Australia and the United Nations in a Changing World Order


Major General Michael G Smith AO (Retd)


Let me start by acknowledging our traditional owners of this land and their leaders past, present and future. Our first Australians have demonstrated remarkable traits of compassion and forgiveness and we have much to learn from them.


Thank you for taking time on your Sunday to attend this presentation. I am grateful to the UNAA Queensland and Griffith University for this opportunity.


I am honoured to be invited to give this inaugural lecture in honour of Dr Douglas (Doug) Nixon Everingham, 1923-2017: twice the ALP Member for Capricorn in Queensland, 1967-1975 and 1977-1984; Minister for Health in the Whitlam Government, acknowledged ‘father of Medicare’, and a staunch supporter of the anti-smoking campaign.


Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this presentation are totally my own. They do not purport to represent the position of any of the organisations of which I am, or have been, a member. And I have not shared or cleared my thoughts with anyone or any organisation.


A few days ago, on 24 October, the world celebrated the 74th anniversary of the United Nations. Quite an achievement, I think you would agree! Around Australia, and in the other 192 countries that now comprise the United Nations, celebrations were held. But the day received little attention in the international media, and in Australia – I am saddened to say – the day went almost unnoticed except by a few UN stalwarts and disciples. My wife and I attended some excellent events on the Sunshine Coast as part of a reunion of the United Nations and Overseas Police Association of Australia (UNOPAA), and I was privileged to be invited to speak at their reunion dinner. But most Australians would not even have known or cared about UN Day. This has not always been the case in Australia, but the current situation says something about Australia and the United Nations in the changing world order, which is the subject of my talk today.


Next year marks the UN’s 75th Anniversary, and in his UN Day Message this year the Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres – the first ever former head of state to be appointed as Secretary-General – noted that “this milestone is a critical moment to shape our future together”; and he invited us all “to join the conversation”. So how should Australia commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary? And what should civil society do, and be requesting our Federal, State and Local governments to do, both at home and abroad?


The UN’s founding fathers – and yes, and unfortunately, I think they were all men – would be extremely pleased that the United Nations has outlived them and probably most of their children. I am sure they would be amazed at how the United Nations has matured and adapted to deal with situations beyond comprehension when the Charter was agreed, and how the Organisation’s membership has almost quadrupled. But I am fairly certain the founding fathers would also – probably like most of us here today – be deeply troubled by contemporary events and the questionable calibre of much of the leadership of the free world. They would probably be particularly concerned, as I am, by the weakening commitment of many member States to multilateral diplomacy and conflict prevention, and they would hopefully counsel against a reversion to State-centric policies that jeopardise and, in some cases, ignore international law and the rules-based global order for which the United Nations remains central. They would undoubtedly be deeply concerned, as I am, about continuing nuclear proliferation and lethality, about the rapid technological drift to robotic target acquisition through artificial intelligence, and the increasing defence expenditures during times of such economic uncertainty and growing social inequality, particularly in regard to wealth distribution. One recent report indicated that one percent of the world’s population now controls as much wealth as the remaining 99 percent. I think our UN founding fathers might shake their heads, as I do, knowing that excessive inequality of wealth, if not corrected, can only lead to radicalism and revolution. They would probably wonder how world leaders could collectively and courageously agree to address climate change as the most essential challenge for future generations, and to take positive action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), only for some of these same countries to abandon their responsibilities without explanation or apology to their constituents and future generations.


I am sure these same founding fathers would recall the prophetic words of Winston Churchill in 1936 – words emanating from a horrific economic global


depression and with the signals of an approaching war already apparent. Churchill said: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expediency is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”


Of course, the world has changed remarkably – and mostly positively – since the 1930s. As Steven Pinker reminds us, the level (if not the lethality) of global violence has reduced significantly; and the Millennium Development Goals helped millions to escape poverty. Indeed, the establishment of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, built on the bodies of 60 million casualties in the horrors of World War 2, are evidence of progress. And yet, I sense disturbing similarities now with those inter-war years that witnessed the demise of the League of Nations and perpetrated the horrors of World War 2. Like Churchill, I fear that we may have already entered another ‘period of consequences’, and if so the outcomes could be far worse than those of World War 2. Of course, in many parts of the world these ‘consequences’ are already evident through global warming, conflict, disease, hunger and homelessness.


