Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 19:49 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 19:49 | SYDNEY

The UNSC bid was a costly mistake


Danielle Cave


19 September 2012 10:26

Thanks to Daniel Woker for schooling me on the importance of the UN Security Council. In some ways I am in agreement. It does make sense for countries to strive to join the UN's 'steering committee' once in a while.

But what's missing in Dr Woker's response is why the UNSC is important to Australia. Why, when our foreign affairs department has so few resources, did we focus on this bid at the expense of other international policy priorities? And with multilateralism suffering setback after setback, was a bid for the UN Security Council a smart strategic decision in an environment that favours bilateral and regional solutions to international problems? 

I only briefly touched on the UNSC bid in my Pacific strategy blog posts, but as Dr Woker has pulled this to the forefront in his response (and since Kevin Rudd has thrown in his two cents), let me elaborate.

Firstly, there is a considerable opportunity cost in taking on something as resource intensive as Australia's ultra-tardy bid (7 years behind rival Luxembourg) for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Enhanced relations with our nearest neighbours is just one price we've paid. Relations with the Pacific Islands region must always be at the core of Australian foreign policy. We share a unique set of economic, security, development and diplomatic ties that are not replicated to the same extent in any other international relationship. When Australia's relations with the Pacific fall out of centre-view, this should be questioned and contested. 

China analysts and the bulk of the private sector may also be wondering why, over the past two years, our foreign ministers have visited Ethiopia, Egypt, France, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Switzerland rather than spending more time in China. Why have our foreign ministers spent portions of 2011-12 in Lithuania, El Salvador, Hungary, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Oman, Malta and Liechtenstein when our high-level engagement with India and Papua New Guinea were already so lacking?

Flicking through the flight paths of our parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs is even more alarming – jammed full of visits to countries inconsequential to Australian foreign, trade, security and aid policy but important for Australia's UN Security Council bid.

Aid to Latin America and the Caribbean is another example of Australia's sidetracked international policy that can be attributed at least partly to Australia's bid for a UN Security Council seat. I enjoyed reading Wendy Jarvie's ten reasons why AusAID should stay committed to Latin America, but I have just one for why we should go: because providing aid to Latin America does not fit in with the Australian Government's foreign aid objective of alleviating poverty in line with Australia's national interest. If you want a second reason, nor does Australia possess a competitive advantage or expertise in providing development assistance to this part of the world (like we do in Asia and in the Pacific).

Australian aid will make such an insignificant difference to development outcomes in the region that it will not pass the 'value for money' test. Unlike Africa, levels of poverty across Latin America are not substantial enough to argue that AusAID continue re-directing trivial portions of Australia foreign aid away from the Asia Pacific. After all, the 2011 Australian aid review found that aid to Latin American and the Caribbean was of 'limited Australian strategic interest'.

Australia entered its UN Security Council bid under the assumption that multilateralism will continue to be an effective tool of international policy. But multilateralism has not served Australia well of late, and we need to face the prospect that, as a tool of foreign policy, multilateralism does not offer Australia the value it once did.

Gareth Evans is right; Australia has a formidable story to tell. We are a creative middle power, and an aspiring aid superpower. Yet we are also deeply confused about our place in the world. Our foreign policy architecture continues to spread across a range of government departments and is no longer centered in diplomacy. Australia's private sector and range of research institutes, along with our prime minister, are reaching out to Asia and trying to examine Australia's role in the Asian Century. Concurrently, our foreign minister is boosting multilateralism as our foreign affairs department frantically devotes itself to beating Luxembourg and gaining a seat on the UN steering committee next month.

This confusion may well be resolved soon, with the Asian Century White Paper set to launch around the same time Australia discovers whether it has been successful in securing a seat at the table in UN headquarters in New York. One is important to a range of government, private sector and civil society actors and will spark a debate about Australia's place in the world. The other holds diminishing value in a world where the limits of multilateralism become starker year by year.

I will be joining Dr Woker and crossing my fingers for an Australian win at the UN next month. Despite my arguments, the decision to bid for a UN Security Council seat was made, dollars have been spent, and our foreign affairs department needs this boost after years of purged budgets. If Australia wins, DFAT will no doubt grasp the opportunity and serve Australia proudly. But win or lose, the opportunity cost of this bid has been enormous

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.