Australia Earns its Place at the UN’s Top Table

By Elke Larsen

Australia will have a seat on the U.N. Security Council for the next two years. Source: Franç's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Australia clinched its second ever term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council October 18. Domestic arguments that the $24 million diplomatic campaign was as a misuse of Australia’s aid budget rapidly faded as Australia was voted by the global body of nations to the prestigious seat in a landslide first-round victory.

As was pointed out by the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove, this seat heralds a new era in Australian foreign policy. Australia now has a voice in the premier global economic institution, the G20, and the premier security institution, the U.N. Security Council.

In the U.N. voting process for non-permanent representatives, there are two rounds of secret ballots – the winner of the first round, if it receives more than 129 votes, automatically snares the first seat. The winner of the second round captures the second available seat. Australia decisively won the first round with 140 votes.

Although some critics may argue that Australia has “purchased” the seat by wooing African and Caribbean states with aid, the secret ballot system means that promised votes do not necessarily equal actual votes – as Australia learned in its unsuccessful 1996 bid to win a Security Council seat. The strength of the recent victory suggests that there are more substantive reasons why Australia’s election is significant.

Australia’s win reflects growing global interest in the Asia-Pacific. The region’s extraordinary economic growth clearly captured the world’s attention recently by providing vast new trade and investment opportunities, and also new challenges such as the dispute between China and five other claimants in the South China Sea.

Australia sought the Security Council seat under the category of “Western European and Other,” and its main rivals were Luxembourg and Finland. Clearly, Australia is the “other” in this category.  Although historically Australia has a European heritage, its geography, and future, are in the Asia-Pacific. According to the white paper released October 28, Australia is clearly aligning itself with Asia.

Previously the only non-permanent members from the greater Asia region were India and Pakistan. This time around, however, under the December 31 Security Council seat rotation, there will be two non-permanent members from the Asia-Pacific joining the top table: South Korea and Australia.

Australia brings an impeccable record for supporting international norms, laws, and actions to the table. Australia has a historical commitment to human rights and the norm of “responsibility to protect,” contributing to U.N. mandated peacekeeping missions for over 50 years. Notable missions include the 1990s conflict settlement in Bouganville, Papua New Guinea, and helping East Timor establish independence after 1999.

As a middle power, Australia makes its mark on the world stage  through international institutions such as the United Nations. Australian foreign policy, often described as “middle power activism,” means that Australia will voraciously and effectively work with other members of the Security Council to find solutions to pressing international issues.

Australia has proven this strategy to be a success in the past when, during Australia’s first term on U.N. Security Council, Ambassador Richard Woolcott drafted the resolution that brought the long Iran-Iraq war to an end in 1988. Australia can be expected to continue to be one of the most vocal non-permanent Security Council members – a fact backed by Foreign Minister Bob Carr announcing his concern for Syria within minutes of winning the seat.

Ms. Elke Larsen is a Research Assistant with the CSIS Pacific Partners Initiative.


1 comment for “Australia Earns its Place at the UN’s Top Table

  1. Robert
    November 7, 2012 at 05:41

    It was far more than $24 million – this is an old figure from years ago.

    Interesting to read the views from the US. Those from here in Australia are, by and large, pretty different about Australia’s position on the UNSC. There is very little enthusiasm in Australian foreign policy circles and a real feeling that the UN (which is so detached from the Asia-Pacific) doesn’t bring much to the table for a country like Australia. We have very limited foreign policy resources and many feel these will be wasted in the UNSC which spends little time looking at countries and in regions that are most important to Australia’s national interest.

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