With the UN’s 75th anniversary less than 12 months away, we live in an increasingly fractured and insecure world, and we need to re-commit to the values expressed in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Indeed, we ignore the lessons of history at our peril. I do not believe that these documents could be written or agreed by our current crop of world leaders. It was most appropriate, therefore, that the Secretary General chose to commence his message on UN Day 2019 by highlighting “the enduring ideals of the Charter” which “amid stormy global seas … remains our shared moral anchor”.


In this changing world order how should Australia recognise and demonstrate its commitment to the United Nations? I contend that Australia can and should do a lot more to promote and support the United Nations, and that it is in our national security interests to do so! I believe that the United Nations needs support from countries like Australia more than ever, and that Australia needs the United Nations more than ever. I have found that those who most criticise the United Nations have rarely, if ever, worked with it. They fail to recall why the United Nations was established and they know very little of the constraints under which the Organisation is compelled to work. In Australia’s nearer region these critics too readily overlook how working with and through the United Nations has aligned with our national interests in supporting Indonesia and later Timor-Leste in securing their independence; or that forces fought under


the UN flag in Korea to prevent communist aggression; and that through Australia’s support to the United Nations in Cambodia that country was able to have free and fair elections after years of trauma. What else might lie ahead in our immediate region and might it not sometimes be better to have the United Nations in the lead again?


World power is neither static nor enduring. For some time the balance of power has gradually been shifting from the west to the east; from the north to the south; from the trans-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific; and from the US and Europe to China and Asia. In the three decades since the end of the Cold War in 1989 we have been witnessing this global shift in economic and military power. Of course, the United States will continue to remain the major power for the foreseeable future, but will the United States be prepared to share this power and compromise on key issues for the global good? Will the United States be sufficiently clever to avoid the ‘Thucydides Trap’, where the assessed consequences of not going to war with major adversaries is assessed as a greater risk than war itself – as Thucydides demonstrated in his analysis of the origins of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta?


Far from proving Francis Fukuyama’s infamous heralding of the ‘end of history’, the collapse of the Soviet Union once again demonstrated that empires and great powers continue to rise and fall, as evidenced by the United Kingdom in my own lifetime. Many in the West mistakenly interpreted the end of the Cold War as a victory for liberal democracy over totalitarianism, and of free-market capitalism over state-controlled socialism. But the meteoric and hard-won rise of China as an economic powerhouse, releasing tens of millions of its citizens from poverty, has proved that liberal democracies are not the only effective system of governance – indeed, as also demonstrated by Vietnam, another communist state in Australia’s region. At the same time, many living in liberal democracies have become sceptical of the much-lauded advantages of free- market capitalism, noting the inequalities of wealth and the relative deterioration of income and living standards by the masses.


By contrast, Australia’s unwavering commitment in supporting the United States in an unwinnable war against terrorism following the horrible devastation of 9/11 has had nugatory and long-standing consequences for the rules-based order, as well as diverting scarce Australian military and police resources and depleting and diverting Australia’s aid budget from its primary purpose. The need for Australia to strengthen its domestic counter-terrorism mechanisms and improve collaboration with other countries was self-evident


following 9/11, but there was no need at all for Prime Minister John Howard to invoke the ANZUS alliance to support the United States in an unclear strategy in Afghanistan, made worse by an illegal invasion of Iraq that was not fully supported by the United Nations and which failed to provide evidence of weapons of mass destruction – the justification for military ‘shock and awe’. As we know, the Iraq invasion quickly removed a tyrant, but without a proper statebuilding plan in place the quick military success backfired massively throughout the region and beyond – to North Africa and more distant parts of the Middle East, as well as closer to home in neighbouring Indonesia. Far from making the world safer from tyrants and terrorists, the Iraq invasion led to the creation of ISIS and caused massive displacement and migration, the impact of which will be with us for generations to come.


