November 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Australia at the UN Security Council

By Nick Bryant
Our month-long stint as president

As the sun set over New York’s East River, the sound of cocktail-party chatter vied with the hum of a didgeridoo. Waiters criss-crossed the roof terrace, serving Adelaide Hills shiraz and Coopers Pale Ale. In the lobby, an official held up a fluorescent sign warning of kangaroos for the next five kilometres. At a breakfast four weeks earlier, pies and lamingtons had been on the menu. Now it was pink-perfect lamb chops and marinated shrimp. With less than six hours left of its month-long presidency of the United Nations Security Council, the Australian mission was throwing a celebratory party.

The host, Australia’s ambassador to the UN, Gary Quinlan, a Newcastle native with the squat physique of a rugby prop, could be forgiven his air of demob happiness. The UN had just experienced its busiest and most intense month since the build-up to the Iraq War in 2003. A Security Council known for its inaction had suddenly become a blur of diplomatic activity, resulting in a long-awaited resolution on Syria and progress on Iran. Throughout it all, Quinlan’s hand had been on the gavel.

Since the president’s duties are primarily procedural, Australia could never claim to have played a pivotal role. Russia and the United States were the key actors. But Quinlan, a professional diplomat who also worked as Kevin Rudd’s senior foreign policy adviser, was seen as a reassuringly stable presence. To its credit, Australia harnessed this unusual moment of unity on Syria to push a rare statement calling for more humanitarian access to the country. Additionally, it managed to achieve the main policy goal of its presidency: to pass a resolution cracking down on small arms, an issue with regional resonance, especially in the once near-lawless Solomon Islands. Over the course of the month, then, Australia underscored its reputation as one of the Council’s more activist non-permanent members.

For a quarter of its presidency, the Australian mission also had to contend with the complication of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in caretaker mode. Then came the visit of a new foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, who launched herself onto the international stage during leaders’ week at the UN’s General Assembly with a blitz of bilateral appearances with counterparts. Why, Quinlan and his 20-strong team even had to factor in the simultaneous presence in New York of two former prime ministers, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

A photographer from Fairfax managed to snap Rudd walking, dejected and alone, through the skyscraper-lined canyons of Turtle Bay, the UN’s riverside home. But the real money shot went begging: Rudd and Gillard strolling together down a nearby footpath, as seen by an Australian television cameraman but not filmed, because he was working for an Arabic news channel at the time.

In the world’s most faddish and up-to-the-minute city, ex-newsmakers face instant irrelevancy. But at least a refuge is on offer at the Clinton Global Initiative. Timed to coincide with the UN General Assembly, this conference run by former US president Bill Clinton’s foundation gives erstwhile world leaders the chance to enjoy something of an afterlife. That explained Gillard’s presence in town. Alas, Rudd did not even make Clinton’s roster. Instead, he busied himself with meetings of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, an altogether less eye-catching affair.

That “Kevin 747” never got to enjoy the full fruits of Australia’s presidency seemed especially cruel. He had been the driving force behind the campaign to win a two-year temporary seat on the Security Council, a vanity project as much as a national enterprise. UN diplomats place the credit elsewhere, however. Evidently an X-Man lent the Aussie bid its X-factor. From its office on East 42nd Street, the Australian mission had arranged for about two dozen senior female diplomats to see Hugh Jackman’s one-man show Back on Broadway, with Jackman himself donating his allocation of tickets. “Hugh Jackman won Australia its seat,” one diplomat told me, still flush with the memory of hugs and kisses in the star’s dressing room afterwards.

Largely forgotten now is that Australia chaired the inaugural meeting of the Security Council, held in London in January 1946. Then, the role came by virtue of the country’s place in the alphabet. Nowadays Australia owes its position to an enhanced diplomatic status in an ever more strategically important corner of the world. Over the past decade, Australia has institutionalised its diplomatic clout, whether at APEC or the beefed-up G20. Its month-long UN presidency showed that it has not only a weighty punch but also a safe pair of hands.

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is the BBC’s New York and United Nations correspondent. He is also the author of The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a great nation lost its way.

@NickBryantNY

November 2013

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