The foreign policy train rolls on, and Australia has finally gained a seat on the United Nations Security Council. According to the combined authority of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, this is a most wonderful thing, unmatched in modern Australia and reflects the unbounded faith the world has in our country. However, not all Australians share this view. According to the authority of an anonymous tweeter quoted on the ABC, it is a cleft stick that sees Australia now needing to choose regularly between unquestioning support for the United States, and aspiring to a position of influence with China.
It's nice to see that Chinese officialdom keeps a close eye on tweets as, shortly after the tweet mentioned above was published, the Chinese embassy released a statement expressing the expectation that Australia would be fair-handed in its role in the Security Council. This is diplomatic speak for ''we are watching you'' and hints that China does not really put much store in Prime Minister Julia Gillard's response that the cleft stick proposition was ''infantile'' when she was asked about it.
So what is Australia going to do in the world of grown-ups? The desire to gain a seat at the Security Council was one of former prime minister Kevin Rudd's personal aspirations, and widely understood within the gossip of the Australian Public Service to be a stepping stone to his personal elevation to the secretary-generalship of the entire UN.
Rudd's untimely unseating as prime minister (in ''an act of steer bastardry'' according to veteran Labor senator John Faulkner, and repeatedly raised by Rudd's followers such as Lindsay Tanner and Maxine McKew whenever the polls look good for Gillard) would not have helped his cause, especially if the alleged basis of his removal was taken seriously (''dictatorial'', ''erratic'', etc). Nor would his own comments to a third party (the US, no less) about taking up arms against China some little while ago and released through Wikileaks. (We can assume China noted those remarks and kept them on an official, unleaked file - probably marked ''not for promotion''!) Nor would the reports of his alleged loss of temper over trivial matters - but that is being trivial.
Advertisement Is there still a chance for Rudd, and does the Gillard government intend to finally rid itself of the Rudd spectre by having him overseas and well out of harm's (i.e. its own) way by sending him to the UN? It's unlikely - notwithstanding the elevation, under Gillard, of former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope as administrator of Christmas Island, conveniently before the recent territory election. The world may think it's done enough for us by granting us a seat on the Security Council and be disinclined to give us the secretary-general post as well.
Alternatively, Australia could become even more of a public acolyte for all things US. In reality, most countries that supported Australia's inclusion on the council would have known that, in all likelihood, Australia would remain lock step with the US, and so its membership was a way of extending US influence. For Australia, acting this way would certainly be seen as a way of strengthening US ties beyond the seemingly now exhausted route of military support for all of America's military interventions, or the positioning of defence bases on Australian soil to the chagrin of China. This may have been the expectation of the US itself when it supported our membership.
But is it wise? Not so, according to two former prime ministers: Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating. Fraser only recently went on record saying that a small power such as Australia could never depend on building up brownie points with superpowers, as they, by their nature, pursue their own interests without let or heed to so-called loyalties to lesser states. Similarly, Keating has been outspoken on the dangers of continuing to be seen as an American puppet and how this is inimical to Australia's interests in Asia (or, since the publication of the white paper last month, should we say the Asian century). It would also be a shame if Australia became branded much like Albania was in the 1980s as the apologetic mouthpiece for and sycophantic dependant of a great power. (Ironically, Albania was seen as being all that to China!) Instead of being mistaken for Austria, we would run the risk of being mistaken for Albania!
Given this, we can only hope the Gillard government and its Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, have something far more intelligent and more in our long-term interests in mind. Membership of the Security Council could be turned to Australia's best interest, as it is an opportunity and potential catalyst for this nation to become more independent in its foreign policy. The need to be seen by the world as more fair-handed gives Australia the great opportunity to do exactly that; in accepting great office, greater responsibilities must be accepted. We can legitimately claim we have been forced to review our ''positioning'' as a citizen of the world entrusted with its security. Can our recent good standing in international forums such as the Group of 20, or our follow-through on carbon trading following world summits on global warming, be seen as hints of a new, more assertive Australia?
China has said it expects this of us, and the US should realise that a less-submissive stance on our behalf marks a growing maturity in our bilateral relations, without the unilateral declaration of independence that New Zealand made.
But while the US should realise this, whether it does depends on how our government handles the matter. It will need all the finesse and strategy of a country that has succeeded in elevating itself into such an invidious position in the first place. The Gillard government could perhaps have its cake and eat it too by sending Rudd overseas after all to become our new ambassador to the US, with the sole task of successfully achieving that change in our bilateral relationship with the Americans. After all, he speaks its language, he has the background and his supporters would tell us that he has the skills. Good luck, Australia.
Bill Burmester is a professorial fellow with the ANZSOG Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra and a former senior public servant.