Australia now finds itself in unchartered and uncertain strategic circumstances. How will Australia navigate its critical security relationship with its great and powerful ally the United States, and simultaneously maintain its economic lifeline with the Peoples Republic of China, and more broadly throughout Asia? We have known of this dilemma for more than a decade, but successive Australian governments have failed to develop a comprehensive national security strategy to address what I believe, together with climate change, will shape Australia’s destiny for most of the 21st century and beyond. Prime Minister Rudd commenced critical action to develop a national security policy in 2008, but his initial steps were kept within the government’s bureaucracy which allowed them to be too easily abandoned by successive conservative governments. In the wake of Rudd’s initial attempts, separate White Papers on Defence (in 2016) and Foreign Affairs (in 2017) were written by bureaucrats with only limited public consultation, and neither documents could rely on and align with an over-arching national security policy that clearly articulated Australia’s values and priorities. Indeed, some of what is in both of these White Papers has either not been implemented or has been ignored.


Australia’s geopolitical circumstances are reflective of the changing new world order, and as a nation Australia remains uncertain of the course it should chart. Recent statements by Prime Minister Scott Morrison that Australia does not have to choose between the United States and China are not particularly reassuring in the absence of a national security strategy. “Hope” is hardly a strategic direction for our nation’s future and – as demonstrated in the Vietnam War and more recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – Australia could again find itself militarily supporting the United States without due consideration to Australia’s long-term interests. Should such military action


include contestation with China in the Indo-Pacific the consequences for Australia could be devastating. Nor did I find Prime Minister Morrison’s assessment in his recent speech to the UN General Assembly cautioning against “negative globalism” very reassuring for Australia’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy and the rules-based order.


I am a supporter of Australia’s alliance with the United States, but as it was intended under ANZUS and not what it has become almost by default and without question, particularly since 9/11. Australia urgently needs to reassess and confirm an independent national security strategy. In doing so Australia needs to define its core values and to link its priorities at home with those abroad. Rather than focusing first on China’s potential threat to US interests in the Indo-Pacific – namely, the maintenance of the status quo – Australia needs first to assess how national security can be better assured at home. In doing so, Australia needs to consider the approaches of other smaller and middle powers that, although residing in more vulnerable geographic locales than Australia, have proved more adept at multilateral engagement and in safeguarding their sovereignty and independence. What is Australia’s mobilisation strategy in the event of major conflict? What are the essential quantities of strategic resources that Australia must have to retain its independence? What level of foreign ownership are we prepared to accept?

What level of population growth and immigration can we sustain and adequately support with affordable infrastructure? What will we do to ensure Australians can continue to live securely with climate change? What metrics will we use to measure social well-being and social values as distinct from GDP growth and economic productivity?


The need for a national security strategy should be of high priority for all Australians, but this strategy needs to be consultative and transparent, and to be developed by an independent panel of experts beyond the bureaucracy. I currently detect little interest on this front by our major political parties, which is curious given that national security is the highest responsibility of government. What currently masquerades as national security strategy is really a series of responses to the latest ‘security scare’ – such as illegal boat arrivals, counter-terrorism measures, missile launches from North Korea, and the like.

In my view, a sad aspect of Australia’s lack of strategic thinking has been the mistaken approach by the conservative Coalition and the ALP to wed themselves to a bipartisan approach on matters of national security. This has resulted in shallow and largely uniformed debate on Australia’s strategic options, similar to what occurred in Australia before World War 2.


For the reasons already eluded to, I am convinced that Australia needs to do more to support the United Nations than it is currently doing – and particularly so as a middle power at a time when our major ally, the United States, has significantly reduced its support to the Organisation. In the lead-up to the UN’s 75th anniversary there is much that Australia can and should do to reinvigorate its position as a leading UN member. Moreover, these practical initiatives are extremely cost-effective:


For Parliament:

  • require the Government to develop a national security strategy inclusive of Australia’s commitment to the United Nations, and establish a special committee to monitor progress;
  • strengthen the Parliamentary Friends of the United Nations group and conduct an active program to keep parliamentarians aware of activities in the United Nations;
  • second a greater number of younger and upwardly-mobile parliamentarians on short UN sabbaticals and UN field visits with the requirement they are to table public reports on their return;
  • annually report to the Australian public on Australia’s financial, personnel and materiel support to the United Nations, making recommendations to enhance the quality of Australia’s support;
  • periodically convene enquiries regarding the effectiveness of Australia’s support to the United Nations and invite public submissions;
  • pass legislation to properly recognise all Australians who serve in the United Nations, including national awards for those serving in arduous and conflict-affected situations; and
  • work with the States and Territories to consider legislating UN Day as a national public holiday, as is already the case in some other


