Eighteen months into their two-year term on the Security Council, Australia’s diplomats at the UN have become masters of crisis management. For more than a year they have played a major role in talks on humanitarian aid to Syria, forging a fragile consensus with Russia and China on the need to assist the suffering.
That consensus is at risk of rupturing. Australian ambassador Gary Quinlan helped shepherd a resolution on aid through the council in February but the Syrian regime has ignored it. Quinlan is now working on a sequel but Moscow and Beijing will block any serious pressure on Damascus, doing the relief effort even greater harm.
But if Australia is fighting an uphill battle, its prominence in the Syrian debate is noteworthy for three reasons. First, Quinlan and his team have shown that skeptics who warned Australia could not make any mark in the council were shortsighted.
Second, Australia has made a greater impact than many rising powers – including Brazil and India – that have taken turns on the council in recent years.
Last, the wrangling over Syria has offered Australia a sobering insight into how diplomacy between the US, China and Russia is liable to play out in future – and the options and limits for Canberra in mediating top-level international confrontations.
When Kevin Rudd announced Australia’s campaign for a council seat in 2008, many critics predicted that it would be a flop. Complaints mounted as the campaign’s costs passed $25 million.Doubts lingered on even after Quinlan secured a decisive victory in 2012.
Most temporary members of the council achieve very little during their tenures while the five big powers that dominate the UN – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – hammer out almost all important decisions in private.
Germany was humbled when it abstained on the Libyan intervention at the UN and struggled to repair the damage with Washington. Brazil, India and South Africa briefly tried to lead Security Council diplomacy over Syria in 2011 but got nowhere.
Australia has worked hard to be relevant. It has taken a lead on sensitive files, including Afghanistan and sanctions against Iran, with steady professionalism.
Other nations’ diplomats and UN officials often refer to the Australians’ pragmatism and collegiality. They have won credit for engaging thoughtfully with crises – such as the wars in Mali and the Central African Republic – of which Australia knows little.
This track record of international good citizenship would be commendable under any circumstances, especially as Australia was last on the council in the mid-1980s.
Australia’s engagement with Syria has been an even more consequential geopolitical balancing act. Eighteen months ago, the Security Council appeared deadlocked over Syria. Quinlan has lobbied doggedly to make the big powers on the council support aid efforts to the millions of displaced and hungry civilians inside Syria.
Although Luxembourg, another temporary council member, has been a close ally, other Western powers including the US initially questioned the utility of this initiative.
But over time, Australia has worked its way into the middle of diplomacy over Syria.
Quinlan kept his cool while chairing the Security Council last September, when the crisis sparked by the Syrian military’s large-scale use of chemical weapons came to a head. In the aftermath of that near-breakdown, Australia and Luxembourg gradually coaxed the other members of the council into taking the humanitarian situation more seriously.
When China and Russia agreed to February’s compromise resolution calling for “safe, rapid and unhindered” aid access to Syria, it seemed possible that the UN would break out of its three-year-old impasse over the conflict.
This proved to be illusory. The Ukrainian crisis has plunged the Security Council back into chaos. The Syrian government, emboldened by an increasingly strong military position, has made only miniscule gestures towards improving aid access.
For the remainder of its time on the council, Australia will have to keep up its focus on the Syrian aid effort, looking for any opportunity to help relief agencies get food and medicines into the country.
This will be grinding work that is unlikely to culminate in any great humanitarian breakthrough. But the effort may not only save some lives but also consolidate Australia’s reputation as a morally serious and diplomatically capable power, able to bargain with bigger players in the UN system.
This manoeuvring at the UN is also a useful education for Australian officials who may well spend the years ahead trying to defuse heightened tensions between the US and China while keeping a wary eye on Sino-Russian co-operation.
Australia’s term on the Security Council, once dismissed as a distraction, has been a timely test of the country’s ability to operate diplomatically in a deteriorating international environment. Ambassador Quinlan and his colleagues have shown that creative diplomacy, while difficult, is still just possible in this forbidding climate.
Richard Gowan is Research Director at New York University’s Centre on International Co-operation. He is the author of Australia in the UN Security Council published this week by the Lowy Institute.
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