National interest and pride demand we fight to join the UN Security Council
In The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 2012
Julia Gillard is right to ignore the critics who are calling for our bid to be dumped.
PRIME Minister Julia Gillard was right to make clear this week, as she did on ABC Radio the morning after her decisive leadership win, that Australia would continue to pursue its bid for a two-year non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, which comes to a vote in October.
Some pundits have been arguing in recent days (for example, Raoul Heinrichs on this page yesterday), as has the opposition for many months, that this campaign is a misplaced national priority, and a dimension of Kevin Rudd's legacy that should rapidly be abandoned. But they have been missing the point about the national interests involved, and the Prime Minister is to be applauded for ignoring their advice.
Of course foreign policy, like any aspect of government, has to be conducted on a thoughtfully prioritised basis. It's a matter of properly defining national interests, and carefully assessing opportunities for influence in advancing them, taking into account both our capacity and real-world constraints. Australia is no minnow in world affairs, but we can't, and shouldn't try to, do everything.
Our highest priorities, now and for years to come, will be trying to avoid any kind of zero-sum-game choice having to be made between the US and China, as our crucial security and economic partners respectively, and getting and keeping right our relationship with the next emerging giant, India, and with Indonesia and the other key players in south-east Asia.
I also need no persuasion, as I hope my own record as foreign minister makes clear, that paying close, continuing and sympathetic attention to our immediate South Pacific neighbourhood must always be core Australian foreign policy business.
(Since so much of the diplomacy here is intensely personal, there is much to be said for having - as I was blessed with Gordon Bilney - another minister within the portfolio dedicated full-time to this role, maybe combining it with line responsibility for the aid program as well.)
But having high priorities of this kind does not mean that one cannot have, in a well-ordered foreign ministry - and with a well-ordered ministerial travel program - other high priorities as well. And taking a rotational seat at the apex of the global system for maintaining peace and security, the only body legally able to mandate the use of force, is not some kind of optional icing on the cake, likely to be more trouble than it is worth, but is absolutely in Australia's national interests, both narrowly and broadly conceived.
In terms of our immediate security and economic interests, it is worth remembering that our troops operate in East Timor and Afghanistan under Security Council mandate. And the council imposes sanctions we are obliged to implement, in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere.
More broadly, there is a third dimension of national interest that should never be ignored in these debates - being, and being perceived to be, a good international citizen. A country like Australia not only benefits from the global system but has a responsibility, in our own interests as well as everybody else's, to ensure that it works effectively, even if that means having to make some tough public voting choices on issues that we might otherwise be able to avoid.
There is not just sentiment involved here, but hard-headed calculation. Being, and being seen to be, an active player in pursuing co-operative global solutions to issues such as mass atrocity crimes, terrorism, trafficking in drugs, arms and people, and cross-border aggression both confers a general reputational benefit (gold in the currency of international affairs, as the Scandinavians have long understood) and significantly increases the chances of direct reciprocal support on issues of immediate concern to us, such as refugee flows.
We started very late, other deals have been done, and it's not going to be easy to win this UN campaign. It will certainly be almost impossible if we paint ourselves into a tiny minority corner on the Palestinian statehood issue, should that come to a vote in the General Assembly before October. But Australia has a formidable story to tell.
We are the 12th largest economy in the world, the sixth largest by landmass and with the third largest maritime zone; we are a creative middle power with global interests and a long - if not unbroken - record on both sides of politics of active and effective diplomacy; we are one of the most multicultural countries in the world; we bring to the table a unique perspective bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australian peacekeepers and individuals working in international organisations, both official and non-governmental, overwhelmingly have outstanding reputations; and we have had a strong and long-standing commitment to a rule-based global and regional order in which no one has a monopoly on global decision-making.
These are the factors that make us a distinctive presence on the global stage, and make it entirely appropriate - after an extraordinary 27-year absence from the United Nations Security Council table - that, as the Prime Minister put it this week, once again ''Australia be able to have its voice heard at that level''.
Both national interest and national pride demand that this effort be made, and that it command strong bipartisan and community support.
Gareth Evans was foreign minister from 1988 to 1996. He is a professorial fellow at Melbourne University and chancellor of the Australian National University. This article is based in part on his 2012 Australia Day speech in Parliament House, Melbourne.
Link to article: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/national-interest-and-pride-demand-we-fight-to-join-the-un-security-council-20120229-1u38x.html