Federal Politics

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Climbing the diplomatic mountain: worth it for the view

ASK a diplomat why we should strive to win a rotating seat in the United Nations Security Council and the answer may seem like George Mallory's famous response when asked why climb Mount Everest: ''Because it is there.'' To get a place at the world's top diplomatic table for two years is certainly prestigious for the insiders but many on the outside will wonder at the point of it all and what achievements and tangible results can be delivered.

We think it is a worthwhile effort for several reasons, even if it is a long shot to win one of the two slots coming up next year for countries in the ''western European and others'' group, given the head start of the other two candidates - Finland, which has wide international respect and few enemies, and Luxembourg, which can appeal to the Francophone world.

One is that the investment in campaigning - put at between $24 million and $35 million on visits and freebies for potential supporters among foreign governments akin to an Olympic hosting bid - is a tiny amount compared to the billions we spend on defence and intelligence, but earns an appreciable increase in goodwill that might open doors for our businesses and bring diplomatic support to help solve our international problems.

Rather than sucking up to regimes in parts of the world outside our sphere of national interest, the campaign has already raised our knowledge and involvement in two regions that have come alive in global change since Kevin Rudd announced the Security Council candidacy in 2008. Africa has become the focus of a scramble for resources not seen since the 19th century colonial inrush, with scores of Australian companies involved. The Horn of Africa has more intense security concerns because of terrorism, piracy and the division of Sudan. The Middle East has been swept by the Arab Spring, toppling secular dictatorships and installing elected Islamist leaders. An extension of our embassy network and aid program to these regions is appropriate anyway.

Another reason is that as a middle-sized power, Australia has a strong interest in strengthening the UN as a forum for settling disputes and enforcing standards of human rights and governance. After the turn towards great American unilateralism under George Bush, taken up in Australia by John Howard and Alexander Downer, it would be right for Australia to put in the effort and stretch our diplomatic skills.

Which is why Tony Abbott's criticism of Julia Gillard's visit to the UN, partly to support the candidacy, was so misplaced, even without the gaffe of suggesting a trip to Jakarta to see the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to discuss boat people would have been more in the national interest. (He also was in New York.) His attack on Gillard for ''swanning around in New York talking to Africans'' was cheap populism, contradicted his side's support for the Security Council bid, and was a tinge racist as well.


The diplomatic headwind before the vote in the General Assembly on October 18 is certainly strong. The other candidates have already stitched up promises of support from countries such as Canada and Indonesia that would ordinarily come behind Australia. The uncertainties of the secret ballot were illustrated by the disastrous candidacy in 1996, when our then UN ambassador, Richard Butler, confidently predicted victory to Canberra, only to find promised votes vanished on the day.

As pointed out by Richard Woolcott, Australia's last envoy to sit in the Security Council (1985-86), foreign delegations can happily take all the swanning and duchessing offered by candidates and can renege on promises, in the anonymity of the ballot. Indeed there is little to stop a diplomat bucking the instructions of his government.

So we must prepare to see our candidacy fail this time and, if it does, not to heed the knockers who deride the UN or diplomacy in general. A quarter of a century's absence from the Security Council is far too long. If unsuccessful this time, we must try again. Meanwhile, the effort has not been a waste.

Correction: The original version of this story said that Edmund Hillary said he climbed Mount Everest ''because it is there''. It was George Mallory.