Melissa Conley Tyler is National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Almog Elijis is an AIIA intern.
Be careful what you wish for in international affairs.
On Sunday, Australia will take up the presidency of the UN Security Council for September. Given the federal election and the unfolding situation in Syria, the timing could hardly be more challenging. Australia worked hard to win a place as an elected member of the UN Security Council, the diplomatic version of the chance to host the Olympics. The next month will show that it's not just a prize.
It was a difficult campaign. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced Australia's candidacy in March 2008 six years after competitors Luxembourg and Finland. The Opposition campaigned against the bid, describing it as 'extravagant' and distracting 'from core foreign policy interests'. So it was with a certain amount of relish that Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced 'a big, juicy, decisive win' with Australia elected in the first round of voting with an emphatic 140 votes.
Australia's campaign slogan was 'Making a Difference for Small and Medium Countries' and it has been trying to deliver on this promise.
Australia is the chair of three sanction committees: Iran, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It is also the 'pen holder' for Afghanistan with responsibility for preparing resolutions.
So far Australia has achieved a number of things, including playing a role in resolutions on Mali; promoting the women, peace and security agenda; and contributing to the reform of UN Security Council working methods. Something that gained attention was Australia's contribution to the Arria Formula meeting on climate change and security, convened by Pakistan and the UK, where Senator Carr recorded a video with President Tong on a beach in Kiribati talking about the impact of climate change on small island states and the threat of rising sea levels.
Usually Australia would see its month as UN Security Council president as a way to shape the international agenda. September is a particularly prized month because it includes the 'Leadership week' with world leaders attending.
The federal election has made it harder for Australia to leverage this opportunity. Whether and how the newly elected or re-elected prime minister will be involved in UN Security Council presidency post-election is not yet clear. As Russell Trood has noted, it's an example of an important diplomatic opportunity falling prey to domestic politics.
The biggest issue for Australia and for the Security Council as a whole is the unfolding situation in Syria, which is set to dominate the next month. Australia is on record as desiring a strong Council response based on Kofi Annan's Geneva Plan. Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr has put forward a proposal for all sides to the conflict to allow medical equipment to reach civilians and protect hospitals, and in recommending referral to the International Criminal Court.
Given the continuing deadlock, Australia counted it as a win for its advocacy that the UN Security Council hosted a dedicated session on the situation back in April and that Rwanda delivered a press statement on the humanitarian situation as president. Australia has also convened an Arria Formula meeting on Syria. Australia is continuing to raise the issue and advocate an active response by the international community in order to promote a Syrian-led political transition.
The next month will be a test of Australia's ability to make its mark at the UN Security Council. Lessons from other small and middle powers show there are a number of methods Australia can use to maximise its influence, including participating actively, coalition-building, confidence-building, strong and creative leadership and engagement of parties in discussions that affect them. New Zealand's last term on the UN Security Council during the 1994 Rwanda genocide showed that it is possible for a small state to decisively influence the international response.