign policies of Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland do not appear to have been notably distorted by their successful campaigns for elected positions on the Security Council.

The second criticism of the bid is that it is too expensive – that, in Piers Akerman’s words, ‘Rudd’s vainglorious goal will cost Australian taxpayers millions.’ The government has announced that it will spend $13.1 million over the first three years of the bid, including staffing, outreach, meetings, information technology and so on. In addition to direct costs, the government will no doubt make other expenditures, partly with an eye to their effect on the council ballot. It seems unlikely that these costs would be huge, but the lack of precision about them has led critics of the bid to come up with other, much larger estimates. Alexander Downer has been quoted as suggesting a total figure of $35 million. The Australian‘s columnist Glenn Milne accused Rudd of ‘outlaying more than $1.5 billion on his Quixotic UN tilt. That’s when you take into account the direct funding for the bid and the money set aside in the last budget for development assistance to non-specified countries, all of which is set to spike in the year of the UNSC vote.’

This last estimate is plainly ridiculous. It appears to include all of the increased AusAID funding which was announced in the 2009 Budget, even though boosting foreign aid is a longstanding Labor policy which predates the council bid. But the real problem is not so much the fuzzy maths as the strange sense of priorities revealed by all this pettifoggery. Yes, the government needs to be prudent in its expenditure of public monies. But how expensive is this campaign compared to other exercises in international policy? A $35 million campaign, if that is indeed the true cost, would be equivalent in value to half of one of the Australian Defence Force’s forty-six new MRH-90 helicopters, or one-fifth of one of the RAAF’s twenty-four new Super Hornet aircraft. I am all in favour of a muscular ADF. But would two years on the UN Security Council, if Australia’s campaign were successful, not be worth half a helicopter or a fifth of a plane?

The critics’ focus on relatively insignificant costs reveals a depressingly small opinion of Australia’s possibilities. Do the sceptics really take such a straitened view of their country’s role in the world that they would cavil at the cost of running a diplomatic campaign? It is hard not to be reminded of Alexander Downer’s Playford Lecture of 2007, in which he accused his opponents of running a ‘Little Australia’ campaign and ignoring Australia’s ‘responsibilities as a significant global citizen’, and urged them to ‘think big’.

A third, related criticism is that membership of the Security Council would put Australia in the awkward position of having to state its position on controversial issues. The conservative commentator Des Moore warned, ‘we will be obliged to take a very public attitude on matters about which we would otherwise wish to retain a sensible silence.’ Coming from the opposite ideological direction, the former UN diplomat James Ingram is concerned that ‘on any issue of concern to the US we would be under great pressure to lend our support. To do so would only reinforce the impression that Australia is no longer an ally but an American satellite.’

These critics would prefer, apparently, a small-target strategy whereby Australia avoids difficult questions and refuses to speak its mind on global issues. But that is not the kind of foreign policy Australia has traditionally adopted. In fact, you could go so far as to say it would be a distortion of Australian values.

Australia’s interests are far better served by having clear and well-understood positions on global issues than by dissembling on everything outside its immediate sphere of interest. In any case, even if the aim were to conceal its views, being absent from the council hardly provides automatic protection from scrutiny. Australia already has explicit policies on the most controversial global issues. Given the existence of diplomatic cables and the news media, foreign capitals are aware of our policies and actions regardless of whether we have the chance to tell them face-to-face in the council chamber.

The final argument against the bid is that non-permanent membership of the Security Council is unimportant or even demeaning. It is unimportant, according to the Opposition, because of the ‘veto power of the five permanent members…and the irrelevance experienced by many other temporary members’. But it is not true that the permanent members have all the power and the elected members have none. While resolutions can be vetoed by permanent members, they cannot be passed without elected members, as the Charter provides that a majority of nine votes is required for passage. And in practice, vetoes have rarely been exercised since the end of the Cold War. Less than two dozen substantive vetoes have been cast by the permanent members in the past two decades, compared with the nearly two hundred substantive vetoes cast during the Cold War. The Security Council is noticeably more collegial and businesslike now than it was during the era of superpower stand-off. Most of its work is done through negotiation, in which the elected members play an important role. In any case, it is not only formal power that determines influence in the council: Britain, for example, exercises disproportionate influence due to the professionalism of the diplomats it sends to New York and, in particular, their drafting ability. There is no reason why Australia could not make a very positive contribution to the council’s deliberations.

Glenn Milne has gone further and suggested that elected members of the council would be poor company for Australia: ‘the membership of the current non-permanent grouping surely brings into question why Rudd is so determined to join this club…Where does our continuity of national interest lie with the likes of Uganda, Burkina Faso, Libya, Vietnam, Costa Rica and Mexico?’

In fact, there are many continuities of national interest between Australia and recent elected members of the council, including key allies such as Japan (2009-10) and New Zealand (1993-94), neighbours such as Vietnam (2008-09), Indonesia (2007-08) and Singapore (2001-02), and Western powers such as Germany (2003-04) and Canada (1999-2001). Certainly, some of the elected members are small and even distant from Australia; however, this adds to, rather than detracts from, the council’s legitimacy. In any case, this is a rather blinkered way to think about membership of the council, which would bring us into intimate contact not only with the elected members but also with the permanent five. It is hard to argue that the national interest is not affected by the actions of great powers such as the US, China and Russia.

The arguments that have been made against Australia’s campaign for the Security Council are weak and largely ideological. They are also inconsistent: supposedly Australia should refrain from compromising its foreign policy values, but also refrain from stating its opinion on contentious issues; elected membership of the Council is apparently both dangerous (because it would expose Australia to conflict with major powers) and irrelevant (because it would group Australia with minor powers).

In fact, the best argument for ending the candidacy would be if Australia had a negligible chance of winning. But so long as it has a reasonable chance, it should press on at speed. A quarter of a century is long enough for Australia to be away from the Security Council chamber. This bid is both well supported and well advised.

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About the author

Michael Fullilove

Michael Fullilove is the Director of the Global Issues program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and a Nonresident Senior Fellow...

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