Our place on the world stage

TONY Abbott didn't think much of Julia Gillard's trip to the United Nations General Assembly last week.

Rather than "dancing with Africans in New York", chided our loyal leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister should have been sitting down in Jakarta with Indonesia's Prime Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to talk about asylum seekers.

When it was pointed out that Yudhoyono was also in New York and that Gillard had been photographed deep in conversation with him, Abbott returned his bullet-riddled foot to its customary position (his mouth) and resumed his mission of torturing negative slogans into positive commitments.

But there were undoubtedly quite a few Australians who agreed with his basic thesis, which was the government had more pressing things to do with its time and money than the pursuit a two-year terms as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. After all, it's a long way away, seldom has much to do directly with Australia and in any case, the real power rests with the five permanent members and their right of veto. So why bother?

The quick answer is the one George Mallory gave to queries about why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: because it's there. The UN Security Council is the world's summit, the most prestigious position to which countries other than the big five (United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France) can aspire. Appointment carries great kudos and is seen as international recognition and acknowledgment of a country's status as a worthy global citizen.

In this sense it is like winning a bid to host the Olympic Games, and it has much the same downside: the campaign involves spending an inordinate amount of time with some pretty unsavoury people in the chase for their country's vote - and every one of the United Nations' 192 members has just one of them.

Gentle persuasion is seldom a sufficient inducement to secure it: frequently money, in the form of a foreign aid program, also changes hands. Australia's foreign aid budget is generous and growing, but there can be little doubt that our efforts over the four years since Kevin Rudd committed us to go for the Security Council seat have changed at least some of its priorities. And the same applies to our diplomatic corps as a whole.

And of course, we may not win: all the effort may have been too little and too late. There are three candidates for the two vacancies coming up on the Security Council and the other two - Finland and Luxembourg - had a six- year start on us. Even so, surely we can beat a pocket-size, comic opera patch like Luxembourg? Well, not necessarily.

The Europeans tend to stick together, and they are a formidable bloc. Also Luxembourg will attract the Francophone vote, an anachronism in the real world but still a force in international diplomacy. And even if all those who have promised us their votes deliver them (and we will never know; in a secret ballot what veteran diplomat Richard Butler called the RLB factor - the rotten lying bastards - invariably comes into play) we will only be one of the 10 non-permanents sitting at the feet of the top five. So: is it worth the trouble?

Abbott clearly does not think so, but interestingly John Howard's foreign minister Alexander Downer disagrees. Given the chance, he says, in concert with his Labor counterparts Gareth Evans and Kevin Rudd, Australia has a lot to contribute. And of course, merely being in the room in which the vital decisions are discussed (and sometimes agreed) brings its own benefits in contacts and information.

True, the veto process can be frustrating, as has been shown in the case of Syria. And as a whole the United Nations has frequently failed to live up to the high ideals of its founders. Nonetheless, it remains the world's last, best chance for peace, or at least the limitation of conflicts which might otherwise escalate out of control. The primary aim of the United Nations - concentrated in the Security Council - is to substitute talk for battle.

It was the great English conservative Winston Churchill who observed that "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war." Regrettably, Australian conservatives have seldom been as enthusiastic; since its foundation they have tended to treat the world body with an indifference that at times has verged on downright contempt.

The doyen, Sir Robert Menzies, made no secret of his disdain for a system that saw the black pawns of the former colonies (colonies which have believed should not have been granted independence so early, if at all) assume equal status with the white knights, whose company he greatly preferred. His lofty attitude was not improved after being humiliated on separate occasions by India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. And the election of his great legal and political rival, HV 'Doc' Evatt, as the body's first president confirmed his loathing.

His immediate successors were less hostile, but only Malcolm Fraser could truly be described as an internationalist. John Howard's foreign policy was generally confined to bilateral treaties, preferably within the Anglosphere. Abbott, with his constant disparagement of Rudd's and Gillard's campaign for the Security Council, is firmly locked into his mentor's determined insularity.

To outsiders, his recalcitrance is incomprehensible; it is almost like having the Opposition leader barrack against his own side at the test cricket - or argue against an Olympic bid. It could only happen in Australia. But then, the same applies to Abbott himself. And his opposition has provided Rudd and Gillard with a handy excuse if the vote goes against Australia on October 18. Yet again, they can blame Abbott's negativity. The man has his uses.

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