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Australia in the UN – An Exercise in Middle Power Diplomacy

Published 22 Jan 2024
Imogen Biggins

Back in September 2023, the United Nations hosted leaders and diplomats from around the world for the 78th session of the UN General Assembly.

The highlight of the event—the General Debate—brought together over 190 state representatives to address the theme “Rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity: Accelerating action on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals towards peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability for all.”

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong made a speech that was a masterclass in addressing the session theme. She progressed methodically through key concerns of the High-Level Week, including climate change, food security, pandemic resilience, the SDGs, human rights, gender equality, international development financing, peacebuilding and nuclear warfare. She assured delegates that “Australia wants a world where no country dominates, and no country is dominated…a world where we achieve our shared Sustainable Development Goals for people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.”

Wong’s address struck a tone befitting Australia’s position as middle power and regional leader in the Indo-Pacific. Littered with references to countries in the Global South, the speech reiterated the “great wisdom” of the 2030 Agenda and its creation of “an irreplaceable normative framework for collective global action” which all UN member states must strive to protect and deliver. Rhetorically, at least, it was a measured call for better. It is a great shame that, in the months since the 78th session, few countries have answered that call.

This is because the international community, united as it claims to be in the pursuit of peace and prosperity, is ultimately a collection of countries. And these countries have neither friends nor enemies, but interests. Events like the Russia-Ukraine War and the eruption of conflict between Israel and Palestine clearly test the limitations of a global system in which countries can pay lip service to our shared humanity while pursuing their own interests with blatant disregard for the foundational principles of the UN Charter.

Though clearly not in the same basket as Russia or Israel, Australia sought to assert its own interests at the 78th session of the GA. Embedded in each of Wong’s nods to strengthened multilateral cooperation was some strategic marketing for Australia’s bid to host COP31 and its campaign for a position on the Security Council for 2029-30. And, the repeated invocation of multilateral development banks and concessional long-term investment to boost resilience nicely underscored the design of Australia’s New International Development Policy, released in August 2023.

Nowhere was the defence of Australian interest clearer than in a carefully-crafted warning to the members of the General Assembly on “the risk of conflict between great powers”. Though employing polite diplomatic euphemism, Wong made no secret of Australia’s position vis-à-vis China. By requesting mutual strategic reassurance, military risk reduction measures, open communications and transparency in the region, she defended Australia’s promotion of a strategic equilibrium as a just and necessary contribution to the “collective deterrence of aggression”. Though the nature of that aggression remains loosely defined.

With the ambitious goals of rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity, the 78th session of the General Assembly promised considered engagement with the pitfalls and possibilities of multilateralism. Many countries, including Australia, delivered meaningful critiques of the existing frameworks of global governance. But, for all the talk of renewed international community, the harsh lines of national interest continue to pierce the discourse and dictate the unfolding of international events. So far in 2023 these lines have not vanished. It will be interesting to see whether they harden in the face of global challenges current and future.

Imogen Biggins is a recent graduate of the University of Sydney, where she completed a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies (International and Global Studies) with First Class Honours and the University Medal. She has worked as a policy adviser for the Sydney Policy Reform Project, investigating truth in political advertising in Australia. As a volunteer, she has been involved with the Australian Red Cross, the 52nd International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages, and the 25th Himalayan Languages Symposium. She currently works as Review Lead for EdTech company Atomi and is involved in a community-led renewable energy group. Her research interests include Franco-Australian relations in the Pacific, the future of international governance and the importance of cultural diplomacy in an increasingly globalised world.

Imogen is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.