Prime Minister Julia Gillard addressing the United Nations General Assembly last year. Photo: Getty Images
Australia took up its two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council on January 1 this year. It is ill-equipped to make the contribution expected of it. While most other non-member states have a staff of 16 or more to help run the seat, Australia has just eight. The penny-pinching is not confined to New York. Sections, branches and divisions in Canberra that will be required to meet a substantially increased workload of briefings are understaffed. Already, officers have been called back from leave to meet the demand.
Australia is off to a bad start on the council, having agreed to accept the chair of the UN sanctions committee overseeing what sanctions should be applied against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Iran, and entities dealing with them. No other country wants the job. The committee is a toothless tiger and chairing it will do little to increase Australian prestige or influence.
As an early initiative, Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced this week that Australia would push for a UN arms trade treaty to reduce the flow of arms to terrorists and other renegade groups.
If he were serious, Carr might get the committee to consider sanctions against Sri Lanka. The issues facing the Security Council are substantial, with the Middle East requiring close focus and some tough decisions. At the top of the list is Syria, which is bringing into play NATO with the deployment of Patriot missiles to Turkey. The rabid regime has caused a refugee humanitarian crisis in neighbouring countries. Resultant instability stalks neighbouring countries, while Israel pours fuel on the fire with further settlements on Palestinian land and a visceral hatred of Hamas, apparently precluding negotiations.
Egypt is struggling with a democracy managed by fundamentalists and Iran has a leadership respected by none and, like North Korea (an ally), bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Afghanistan has been a costly failure and will sooner than later come under the control of the Taliban, who have played the occupation by the United States and NATO every bit as skilfully as the occupation by the Russians was exploited by the Mujahideen. Pakistan is poised to gain influence, which will not play well with India. China has pocketed Sri Lanka and is securing what it wants from Pakistan in the form of naval bases and future access to some airbases.
Burma has moved into the US sphere of influence, a development not welcome to China, and Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Australia have agreed to maintain or strengthen military ties. India, watchful of China, has so far been careful with the US, wanting and privately demanding recognition as a major world power. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia remain in play with both China and the US. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have the potential to ignite regional conflict.
Climate change will require a complex range of strategic and diplomatic responses, particularly in Pacific Island countries and the Indonesian archipelago.
The movement of people as a response to climate change and the resultant political upheaval and conflict will require a more sophisticated and planned response than has hitherto been the case.
The movement of food, particularly live meat and grain, will require new international agreements. Australia should take the initiative while it has the opportunity on the Security Council.
The stagnation and over-borrowing by Western economies have the prospect of causing political instability during Australia's term on the council. Several or more of the issues cited have the potential of coming to a head at the same time causing an escalating knock-on effect in the international community.
The US's inability to demonstrate the kind of leadership it expects from other states, particularly friends and allies, does not augur well for those, such as Australia, that have tied their future to the listing mast of the US ship of state.
Fundamental reform of gun laws and fiscal discipline, including the equitable redistribution of income through a fair and balanced tax system, might help maintain the respect necessary to support the notion of American exceptionalism, as expressed through the desire to influence and lead internationally.
The federal Parliament and, in particular, the government would do well to listen to and build on the diplomatic skills that it has at its disposal. These have been developed over the past 70 years.
But these skills are being stretched and if we are to develop properly argued position papers for presentation on the Security Council, the Foreign Affairs Department requires more staff.
On the other hand, if we wish only to endorse US policy, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard was prepared to do over recognising Palestine as a non-member state of the UN, until a revolt within her own party forced a change, then Australia could probably do without extra resources.
But as a middle power with the potential to broker reform and positive change, we should grasp the opportunity that membership of the council offers to increase our political, diplomatic, commercial and trading leverage and influence.
Carr is a better foreign minister than Kevin Rudd, but he still has much to learn. Among which is to listen to the professionals of his department. He has been well served by his departmental heads and the majority of senior officers, but he undermines his authority and credibility on the international arena when he embraces the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka with the sole purpose of achieving the domestic objective of stopping boats with Sri Lankan asylum seekers coming to Australia. The foreign ministers of other countries are listening more closely to their briefings on Sri Lanka.
The Australian delegation from the Foreign Affairs Department to the UNHCR said in November last year it wanted Sri Lanka "to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces … and all cases of abductions and disappearances".
Yet when meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa late last year, Carr said the human rights situation in Sri Lanka was fine. Clearly that is not what his department believes. Carr needs to learn to listen. He is not in state politics now, spin will not suffice for short-term gain. He is in the big league with some pretty tough players and he will need to rely on the experience of his professional diplomats.
Gillard does not have much of a feel for international relations. As fickle as he has been, she will need to rely on Carr and the experience of his department, if Australia is not to look and act like an American redneck state wandering on the international stage.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and his foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, have shown little greater aptitude for international relations than Gillard. The foreign policy expertise of the Liberal Party and, indeed, on both sides of politics lies with Malcolm Turnbull.
With the range and complexities of problems facing the international community in the foreseeable future and with Australia having sought and gained a seat on the Security Council, it cannot afford to approach this significant responsibility with anything other than committed professionalism. Spin and amateurism will cause harm, where otherwise a great deal of good could be achieved.
>> Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and a former diplomat who served in Sri Lanka.