CANBERRA – This autumn in New York, Australia will be contesting for one of the elected seats on the U.N. Security Council. Some domestic critics ask why bother with the United Nations? Some international critics ask why waste a vote on Australia? Both are wrong.
The U.N. matters, and having Australia on the Security Council should matter to the world. The U.N. is both an idea, and an actual organization with structures, procedures and personnel.
As an idea, the U.N. is the world’s only body to house the divided fragments of humanity. It symbolizes a world in which those condemned to die in fear are given the chance to live with hope again, want gives way to dignity, and apprehensions are turned into aspirations. This symbolism finds expression in the three overarching normative mandates of security, development and human rights.
As an organization, the U.N.’s performance reveals both problems and achievements. It’s an international bureaucracy with many failings and flaws, a forum often used for finger-pointing, not problem-solving, and a house divided against itself that struggles to survive.
Yet it remains indispensable. The world is interdependent in areas as diverse as financial markets, infectious diseases, climate change, terrorism, nuclear peace and safety, product safety, food supply and water tables, fish stocks and ecosystem resources. Any of these can provoke military interstate conflict. They are also drivers of human insecurity because of the threat they pose to individual lives and welfare. All require joint action to enhance security, improve welfare, reduce costs and bring order and regularity to international affairs.
At the center of this interdependent, globalized and networked multilateral order is the U.N. In the theater of world politics, the UN has starred in major or minor roles in preventing and managing conflicts, regulating armaments, promoting human rights and international humanitarian law, liberating the colonized, providing economic and technical aid to the newly liberated, organizing elections, empowering women, educating children, feeding the hungry, sheltering the dispossessed and displaced, housing the refugees, tending to the sick, promulgating global health norms and regulations, and coordinating disaster relief and assistance: all on a 24/7 basis.
This is not always done well, efficiently, cost-effectively, or in time. As with the comment about the dog that walks on its hind legs, however, the wonder is not that it is done badly, but that it is done at all.
Consider the use of force. Formerly, going to war was an accepted attribute of the sovereignty of states. Since 1945, the U.N. has spawned a robust norm against going to war except in self-defense against armed attack or when authorized by the U.N. All nations are legally obliged also to abide by U.N. sanctions imposed on international outlaws.
Why would Australia not want, and why should it not be given, a periodic voice and vote in the deliberations and decisions that have such a profound effect on its security and prosperity?
Australia has a unique set of knowledge, experience and skills to offer to the U.N. It has successfully leveraged European heritage and values in the Asia-Pacific setting to create a vibrant, multicultural, orderly and peaceful society that is the envy of much of the world.
Australia last served on the Security Council 27 years ago. By all objective measures (GDP, military capacity, foreign aid), Australia should be an elected member once every 10 to 15 years. This is just as true with respect to Australia’s manifold contributions to the U.N. system, from paying its assessed dues in full and on time to peacekeeping contributions, development assistance and humanitarian and disaster relief. The energizing mix of Asia-Pacific dynamism and rich European heritage ensures that Australia normally offers high-quality yet practical and relevant ideas for improving world governance.
The typical U.N. activity in peace and security is peacekeeping. Australia has a proud, historic and continuing engagement with peacekeeping as the 12th-biggest contributor. More than 65,000 Australians have served with distinction in over 50 U.N./multilateral peace operations, starting with the world’s first peacekeeping mission in Indonesia in 1947-48 that mediated the conflict between the Dutch colonial power and Indonesian independence fighters.
Australia brings to peace operations a thoroughly professional military, a fully disciplined force that has a commitment to civil-military integration, and an exemplary history of subordination to civil authority and the rule of law. Yet it can be postured for high-end operations to defeat armed challenges, as in East Timor.
Backstopping military contributions to multilateral peace operations, Australia has a ready reserve, swiftly deployable group of 600 police officers in the International Deployment Group, plus an Australian Civilian Corps, plus the Australian Civil-Military Center to help develop doctrine and provide technical assistance.
Australia can point to a proud and bipartisan record of leadership in resolving some critical conflicts in its neighborhood and around the region, including Cambodia in the 1980s and East Timor a decade later. Australian troops operate, fight and die in Afghanistan under a U.N. mandate. In all three cases, the toll in lives and legitimacy would have been hugely greater without U.N. blessing.
Australia has a global train of interests as the world’s 12th-biggest economy, sixth- biggest landmass, third-largest maritime zone and seventh-biggest aid donor. With far-flung civilizational, commercial, strategic and environmental interests and links, Australia has a direct and big stake in a rules-based global order. The U.N. system is the biggest incubator of global rules to govern the world, from trade, refugees and the law of the sea to the use of force and the regulation of armaments. Whisper it quietly around Washington corridors: The U.N. successfully disarmed Saddam Hussein of all weapons of mass destruction
For better or worse, the key forum for addressing almost all the critical global challenges in the next few years will be the Security Council.
Australia can stand aside and join the nattering nabobs of international negativism in complaining that U.N. decisions are always for the worse. Or it can take its rightful seat at the high table to help ensure they are mostly for the better.
Ramesh Thakur, former U.N. assistant secretary general and principal writer of Kofi Annan’s 2002 reform report, is professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and adjunct professor at the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University.