On July 24, an Australian-led peacekeeping force began landing in the Solomon Islands, to the almost universal relief of the 450,000 people who live in the small island state. Civil war broke out between rival ethnic groups on the main island, Guadalcanal, in 1998, and rebels from the neighbouring island of Malaita staged a coup in 2000. The intervention makes good sense — and yet there is something peculiar about it.
Violence and insecurity have become chronic in the Solomons, raising fears among the neighbours that it was becoming a classic “failed state”. Australia reversed its long-standing policy of non-intervention in the troubled Melanesian states that ring it to the north and east and took the lead in organizing a peace-keeping force. The smaller states — New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Tonga — contributed troops as well, though three-quarters of the 2,225-strong force is Australian. The mandate is solid: the Solomons government has officially asked for help and passed a law permitting the peacekeepers to use reasonable force to disarm the militias and restore order.
So why, you wonder, did the Australian foreign minister, Alex Downer, feel compelled to issue a chest-pounding statement that “Sovereignty in our view is not absolute. Acting for the benefit of humanity is,” as though Australia were doing this without the Solomons’ consent. Then you realize that he is actually proclaiming a doctrine of limited sovereignty for the smaller and weaker states of the region. And although this is a classic United Nations-style peacekeeping operation, the UN is not involved — because Australia does not want it involved.
Australia under John Howard’s conservative government has joined the small club of English-speaking industrial countries that have granted themselves the right to act unilaterally, allegedly in the best interests of all. He has signed up for the full neo-conservative project that captured the Bush administration in Washington after 9/11. That most certainly includes sidelining the UN.
Australian foreign minister, Alex Downer, made a point of bypassing the UN in his key speech on the Solomons on June 26, criticizing the UN and the principle of multilateralism in general as “a synonym for an ineffective and unfocussed policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator.” What was needed instead, he said, was more “coalitions of the willing” to tackle specific security threats outside the UN framework, like the one that brought Saddam Hussein down earlier this year.
Laws of the jungle
Howard’s counterpart in New Zealand, Helen Clark, had a few words to say about this in May, as she tried to counter domestic criticism and American pressure to fall in line with it as Australia had done. “It would be very easy for a country like New Zealand to make excuses and think of justifications for what its friends were doing, but we would have to be mindful that we were creating precedents for others also to exit from multilateral decision-making.”
Clark’s point was that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if the US and its friends can launch “preventive” wars whenever they believe there is a potential threat, then so can Russia or India or Pakistan or Japan or — very much to the point — China. “This is the century which is going to see China emerge as the largest economy, and usually with economic power comes military clout. In the world we are constructing, we want to know [that the multilateral UN system] will work whoever is the biggest and the most powerful...Who wants to go back to the law of the jungle'”
There can be severe penalties in today’s world for small countries which speak out of turn, so New Zealand has to be careful. It has contributed troops for the Solomons peace-keeping, but continues to resist pressure to send troops to Iraq. So do most other countries. The unilateralist approach to the world has most of the firepower behind it at the moment, but this may not destroy multilateralism totally. We are not back to the law of the jungle yet.