For the Executive:

  • quickly initiate the preparation of an independent national security strategy and, when approved, align decisions on national security to it;
  • annually report to the Australian public on progress in achieving the SDGs and the Paris climate change targets;
  • strengthen Australia’s ability to project ‘soft power’ and multilateral diplomacy through DFAT and other Departments with an increased allocation of trained personnel and additional financial resources. This is an extremely high priority; and
  • commit resources to commemorate the UN’s 75th Anniversary and reaffirm Australia’s support to the United


For the National Security Committee of Cabinet:

  • ensure Ministers understand and are conversant with the roles and responsibilities of the United Nations;
  • ensure the role of the United Nations is fully considered in security assessments and contingency plans; and
  • ensure that national security decisions are not taken in an ad hoc manner and are underpinned and justified by a new National Security Strategy.


For the Australian Government:

  • continue to provide annual funding to the UN Organisation in full and on time;
  • provide funding to the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) to maintain a UN Alumni register of past and present Australians serving with the United Nations, and to facilitate Alumni members in speaking with the government officials and at public events;
  • provide funding to the UNAA and UN Youth Australia to more comprehensively conduct UN Model Conferences in schools and tertiary institutions throughout Australia;
  • immediately increase and then sustain the number of Australian personnel (civilian, military and police) assigned to UN offices, UN peacekeeping missions and UN special political missions. Without this throughput Australia’s knowledge and expertise in conflict prevention and peacekeeping will continue to be degraded;
  • follow the example of some other countries by providing entry points for junior policy officers to serve with the United Nations;
  • actively seek senior civilian, military and police positions within the United Nations, including as civilian heads of mission, force commanders and police commanders;
  • re-establish and fund the Australian Federal Police (AFP) International Deployment Group (IDG) and contribute to and conduct UN international police training exercises, particularly in partnership with countries in the Indo-Pacific region;
  • reinstate the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Peacekeeping Centre as a world-leading establishment and conduct UN international peacekeeping training exercises, particularly in partnership with countries in the Indo-Pacific region;
  • strengthen the Australian Civil-Military Centre as a truly ‘whole-of- government’ centre of excellence for conflict and disaster management


and relocate it from Defence to be a policy unit within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet;

  • continue to provide logistic and medical support to UN operations where feasible;
  • demonstrate leadership in achieving the SDGs and the Paris climate targets;
  • actively provide support to assist achievement of the Secretary- General’s important reform program, including in gender equality and Action for Peacekeeping (A4P);
  • develop and contribute expertise to advance key thematic areas to enhance the UN’s effectiveness. These areas include but are not limited to: human rights; mission leadership; the responsibility to protect (R2P); mine action; the protection of civilians (PoC); arms control; women, peace and security (WPS); security sector reform (SSR); and counter- terrorism;
  • ensure relevant and up-to-date UN topics are included in the curricula of government courses and staff colleges; and
  • actively partner with relevant Australian NGOs such as the UNAA, the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) and the Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) to promote knowledge of the United Nations and contribute to its


For Australian civil society:

  • actively lobby and partner with the Federal, State and Local Governments to develop a national plan to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary, and to showcase Australia’s support for the United Nations;
  • establish NGO partnerships with libraries, service clubs, tertiary institutions and schools throughout Australia to conduct activities that promote the UN’s 75th anniversary;
  • hold a special UN Day dawn service at the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial in Canberra;
  • work with the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA) to hold anniversary events and to promote the establishment of Associations in more countries, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region; and
  • participate in, and help organise, special events at the UN General Assembly in 2020, and in capital cities around the world where Australians are present for UN Day 2020.


This list of possible actions is not exhaustive. I am certain that many other initiatives could be considered to confirm Australia’s steadfast support to the United Nations. Conversely, perhaps Australia will not heed the Secretary- General’s invitation to become involved in the 75th anniversary at all? I believe that the degree to which Australia commits to this important anniversary will say a lot about Australia and the United Nations in a changing world order, and about the ‘period of consequences’ we will have decided to chart.