Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited New York this week and, as leaders have to do when in the Big Apple, got together with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the state of the world. The meeting may focus some attention on Australia's two-year tenure as a member of the UN Security Council, which has otherwise only garnered sporadic domestic interest. At the start of this year the Lowy Institute asked me to assess Australia's performance in the Council to date. How has it done?
Evaluating the efforts of any temporary member of the Security Council is tricky. The five permanent members (America, Britain, China, France, Russia) dominate most debates. The most impressive feature of Australia's term is that has tried to escape this trap, taking a leading role in debates over humanitarian aid to Syria. This has been a slow and in many ways dispiriting story: although the Council passed a resolution initiated by Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg on getting aid into Syria in February, the results have been almost nil and the slaughter goes on.
But Australia deserves some credit for persevering. It has kept the spotlight on the situation in Syria, pushing China and Russia to acknowledge the scale of the tragedy. As I argue in the new Lowy Analysis on Australia in the Security Council, this initiative shows a mixture of high ideals and canny diplomatic tactics.
This fits with Australia's broader reputation after eighteen months as a Council member. Its representatives are realistic in dealing with other diplomats but also serious in engaging with NGOs and trying to make the Council more transparent.
On many issues, Australia has had to bow to the interests of permanent Council members: while coordinating resolutions on Afghanistan, for example, it has given due respect to American preferences. France has an undisputed lead on conflicts in Francophone Africa, such as those in Mali and Central African Republic (CAR). But the Australian team has tried to engage on these issues too by, for example, lobbying for stronger human rights monitoring and an inquiry into crimes in CAR.
Australia has also focused on trying to strengthen the UN's sanctions regimes, a notoriously complicated area that many temporary Council members like to avoid.
So the Australian team at least gets an A for effort. That, critics may say, is not much comfort when Syria is still in turmoil, relations with Russia are plummeting over Ukraine and Beijing ensures that the Security Council plays no part in Asian crises like those in the East and South China Seas. Australia's efforts in the Security Council have largely been about trying to make existing international cooperation mechanisms – from sanctions to aid deliveries – work better just as the entire international order has started to look decidedly fragile.
Still, as Kipling remarked, it's good if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.