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Ireland will again exercise its place on the Security Council to promote consensus rather than vision and values.

By John-Vivian Cooke

Ireland took a seat on the UN Security Council for the term 2021/22 on 1 January. This is the fulfilment of a key strategic goal of Irish foreign policy. However, having secured that seat on the Security Council, what will we do with it? If the record of our last term on the Security Council in 2001/2 is anything to go by, the answer will be disappointingly little.  Our feeble performance then was despite a highly professional and effective team representing us in New York but largely due to a  deliberate choice to set modest ambitions: a tactic that shows every sign of being repeated again in January. The tragedy is that Ireland is capable of so much more.

There are two reasons to be pessimistic that we will deliver this time around.

The first is the excessive strain likely to be placed on the organisational capacity of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFA). The Department`s budget could well face deep cuts as a consequence of the current Covid-19 recession, a recession which could be made worse by a hard Brexit in the new year. Any cuts to the DFA`s budget will occur precisely at a time when it is trying to meet the additional demands for resources for our Security Council term. Moreover, Ireland’s Security Council  agenda will have to compete for funding with other budgetary priorities such as meeting our international development aid commitments and the planned expansion of the number of missions around the world. The plan to open 26 new diplomatic missions has only reached the half way mark and the if the department is to meet its targets under the Global Ireland strategic plan, funding will need to be found for the remaining 12 missions.

Even if the department finds a way to balance its budget, there will be other pressures on its institutional resources.  There are absolute limits to the time that any minister, in general, can dedicate to any specific policy issue and Brexit will be the topic that will preoccupy the Minister for Foreign Affairs. This preoccupation is set to be replicated throughout our diplomatic structures with the consequence that expertise and experience that, in normal circumstances, would be available to support the UN team, will be diverted to manage Brexit. No matter the quality of our diplomatic representation at the UN, the ability to set policy priorities and give direction on diplomatic strategy can only come from the legitimate and formal authority of the elected minister.

Second, even in ideal domestic circumstances, the structure of international relations imposes intrinsic limitations on Ireland`s ability to determine outcomes at the UN. The distinction between the elected members of the Security Council and the five permanent members (P5) institutionalises the privileged position that the P5 members are granted under the UN charter in their role as Great Powers. Notwithstanding the notional sovereign equality of states in the charter, and under international law generally, the blunt truth of international relations is that the P5 do act differently and they are treated differently from other, lesser, states. Great Powers are qualitatively different from all other states by virtue of the resources they possess: elements of power that simply are not available to even medium-size states. The quintessential qualification for Great Power status is the ability to project military power, both conventional and nuclear. The measure of a state`s power is proportionate to the magnitude of its forces; the distance they can be projected; and the duration for which they can be deployed. This power, in turn, rests on the fiscal and economic resources of the state.  

But to acknowledge the difference among states is not to condone or excuse it. The fact that the US ¨doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus and we petty men walk under his huge legs¨ does not mean that we must ¨peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves”. But, if we are to accomplish honourable ends, we must set ourselves far more ambitious goals while still retaining an unsentimental understanding of how world politics operates.

There can be no mistaking that the distribution of power creates a difference of kind rather than a difference in degree between the permanent and elected members of the Security Council. Some analysts describe the P5 as having a systemic role in constituting international norms and institutions while small states such as Ireland are ¨System Ineffectual¨. Yet the temptation is for elected members to see themselves as merely mini versions of the Great Powers and to develop strategies that compensate for their lack of power. The Norwegian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide, succumbed to exactly that temptation in her comment that: ¨(N)o-one can take care of Norwegian interests like Norway can. To uphold and strengthen the multilateral system and rules-based order, that`s a core foreign policy interest for Norway”. Instead we should adopt a new sui generis understanding of how small states such as Ireland operate in international politics.

The established perspective on international relations treats all states as unitary actors that exercise various forms of power in pursuit of their national interests.

This puts small states in the same category as Great Powers and predicts that the foreign policy of small states will be oriented to increasing their autonomy. In practice, the opposite occurs: small states seek to limit the autonomy of the Great Powers by enmeshing them in the constraints of international norms and regimes.

Simon Coveney acknowledged as much when he said ¨(T)he basis for our campaign to be on the Security Council was to be vocal on these key issues around adherence to international law standards that apply through international structures and systems that protect small and weaker states as well keep dominant and powerful states in check”. Indeed, the current ‘Global Island Ireland’ strategy paper makes the point that ¨the European Union and United Nations in amplifying Ireland’s voice and extending its influence¨ rather than limiting  Ireland’s international autonomy.

