Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia, Singapore and Kuwait and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.
Danielle Cave is the latest Australian criticising an apparent concentration of intellectual and material resources within DFAT to conquer a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, to the detriment, as Danielle sees it, of increased Australian concentration on its Pacific neighbours.
As a retired official of another country I have no horse in this race and thus cannot be suspected of political bias, so I will try to demonstrate to Danielle, and possibly other more politically motivated detractors, why Canberra's present fight for a seat makes perfect sense to this former diplomat.
Despite of all its shortcomings, the Security Council is the central and most important organ within the UN. When you are a member of a club, and in Australia's case a dedicated member of a club, it makes sense to get into its steering committee when you see a chance.
Furthermore, the composition and working of the Security Council will have to undergo profound changes. There is simply no defensible reason why, in today's world (as opposed to 1944 when the initial decisions were taken), France and Great Britain have permanent seats but not Germany. Why China, but not India and Japan? This line of argument could be continued to other regions of the world.
Just like the G8 made way for the G20, so will the Security Council change to better reflect international realities. Australia will never have a permanent seat and doesn't aspire to one but does and will play an important part in the complex negotiations to bring about long overdue institutional change. What better place to influence such negotiations than in the Security Council itself?
Membership in the G20 from its outset demonstrated a broad international consensus that Australia is an important part of the Asia Pacific. As such, Australia in its work inside and outside the G20 represents a Pacific neighbourhood. Granted, the Security Council looks and works differently to the G20, but the basic idea is the same. In the Security Council Australia is likely to have not only its national interests at heart but also the region's best interest, and it will act and vote correspondingly.
Historically, Switzerland is arguably the most reluctant member of the UN. It took us over 50 years and two popular votes to finally become a full member. As recently as on the occasion of the second referendum, the government, advocating a 'yes' vote, had to practically swear that 'neutral Switzerland' (today a mere figment of imagination of the political right) would 'stay out of the big powers’ fights' and would thus not aspire to get into the Security Council. It is a promise happily and correctly forgotten now as Berne gears up for its own fight for a non-permanent seat in 2023. (The only possible reproach to make of Australia is that it started too late and thus did not initially spend enough resources.) If Switzerland runs for a non-permanent seat, why shouldn't Australia?
Contrary to what Danielle states, membership in the UN Security Council is not a foreign policy goal but a tool, a tool allowing for higher visibility and increased influence to shape UN decisions the way responsible, democratic and intensely globalised countries such as Australia (and Switzerland) would like.
Having worked with the Lowy Institute's own Alex Oliver in compiling her comparisons of overseas diplomatic networks of developed nations (yes, it is true that comparatively small Switzerland maintains about 40% more representations abroad than G20 member Australia), I am fully aware that Danielle and some other detractors argue primarily for another focus of scarce resources. You have to pick your fights and I will not get into the Australian discussions about whether or not the country does enough for its branding abroad.
Scarce or not, the means spent on amplifying reasonable positions within the UN and beyond do not only not detract from worthy goals such as Australia's Pacific policy but might very well advance them. And so I will certainly keep my fingers crossed when the vote in New York rolls around in a month or so, allowing Foreign Minister Carr and the excellent Australian permanent representative at the UN, Gary Quinlan, to occupy a ringside seat.
Photo by Flickr user Downing Street.