Prime Minister John Key should keep his hands firmly in his pockets and avoid enlistment in a Middle East peace-making mission when he meets political leaders in Paris and London this month
Meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy are on John Key’s agenda, and while he has his short-list of topics for discussion, so do they.
Uppermost in both their minds will be the development of an exit strategy to quit the uncivil war in Libya and to escape the thankless task of facilitating the development of new governments in the broad sweep of troubled states across North Africa and the Middle East.
The British and French – just as much as the Americans – may be welcome, if they stay in their planes at high altitudes and engage in more-than-usually accurate bombardment of any armies or security forces battling the masses and protecting the tottering aristocracies, autocrats and dictators of the region.
On the ground, it would be a different story. The NATO allies are cursed by the baggage of their history. They are seen by many in the crescent of turmoil as the colonists who reset the boundaries of nations to seize the spoils of the Second World War without sufficient concern for the people who lived within them. At street-level, they are the foreigners who shaped the shackles that the masses now want to cast aside. They will not be trusted to play a role in shaping the new structures that must emerge from the ruins of the old orders that are gone or going.
Cameron, Sarkozy, and Obama know there is no quick military fix for what’s ailing the Middle East. There are no readily available options for rapid regime change, and no clear signals of the direction it might take.
The three Western leaders must also realize their constituencies at home do not have the stomach for another protracted, expensive engagement in the uncertain mission of promoting the emergence of friendly, new democracies in a multitude of Arab states. They have never seen it work before, why should they expect it to happen now?
A quick air-strike to stop a slaughter in Benghazi is one thing – but waging another long war alongside unknown, untried forces who have yet to develop any coherent political leadership, strategies or structures beneath the banners and slogans of their protests is an unpalatable prospect for hard-pressed British, French and American voters.
It will be a long haul. Gaddafi is developing a model of resistance that can be adopted by many of the regimes under threat in North Africa and the Middle East. The alliance knocks out his air force. He rolls out his tanks. They knock out his tanks, and his troops doff their uniforms and military vehicles to wage war in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish friend from foe. He has oil, money and porous borders. Embargoes on exports and weapons imports may slow him down, but they won’t stop him. He is a bomb-hardened warrior who will not go easy into his good night.
Obama passed the Libyan parcel to Cameron and Sarkosy as quickly as he could. We can depend on them to do the same. They will look to the United Nations – the only instrument with the capacity to share the long-term burden that the trio of super-powers are not willing to carry for the rest of the world.
Enter John Key. He represents a small state with a big ambition. New Zealand wants a seat in the United Nations Security Council. The next vacancy occurs in 2015. Our last Labour-led government said it would seek the seat, but did not live long enough to realize its ambition.
Key confirmed his government’s interest in the Security Council when he spoke at the UN General Assembly in September 2009. Key said winning a seat would be positive for New Zealand.
"It certainly gives us profile, and it helps New Zealand, and advances our causes if you like but it's also part of playing our role here in the United Nations and hopefully playing our part in making sure we live in a world that's more secure."
Maybe that is why New Zealand is committed to keeping our troops in Afghanistan for at least another year when President Hamid Karzai is offering us a free pass to bring them home from Bamyan next July.
Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to chase Security Council membership, it would be remiss of him if he did not raise the issue in his first meetings with Cameron and Sarkozy. Undoubtedly, their support would come at a price. The most recent message they have been delivering to their NATO partners is: step up to the plate in Libya.
Given our involvement with NATO in the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, it would be surprising if we were not on the Cameron-Sarkozy hit list. So, we should expect an invitation to jump from the frying pan of Aghanistan to the fire of Libya.
It’s an invitation we should resist, particularly when there seems to be even less consensus in the international community about the objectives of the intervention in Libya than there was when our troops went into Afghanistan.
Is it a price we really want to pay for temporary membership of the UN Security Council? After all, we have been on the Security Council before - in 1954, 1965, and 1993. I wish I could offer a prize to anyone who can demonstrate the benefit that flowed from our membership – for the world, or for New Zealand. Today, it looks like the kind of place where you can make more enemies than friends – rather like Libya.
It seems to me that Security Council membership is one of those “nice to have” ambitions [from the foreign policy wonk’s perspective] rather than one we “need to have”. Let’s hope John Key keeps his hands in his pockets this time.