Lecturing More and Listening Less: Recent Australian Attitudes Towards Multilateralism

Australia, more than many countries, is dependent on multilateral cooperation. Somewhat isolated at the southern end of the world and with few natural allies, we need to promote our political and economic influence. We are far from our major markets and dependent on a liberal multilateral trading system and on open sea-lanes to sustain our prosperity. In such circumstances, we have a natural interest in bolstering the multilateral system of which the UN is the most politically important component.

Strong support for the United Nations has been a consistent feature of Australian foreign policy since the organization was founded in 1945. I have to say I was disappointed on visits to New York in October 2000 and again in 2002 and 2004 to find a changed attitude towards Australia. I encountered the opinion that our style in the United Nations had changed since 1996. It was said we lectured more and listened less. We were also seen as much more closely aligned with the US than we were in the early 1990s. This was made particularly clear when Foreign Minister Downer curiously, unnecessarily and publicly endorsed President Bush’s determination, despite widespread domestic opposition and international concern, to persist with the appointment of John Bolton, a man who has publicly expressed his contempt for the Organisation, as America’s Ambassador to the United Nations. I also found a perception that under the Howard government Australia was less interested in the United Nations and was retreating from our previous positive approach to multilateralism.

This opinion would have been reinforced by Foreign Minister Downer’s address to the National Press Club on 26 June 2003. Downer said then that, ‘increasingly, multilateralism is a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator’. He went on to say multilateral institutions need to be more results orientated if they are to serve the interests of the international community, as defined by Mr. Downer.

He added that Australia was prepared ‘to join coalitions of the willing that can bring focus and purpose to addressing the urgent security and other challenges we face’. Now, predictably, this did not go down well in New York. In suggesting Australia could play the role of gunslinger in the service of coalitions of the willing – a euphemism for military action without UN endorsement – he added that, ‘sovereignty in our view is not absolute’, a view he changed in practice when he said the sovereignty of the Solomon Islands must be respected in the context of our intervention in 2004.

Mr. Downer’s June 2003 speech reflected both the Howard Government’s retreat from multilateralism – except when it suits it – as did Prime Minister Howard’s statement that Australia would be prepared to launch pre-emptive strikes against terror targets in Asia. Both these statements predictably caused concern in New York and especially in Asia because they challenged the United Nation’s founding principle of collective security and because they were seen as undermining the relevance of the Organization.

Within three months of this speech, however, those countries that had invaded Iraq and condemned the United Nations failure to endorse the invasion, including Australia, found they needed the United Nations to help rebuild the country they had shattered and to give this process more international credibility.

This situation has done little to enhance Australia’s reputation at the UN. We failed badly in our bid to be elected to the Security Council in 1996 and we are, sadly, at present regarded in New York as virtually unelectable to the Council in a contested secret ballot.

Mr. Downer had previously dismissed the United Nations as irrelevant when the Security Council failed to authorize the invasion of Iraq. It is ironic that the United Nations was subsequently pressured to come to the rescue of the United States, British and Australian strategy in Iraq, when the coalition forces were increasingly seen not as liberators but as occupiers. When America’s optimistic attitudes about the future of Iraq, echoed by Australia, appeared to be failing, the United Nations was suddenly no longer irrelevant but was being urged to share the financial burden and to play a major role in post-war Iraq. Similarly, the necessity of obtaining a seat at the upcoming ASEAN conference has forced the Howard Government to retreat from its threat of preemptive military actions in the region.

The fall-out from Iraq should be overcome. The United States actually now needs the UN as a helpful partner in Iraq, not as a scapegoat for its continuing problems in relation to that country. The UN will need to assume increased responsibilities if Iraq produces a sovereign government and security improves. Instead of complaining about the UN, Washington – and Canberra – should work to smooth the path for a larger role for the UN in that shattered country. The United States (and Australia) still need the UN’s unrivalled ability to confer international legitimacy as well as its growing experience of nation building. It is for this reason, if for no other, that reform of the UN should be encouraged and supported by both Australia and the United States.

Flawed as its past performance has been in a number of areas, the United Nations remains the best hope for the international community, especially the smaller and less developed states, as the struggle goes on for a more secure and peaceful world, for wider social justice, and for decent living standards throughout the world. I hope Australia can play a constructive part in this quest. If, however, the multilateral system is not resuscitated in the near future the world may drift towards international chaos. It is in the interest of all nations to arrest this drift. Australia can still play a role – if our government chooses to do so – in helping to close that gap between rhetorical aspirations and reform outcomes; a process which could make the difference between the survival of civilized life and a descent into global chaos.

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