Malaysia brings its Tradition of Multilateral Diplomacy to UNSC
by Dr W.Scott Thompson@www.nst.com.my
Everybody knows that the veto power held by the five permanent members, China, Britain, France, Russia, and the United States, or the victors of World War 2, is what, in the end, determines whether the UN can function.
Well, think again. Although the war ended 69 years ago, and world power has been substantially redistributed in the meantime, the permanent members are still five of the 10 most vital players in world affairs. But the absence of Japan, Germany and India is glaring. India has lobbied for years for a seat, as has Japan.
But it’s typical of every organisation with a hierarchy for the top group to draw a line just below them and is seldom likely to wish to diffuse their privileged position.
When I was an Assistant Secretary in the US government, we always saw ourselves as the true decision-makers, and tried to keep Deputy Assistant Secretaries in their place. But smart deputies were needed often, and so, of course, we had to act accordingly to get things done. Exclusivity is often trumped by survival needs. Trade-offs are made.
Of course, in the first instance, holding one of the non-permanent (NPM) seats, since they rotate basically by region, is prestigious. Bad state performance is not a plus in these campaigns. Turkey campaigned relentlessly for the European seat, but is seen as a little heartless in the current anti-Islamic State (IS) struggle. Though it is sheltering more refugees than any country, its underlying concern is all too evidently preventing Turkish Kurds from linking up with their brethren in Syria, Iraq, and Iran (the Kurds, being the largest ethnic group in the world without a state embracing a preponderance of their number).
Malaysia has the advantage that it is not antagonising anybody, but even more importantly, it has a high-quality diplomatic tradition that brings results. The first ever book written about Third World diplomacy is by an Australian, who traced the roots of Malaysian skills back through their willingness to learn from the British, but, more importantly, to the traditions of intra-state diplomacy going way back. Everything counts: Kuala Lumpur always sends a superb diplomat to Washington, to live in the mansion where Jackie Kennedy grew up. Living next door, I watched the constant flow of VIPs.
In fact, NPM members have often played key roles in world affairs. In the 1980s, when the issue of Cambodia was front and centre, the Thai permanent representative, Dr M.L. Birabhongse Kasemsri, turned out to be the central player in resolving the basic issues. His expertise in law of the sea, along with that of Tommy Koh of Singapore, was instrumental in getting the new rules drawn up in a way that protected the needs of Southeast Asian states. Had it been otherwise, China would be having a much easier time bullying in the sea that they claim to own, and consider a core foreign-policy interest.
I had a smart student, Dr Darmp Sukontasap, now a successful Thai businessman, who wrote his PhD on the Thai role at the UNSC. He makes a point, which I cite from his letter, with thanks.
“In May 1985, during one of the heights of the bipolar world, Ambassador Birabhongse was the chairman of the Security Council, considering a very sensitive issue of Nicaragua’s complaint against act of aggression by the US. Ambassador Birabhongse handled his role very well, focusing on consultations in an inclusive manner. In the end, although the issue was not resolved to the satisfaction of either of the parties involved, the credibility of the Security Council and its president remained intact and the practice of inclusive consultations, continued.”
It’s also the case that a diplomatic event that doesn’t happen is sometimes more important than what does. In 1950, when North Korea invaded the South, the Soviet Union was so exasperated by American dominance at the UN (and its willingness to use its veto power more often than the rest combined, all to protect Israel) that it played hooky from the UNSC, and the General Assembly was able to vote a “resolution for peace” authorising a UN force to repel the North Koreans and their great communist allies. This was more than a veneer for the central role the US played; had a large number of other states not participated, the Americans would have lacked legitimacy. The UNSC did nothing.
By far, the most important accomplishment of NPMs is making the “rule of law” central to the UN agenda. As always, the big boys don’t want to be constrained by laws while the weak ones seek their protection. And it is no longer a bipolar world, and consequently, there is much more room for trade-offs among the five and the NPMs.
On a non-core issue for a permanent member, it might be flexible and court NPMs for the legitimacy of whatever issue it is advancing. Too many new NPMs need their full term just to familiarise themselves with the processes of the UNSC. Malaysia knows its way around the UN, and its envoys will, from the start, bring credit to Malaysia while advancing the rule of law.