Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 03:54 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 03:54 | SYDNEY

Howard selective UN rejectionism


Graeme Dobell

29 October 2010 13:24

There have been two strands of Australian political opinion on the United Nations: Evatt Enthusiasm and Menzies Scepticism. Menzies preferred the reassurance of great and powerful friends to the ambition of the world body. John Howard shares that sentiment and has pushed the Menzies position so far that he's almost created a new category. Howard has gone from scepticism and sniping about the UN to give the Menzies strand a grudging, even rejectionist tinge. 

As Howard's autobiography demonstrates, Australia's second longest serving Prime Minister has allowed his mental tic about the UN to grow into something of a blind spot. And he has bequeathed that habit of mind to the Liberal Party. The Liberal policy for the federal election expressed the Howard view that the UN does not amount to a core Australian interest: 

Australia under a Coalition Government will engage with multilateral organisations where it is clearly in our national interest. A Coalition government would not proceed with Labor’s extravagant UN Security Council bid, which has distracted from Australia’s core foreign policy interests.

This chant of 'bilateral good, multilateral bad' meant that during the foreign policy debate, Julie Bishop felt moved to note that the Liberals were not advocating that Australia should withdraw from the UN.

The UN phobia is on display in Howard's discussion of two of the biggest foreign policy issues of his leadership – Iraq and East Timor. On Timor, Howard gives no credit to the legal and moral authority of the UN in what was possible and what happened in 1999. 

The heading of the chapter is an interesting characterisation: 'The Liberation of East Timor'. Howard writes that this liberation is one of the more noble things that Australia has done in many years: 'Our nation was directly responsible for the birth of a very small country whose people remain deeply grateful for what we did.'

Credit or 'direct responsibility' for this traumatic breech birth ought to go jointly to Indonesia, the UN and the brave voters of East Timor. Australia was an essential player in achieving a happy ending to the drama, but vital as that role was, our proper hope would be for a nomination as Best Supporting Actor. East Timor voted to liberate itself, assisted by the special authority of the UN.

The characterisation of the UN's role in this birth is a bit of classic Howard conditionalism. Australia was willing, he writes, 'in the right circumstances, to be an active and constructive member of the UN.' In the right circumstances' The UN gets plenty of mentions through the East Timor chapter, but usually with a nudge or a niggle attached. Indonesia had to accept, finally, 'the international indignity of a UN-mandated peacekeeping force on its own territory.'

Howard makes what he calls 'a subtle, but important' distinction, that the force Australia led into East Timor to stop the bloodshed after the vote was not a 'blue helmet' operation under a UN commander: 'It was an international force, acting under the authority of a resolution of the Security Council, but it was not a UN force.'

On my count, there is only one sentence in praise of the UN as an organisation that does not come with an immediate qualifier, although there is praise for individuals within the UN. Howard writes that he was impressed in his dealings with the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, over East Timor: 'He was professional, candid and fully understood my own domestic political realities.' Sergio Vieira de Mello is judged as deft and superb.

 In the Howard view, individuals deliver, nations act, and the UN gets in the way.

On Iraq, Howard is scathing about the UN's failings while ignoring his own use of the UN's authority as the legal basis for invading Iraq. Howard is setting out his case for history as well as re-running the old Iraq debating points. This drives the UN tic into overdrive. So Tony Blair is lumped in with those who have a 'childlike faith in the processes of the UN. To them, the sine qua non of good foreign policy was always adhering to the dictates of multilateral organisations, especially the UN.'

Howard tells of a meeting with Hans Blix, where the UN weapons inspector made the 'astonishing admission' that Iraq would not have moved an inch without the pressure of the US military build-up. For Howard, this shows the double standards and impotence of the UN: 'A resolution of the Security Council carried no weight at all.' Perhaps there is a hint of double standards in running this line while also using 'Iraq's continued defiance of previous UN resolutions' as the legal cover for the invasion.

Howard expresses his 'contempt' for Labor's embrace of the Evatt tradition and its opposition to the war without a final authorising resolution from the UN: 'Apparently it was wrong of me to base a decision to go into Iraq, partly at least, on the strength of our decades-old and important American alliance, yet it was in order to follow the caprice of a Security Council vote by the Russians and the French to determine Labor policy.'

The key reason John Howard went to war was to support the US alliance. He found it 'inconceivable that we would not stand beside the Americans.' But whatever measure of legal argument he offered up at the time was based on the UN. As John Howard's autobiography makes clear, he invokes the UN if it is a useful debating point, not because he believes in it.