What does a regional seat at the top table bring?

Dev Nadkarni

New Zealand’s long campaign to get itself a seat on the coveted United Nations Security Council came to fruition last month, when it quite comfortably won votes from 145 of 193 UN member states. It needed just 129 on the day. Turkey and Spain were the two other contenders. Spain won the second of the two seats up for grabs this year, with Turkey losing out. Both Spain and Turkey have each held seats only a few years ago but New Zealand has regained a seat after two long decades.

The Security Council is made up of 15 seats, with five of them being permanent seats. These are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. These were the five of the biggest nations on the Allied side in World War-II, immediately after the conclusion of which the United Nations was formed.

The five can also be seen to represent each of the post-war but now anachronistic classification of first, second and third worlds (though many ‘first’ worlders still use ‘third world’ in mostly a disparaging way, while the almost never-used ‘second world’ has completely vanished behind an imaginary iron curtain, as it were).

The ten non-permanent seats are rotated every two years, across groupings of countries – so New Zealand will hold the seat for 2015-16 (Angola, Malaysia and Venezuela were elected unopposed in their respective groupings last month). New Zealand belongs to the ‘Western Europe and Other States seats’ grouping, and is the smallest among the three countries that contested in that grouping.

Countries are known to splurge millions of dollars to garner votes from UN member states to get themselves on the powerful council. The New Zealand Government, though, has been at pains to stress that it has run its own campaign on a shoestring, throwing in a junket or two for a few leaders from around the world in its salubrious destinations around the country. It has also been actively canvassing its most trusted friends in its very own neck of the woods – the Pacific. Over the past few years it has worked hard in the Pacific Islands region, where so many tiny UN member states make up a neat bunch of votes.

Pacific Island support

Evidently, these Pacific Island friends did not let New Zealand down. The handsome margin of the win underscores that. New Zealand has good reason to be grateful to the Pacific Islands. In celebrating New Zealand’s win, Prime Minister John Key said it was as much a win for the small countries of the world. He said New Zealand would be the voice of the small countries on the Security Council. No small country can really muster the resources to run a campaign for a seat. In the Pacific Islands region, perhaps Papua New Guinea is the only country that could possibly make a bid at some future stage. The rest are too small and would lack the resources to even contemplate making a bid.

But can the small nations of the Pacific take a vicarious delight in New Zealand’s win? Because of its proximity and long and deep historical relationships with many of the countries, especially in Polynesia, and by virtue of being a small nation itself, the Pacific Islands states can well see a bit of themselves being represented by New Zealand on the UN’s top table.

New Zealand undoubtedly understands and appreciates the islands’ collective concerns: the tyranny of distance, the growing effects of climate change, the need for sustainable energy solutions and the need to put in place strategies for survival in the face of natural disasters. In that sense, New Zealand is the best bet of the UN’s member states in the Pacific Islands region. In fact, New Zealand could take on board concerns even of non-UN regional members like the Cook Islands and Niue.

But is the UN Security Council as a platform relevant to these real concerns of the Pacific Islands? The powerful body essentially concerns itself with the maintenance of international security and peace. It tries to mediate between warring nations and factions in the world’s security hotspots. It works hard with stakeholders to try to put an end to conflicts that invariably cost hundreds of thousands of lives every year and cause injury and misery to many times more. By its very nomenclature, it is involved almost solely in the business of security.

Fortunately for Pacific Islanders security is not a concern in the same sense as it would be for Syrians, Iraqis or the citizens of several other troubled nations in the Middle East and parts of Africa. In fact, a visiting Middle East leader recently asked the Prime Minister of a Pacific Island country if he could export peace to the trouble torn regions of the world. If at all, the Pacific could teach a thing or two to the bigger nations only if they had the willingness to listen. But that is an opportunity that will never come to pass.

Risk of displeasing big boys

Over the next two years, New Zealand will have the eyes and ears of the world’s most influential powers as it helps guide security policy in the world’s worst security hotspots. In the process it also risks incurring the wrath of the permanent members, the big boys who more often than not disagree on the most important issues. Policy paralysis due to disagreements has come in for well-deserved criticism in the recent past and countries have been forced to act in conflicts even without consultations with the Security Council.

For New Zealand itself, there is little more than prestige that this new seat on the UN Security Council brings. As one commentator said, it will not help the country export even a kilo more of cheese or beef. But neither is that the point of acquiring the coveted seat for just two years, as it happens to be. Rather, the stakes are long term. A couple of years on the top table will potentially bring tremendous influence to New Zealand. Its leaders will have the opportunity to rub shoulders with the world’s most powerful political elite in that short time frame – something that would have been impossible without the coveted seat.

That is the real opportunity: to build future influence for the benefit of its own economy and the wider region – assuming it feels grateful to the little Pacific Island nations, which helped it get there in no small measure.

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, November 2014