Benefits of Australia's UN Security Council bid


UN Security CouncilSince Kevin Rudd's resignation as Foreign Minister there has been plenty of speculation about the future of Australia's bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. While many people view the bid as worthwhile, it remains controversial among a vocal minority, with the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop describing it as 'extravagant' and distracting 'form core foreign policy interests'.

Nevertheless, the Gillard Government has reiterated its support for the bid, and although the new Foreign Minister Bob Carr had previously expressed scepticism, since the announcement of his appointment to the ministry he has publicly endorsed it.

This will disappoint those who oppose the bid. These critics have produced a range of arguments, which have then been wheeled out by the Opposition in Parliament. One is that pursuit of a seat on the Council distracts from Australia's primary interests in its immediate region and vis-à-vis China.

However, the bid rests on a broader conception of Australia's interests and the accompanying conviction that it is important that Australia's 'interests' are not reduced to the affairs of our immediate region.

People often talk about Australian national interests as if each interest exists in isolation and as if they  are confined within the Asia-Pacific. But, just as nation-states are increasingly integrated into multilateral forums of governance, so national interests are increasingly interrelated — defence, human rights and trade all intersect.

Australia has a tapestry of interrelated interests, many of which are centred outside its immediate region. Transnational issues such as people movement and refugee settlement cannot be managed effectively without global coordination and discussion. So the 'Australia within its region' mindset is both limiting and outdated.

The Asia-Pacific region is not quarantined — it hosts vital international trade routes and is now the scene of heightened strategic competition between the United States and its allies and North Korea and China.

In Australia's immediate region, the presence of 'foreign' powers is growing, with Russia entering into significant arms contracts with Indonesia, France ramping up its military commitment to New Caledonia, India expanding its naval capabilities and China investing large sums in countries like Fiji.

Australia will have to engage with all of these powers and one way of doing so is to be privy to their deliberations in the Security Council.

A further argument made by opponents of the bid is that it will force Australia to make public and controversial diplomatic choices, especially in scenarios involving disagreement between China and the United States. Were Australia on the Security Council during a crisis such as the recent vote on measures against the Assad regime in Syria, Australia would have to take sides, to the chagrin of whoever it opposed.

These critics argue that shying away from a place on the Security Council would avoid 'nightmare' scenarios of this sort and allow Australia to maintain a balancing act between China, its largest trading partner, and the United States, its major ally.

But this is merely to delay the inevitable. Australia will have to make hard choices in the event of tensions — whether economic or military — between these two powers.

When it comes to controversial security issues such as military action over Taiwan or international action against violent regimes it is impossible for Australia not to take a position. In an increasingly contested region where security threats are growing, would it not be better to be privy to and capable of exerting influence over the deliberations of the permanent members at the Council rather than await their decisions from the outside?

At the very least it would enable Australian diplomats to be closer to important diplomatic discussions.

The cost of the bid has also been a cause for negative commentary. Upward estimates place it at around $35 million. But when put in perspective that is not a large figure — when the annual defence budget is over $20 billion, $35 million to ensure Australia has a voice at the pre-eminent security forum in the world does not seem exorbitant. In fact, it is about half the cost of one of Australia's 24 new F/A 18 Super Hornet fighter jets.

The question is asked, what is the return on this investment for the Australian taxpayer? But not every policy has to be subjected to this question, as if taxpayers are merely shareholders seeking monetary returns on their investments. Policy can be driven by the desire to make a contribution. Australia's bid to join the Council derives from an ambitious vision of the contribution Australia can make on issues of global importance.

In recent months the flaws inherent in the Security Council have been made very clear — the vetos of Russia and China against international action towards the Assad regime in Syria have aroused anger and cynicism about the effectiveness of the Council. That is understandable. Diplomacy can often be slow and tedious, and sometimes achieving multilateral action proves impossible.

But despite this, as a forum for discussion and dialogue, the Council matters — it allows for positions to be made clear, the first step towards achieving consensus on pressing issues.

What is more, the influence of the Council in conferring legitimacy on the use of military force is undeniable. Recall the debate about the 2003 invasion of Iraq: the absence of UN Security Council support raised the political and diplomatic costs of the operation significantly.

Similarly, it is worth thinking about how the 1999 INTERFET intervention into East Timor would have proceeded without the legitimacy bestowed by a UN Security Council resolution. The Security Council is not 'one more forum' that Australia might join on a whim — for all its flaws it plays an extremely important international role.

The bid may fail — after all, it faces stiff competition from Finland and Luxembourg. But even as a statement of intent it is worth it.

A seat at the UN Security Council would allow the Australian community via the Australian Government to speak out more clearly on issues of moment, and it would allow Australian diplomats to keep their fingers on the pulse of important discussions affecting global diplomatic norms and Australia's regional security.

What's more, it might provide Australians the motivation to think through more clearly and consistently the kinds of values we wish as a nation to inform our engagement on the world stage. 


Benedict ColeridgeBenedict Coleridge is a recent honours graduate of the University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: Ben Coleridge, UN Security Council, Bob Carr, Kevin Rudd, Gillard Government



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Existing comments

Another impressively argued piece. Ben, you have become an important contributor to ES. The call for large mindedness and vision is very much needed in today's Australia.
Joe Castley | 07 March 2012

The human body should be our exemplar for international co-operation. All its components,different nations, are like the limbs and organs, which unite for the good of the whole. If one part fails to fulfil its proper function, the whole body suffers. If we allow narrow self-interest to dictate our policies we are failing both ourselves and the global community.
Robert Liddy | 07 March 2012

How can the most incompetent Government since the Whitlam times tell other countries what to do? Please don’t make us an international joke!
Beat Odermatt | 07 March 2012

Australia is a small nation needing security, but also one with good democratic principles. Consequently we should support and take active part in the United Nations. Historically this has been done with Dr.H.V.Evatt contributing substantially to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and acting as one of the early Presidents of the General Assembly. Evatt's achievements were not appropriately acknowledged by his political opponents at the time and this may have set the course for a lasting luke-warm attitude towards the U.N. by Australian conservative political parties. But time has past and it would be in our own best interests if both sides of politics supported Australia's active participation in the United Nations - and we have good, democratic ideas to contribute.
Bob Corcoran | 07 March 2012

I can't see what Australia would add to the Security Council - basically we're a satrapy of the U.S. and are seen that way.

I would much prefer Indonesia get the seat.
Russell | 07 March 2012


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