Federal Politics


Sitting on top of the world

Australia must find equilibrium among the powers and passions of the UN, RAMESH THAKUR writes

Now that Australia has won - and won handsomely - the coveted seat on the United Nations Security Council, the obvious question is: what does it intend to do with its elevated position in the next two years?

The current world order is marked by a pivotal rebalancing of interests and values. In the old world order, international politics, like all politics, was a struggle for power. The new international politics will be about the struggle for the ascendancy of competing normative architectures based on a combination of military power, understood as the disciplined application of force; structural power, understood as the capacity to translate a dominant position in the hierarchy of wealth, knowledge and/or military might into political clout; and values and ideas.

Compared with the old but increasingly discarded paradigm that held international politics to be an unrelenting struggle for power among states, in the new world order a multitude of state and non-state actors will compete for ascendancy of their preferred normative architectures.

This means that Australia must base its vision for the two-year elected term on the UN Security Council on the right combination of the pursuit and promotion of vital Australian interests on the one hand, and the advancement of the key ideas, values and principles underpinning the United Nations system on the other.

Given its population base, economic size and geographical location, Australia is uniquely reliant on a rules-based order to ensure its security and underpin its prosperity; the UN system is the biggest incubator bar none of global norms, rules and regulations (for example, health regulations); and the two sets of attributes mean that Australia is both reliant on and can make significant contributions to the UN-centred rule of international law to a greater extent than most people allow or realise.

The United Nations - and only the United Nations - houses the divided fragments of humanity. From its universal membership flows its unique legitimacy, on the one hand, but also its uniquely challenged capacity to make timely collective decisions, on the other. Within the UN system, the Security Council is the peak body for deciding on the great issues of war and peace and the pre-eminent forum for addressing global crises. It alone has the authority to make decisions that bind all countries, including Security Council members who vote against a resolution that is passed and also countries that are not members of the United Nations.


This makes the UN Security Council the forum where national interests and values must be mediated and reconciled into collective interests and global norms. The Security Council is also the forum where the rubber hits the ground with respect to the abstract discussions of a shifting global order as power, wealth and influence ebb inexorably away from the West to a select few of the rest.

The ramifications of the adjusting relationship between the US and China globally and between China and India in the Asian continent, as the relative status quo and rising powers respectively, will be manifested most acutely in the Security Council.

Australia will be required to navigate its way through these uncharted waters with skill.

As an elected member for a mere two years, most of the time Australia will be responding to items already on the Security Council's increasingly congested agenda and reacting to fresh crises as they erupt: whether predictably in longstanding conflict regions like the Middle East and the Korean peninsula, or with dramatic suddenness in new theatres and new forms. Given its weight, Australia will likely be asked to shoulder some serious responsibilities in assisting with the work of the range of committees (sanctions, counter-terrorism), working groups, political missions and peacekeeping activities that make up part of the routine Security Council work.

There is still some modest scope, nevertheless, to carve out a few policy themes based on strategic prioritisation.

What principles or criteria might guide such prioritisation? To determine that, three questions will have to be asked: is it of vital interest and importance to Australia? Does Australia have particular comparative advantages or unique assets and skills to contribute to it? Can Australia's voice and contribution make a significant difference? The three questions can be asked with respect to either thematic (e.g. post-conflict stabilisation) or geographical (e.g. central Africa) focus.

Having answered the questions, Australia will need to form issue-specific coalitions, either winning or blocking to advance/defeat resolutions/agendas. It will need to know its enemies from its friends and be careful not to embrace its big and powerful friends so tightly as to be suffocated by them.

It will need to temper considerations of bilateral relations with some sensitivity to the UN Charter values and principles that underpin the entire system of mandated multilateral organisations, and it will be prepared to act on the basis of what academics call diffuse reciprocity and equivalence of benefits. That is, instead of a quid pro quo on any single issue, defer perhaps to China on something of great importance to it but less consequential to Australia, in order to win Beijing's support for another item where the calculations are reversed.

Some practical examples of the sorts of major themes that Australia might like to promote are conflict prevention, post-conflict stabilisation and peace-building, mediation and the nuclear agenda (disarmament, nonproliferation, nuclear security, peaceful uses of nuclear energy) and sanctions.

There is also the rule of law (international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and international refugee law), and the protection of civilians, as well as international criminal justice.

Finally, because the window of opportunity is only a narrow two-years, Australia will have to avoid being timid and must instead be relatively bold (without being pushy) from the start of its term on January 1, 2013. At stake will be the country's legacy, reputational costs and benefits and the prospects of success in the next bid for a seat back on the Security Council. Australia must justify and not betray the trust placed in it by 140 of the world's 193 countries who are members of the United Nations.

One final thought.

Security Council deliberations can sometimes be thoroughly dispiriting and seemingly futile. In the midst of such collective despair as the session drags well into the evening and night, with no resolution in sight to the grave crisis of the day, the Australian ambassador will have one great advantage.

Gary Quinlan will be able to look his colleagues firmly in the eye and rally them with the wisdom and insight of the American cartoonist Charles Schultz.

To all of you worried about the world coming to an end today, he will be able to say, let me remind you that it is already tomorrow in Australia.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Centre for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.

This is the text of an address delivered in Parliament on November 29 when the UN Association of Australia presented its report, ''Australia's Role on the Security Council'', to Foreign Minister Bob Carr.