The electoral process that will decide today whether Australia has been successful in its bid to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council is elaborate; unsurprisingly for a legalistic organisation like the UN, which was set up in the hope of subordinating war and power politics to a constellation of rules, regulations and highly formalised mechanisms for consultation and collective action.
As described in the series of posts here which have dealt with various aspects of the bid, the three candidates from the geographically unwieldy Western European and Others Group – Australia, Finland and Luxembourg – are vying for two places on the Council. To succeed, Australia needs at least two-thirds of the vote, or 129 countries out of 193. Voting will continue in rounds until two candidates are selected. Adding to the suspense, intrigue and general sense of gamesmanship, voting is anonymous. This means, as others have noted, that countries can vote regardless of any private diplomatic commitments. In many cases, votes will have been promised twice or three-times over and can still be betrayed.
To complicate matters further, a number of UN heads-of-mission will ignore the direction of their foreign ministries and vote according to their own interests; this especially applies to those representing smaller nations.
For Australia, the process will revive the spectre of 1996, when Canberra last strove for the Security Council and failed, which still looms large in the collective consciousness of Australia's policy establishment. Having proffered all the inducements and ticked all the boxes, it was betrayed humiliatingly, provoking Australia's then UN Ambassador, Richard Butler, to decry the treachery of his foreign counterparts, the 'rotten lying bastards', who had blind-sided and back-stabbed Canberra out of the race. Read More
The vicissitudes of this experience reinforce a simple reality: at the end of formalities, once the machinations and counter-ploys have been actualised, Canberra faces a stark, binary outcome: it will win or lose.
At first glance, a loss seems the more disturbing result; not because of the risk of being precluded from important international opportunities, which, as I’ve noted before, would actually be quite minimal. It's the reputational damage that would sting most, especially as the country's sense of diplomatic self-assurance has come to depend unhealthily on the approval of others.
Indeed, the prospect of being diplomatically outmuscled by a country like Luxembourg – tiny and powerless – is a distinctly lowering one, from which the morale of our otherwise indefatigable foreign service would take a nasty blow and might not recover all that quickly.
If Australia does lose, one thing is certain: the recriminations will be vicious and instantaneous – and intensely political. What did we do wrong? And who bears the responsibility for failure? Kevin Rudd, the architect of the bid who prosecuted it with ruthless determination, or his successors to whom it was bequeathed? Perhaps most crucially, how could we have allowed ourselves, yet again, to stake our credibility and reputation along with vast sums of money, not to mention the opportunity costs of diverted aid and superfluous new consulates, on the diplomatic equivalent of a roulette roll on red?
And yet from the burning wreckage of defeat, new opportunities can arise. In time, aid flows could be redirected and diplomatic representation consolidated according to core strategic priorities. Australian foreign policy would be infused with a renewed and healthy scepticism of the value of large multilateral organisations, and of the costs and risks inherent in the pursuit of diplomatically grandiose prestige-projects.
Meanwhile, policy makers could get back to their core task: distilling a realistic conception of Australia's national interests, embedded largely in our own region, into an actionable set of foreign policy tasks for our diplomats to prosecute.
Ultimately, Australia is entirely deserving of a spot on the Security Council and well placed to win one, not least because the people who've been working tirelessly on it are some of our best and brightest. And while being elected will be a significant victory in and of itself, any elation should also be tempered by recognition of the challenges ahead.
Canberra will have no choice but to follow through on its extensive range of commitments. It will have to double-down on its UN representation, potentially at the expense of more important priorities closer to home. And, in the worst case, as I’ve argued before, it could also find itself forced to make difficult choices on issues of contention between China and the United States, with the risk of upsetting one or the other.
Win or lose, things are about to get interesting.
Photo by SXC user CWMGary.