Commentary | 03 April 2017

Australia must take the lead at the UN

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 April 2017. 

  • Peter Nadin

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 April 2017. 

  • Peter Nadin

The UN is under extreme stress. The international humanitarian system is on the brink of collapse. The UN's peacekeeping burden – fielding 16 missions and more than 100,000 troops – is unprecedented. And conflicts continue to rage across the globe – from Syria to the Horn of Africa to the Ukraine.

Another threat looms large. Since his election, Donald Trump has sought to make good on his promise: 'things will be different [at the UN] after January 20th.' In recent weeks, it was revealed that the White House would seek a massive reduction in funding to the UN. These developments have led some to argue that the UN is now 'facing its greatest existential crisis.'

In the midst of US retreat at the UN, Australia must once again embrace a spirit of multilateralism – in order to safeguard the foremost global problem-solving institution. In other words, Australia's active participation in international institutions should form one key pillar of our country's foreign policy.

It is high time to rebuild this pillar. The time has come for Australia to lead.

In the past Australia (and Australians) have played a key role in mobilising UN efforts. HV Evatt in San Francisco, Gareth Evans on Cambodia, and John Howard on East Timor. Unfortunately, today, Australia's engagement with the world body is underwhelming. This is not to take anything away from the impressive work of Australia's diplomatic corps. It is to recognise that Australia can do better.

A modest, consistent, and coherent commitment of resources and thinking will upgrade Australia's standing and give our diplomats a greater voice in debates that influence the shape of global governance.

Three initiatives should be considered.

First, Australia should focus on championing efforts to improve the UN's 'understanding of the world in which it now operates and deliver on its central mission of maintaining international peace and security.' This would be Australia's contribution to António Guterres' mission to make the UN more 'nimble, efficient and effective.'

Second, Australia should reengage with peacekeeping. Currently, Australia deploys only 38 personnel to UN peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and South Sudan. This figure is frankly embarrassing, and places Australia below countries such as Liberia (a country that still hosts a UN peacekeeping mission). Australia should set a target for increased participation – from between 200 to 350 personnel – over the next five years.

Third, more Australians should be leading at the UN. Peter Drennan and Kate Gilmore are the most senior Australians in the UN system. In short, more Australians should to join them at the top of the organisation. In order to achieve this goal, the Government must seek to foster Australian talent by the reintroduction of the associate experts scheme, the development of an opt-in career tracking mechanism for Australians working in international affairs, and the offering of opportunities for informal mentoring and professional development. 

Although, the majority of Australians share a positive view of the UN, some may ask the question: why should Australia engage with a flawed organisation such as the UN? To answer this question, a more informed perspective of the UN is required. Yes, the UN is a flawed organisation, but aren't all organisations fallible? Yes, it struggles to solve crises and tackle global problems, but name an organisation, alliance structure or state that does not struggle to contain crises and address global problems?

The first misunderstanding is one relating to expectations. Many people think the UN should be everywhere, and do everything flawlessly. End global poverty, end all wars, and end all injustice. If this is the bar, then the UN has failed. The UN's general budget is about $2.75 billion. The peacekeeping budget is about $7 billion (or roughly double the New South Wales Police Force's annual budget). These figures provide perspective. With the White House pushing for budget cuts, the UN will be forced to do 'more with less' or perhaps 'less with less, managed skilfully.'

The election of Trump and the selection of Antonio Guterres, as UN Secretary-General provides lays the groundwork for an opportunity. Indeed, this moment of great turmoil may well be the right moment for Australia, in concert with other likeminded countries, to lead reform and reshape the organisation to better serve the people of the world. It is not only in Australia's interests, it is Australia's responsibility.