So it is more instructive to re-conceptualise Ireland`s policies in entirely different terms. Where the US is an actor on the international stage, Ireland aims to be a presence. Where the US deploys its power, Ireland seeks to exercise its influence. Where the US pursues its national interests, Ireland needs to assert its values. 


For small states like Ireland, participation in international organisations is the way to affirm our essential statehood. International politics should be understood as a vital process for small states to assert themselves as sovereign entities as well as a forum for already formed states to achieve policy goals. Understanding this gives sense to the statement in Ireland`s campaign brochure in the recent Security Council election that ¨Ireland is a small nation which believes that we have a responsibility to actively engage with the UN and which sees our UN membership as a declaration of our global citizenship.¨

Our distinguished record in UN peacekeeping is important in maintaining the sense of Ireland’s active engagement with the UN but this also demands that the DFA must strengthen its institutional capacity, and underpins the necessity to continue expanding the number of our embassies as planned. Our presence on the international stage can also be felt by the extent of our access and representation, for example in our ability to provide capable administrators to fill executive positions within international organisations.  

The International Agenda

A seat on the Security Council creates an opportunity for elected members to raise and debate issues and topics that the P5 neglect or wilfully ignore. Samantha Power, former Ambassador of the United States to the UN, advises that the most effective elected members of the Security Council are those that ¨take the pen¨ and set the agenda in line with their priorities. This is exactly what Germany did during its term in 2018/9, when it tabled a number of resolutions on the global climate crisis which had been ignored up to then. Ireland has its own historic example in the diligent and patient work of Frank Aiken: starting in 1958, Aiken used his presence in the General Assembly of the UN to establish the principle of nuclear non-proliferation. He kept this issue on the UN`s agenda with such frequency that votes in support of the proposed non proliferation regime became known as the ¨Irish resolutions¨. Although the details and structure of the treaty were hammered out by the nuclear powers, Irish diplomacy had laid the groundwork for the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. 


Developing from the agenda-setting role, Ireland should seek to persuade other states and to build coalitions around new consensuses. This is implicit in the DFA`s Statement of Strategy 2017 which acknowledges that ¨(O)ur ability to shape the world according to our values is defined by our membership of the European Union, our participation in the United Nations, and our partnerships with like minded countries and other actors”. Our  campaign for the Security Council seat was premised on our abilities as consensus-builders; which we outlined to the General Assembly in a speech in 2018: ¨(W)e Irish are by nature bridge-builders. We listen to all sides and work to build collective solutions to our global challenges…to forge consensus and common purpose”. The Taoiseach repeated the point when he said that we ¨must use our position on the Security Council over the next two years to influence UN policy and champion the principles of conflict resolution and conflict prevention that underpin our foreign policy positions.¨ The salient point missing from this statement is the requirement to build a consensus around a specific desired objective.

Irish policy makers demonstrate a nuanced understanding of these points and yet do not seek to take full advantage of the opportunities presented to us. Certainly it is not for want of talent at the DFA. During our previous term, Ireland earned justified plaudits for the professionalism with which our diplomatic mission conducted themselves. Other UN delegations were deeply appreciative of the effort and innovation Ireland put in to having regular, co-ordinated, and structured briefings with other EU member states; the non-elected Security Council members; and members of the NGO Working Group on Security Council Matters. Irish diplomats held bilateral meetings with their counterparts for each UN member state on at least 3 or 4 occasions.  This level of consultation and engagement was unprecedented for many of the participants. Yet, for all this work, very little was achieved in terms of actual results.

The problem is that Irish foreign policy has fetishised consensus.

Our voting record in 2001/2 shows that Ireland was reluctant to exercise its own judgement or independent thought on a single issue that was considered by the Security Council: Ireland never voted in dissent of one resolution that was approved by the Council. Equally, every one of Ireland`s dissenting votes was cast on resolutions that ultimately failed.

Ireland made a point to be on the ¨winning¨ side of all the votes allowing us the comforting anonymity of belonging to the majority opinion of the Council on every single issue.

Furthermore, in 2001/2 Ireland never voted against any EU common position, which is a sign of the Europeanisation of Irish foreign policy.

It is impossible to reconcile this reflexive alignment of Irish policy with EU positions with the defence of contradictory interests of small states elsewhere in the world.

Such small states have already tempered their expectations of Ireland providing an independent voice, especially as we have explicitly described ourselves as an EU representative. This makes a nonsense of the current claim that ¨Ireland`s record with in the UN is as an independent, firm, strong, based on international law, supporting multilateralism even if there`s a political cost to that at times”.

The role we envisage for ourselves ¨will be to try to find ways in which consensus can be built to deliver better outcomes”. Noticeably absent from this role is any indication of what are the outcomes Ireland wants to achieve.

A preoccupation with process has yielded a transactional approach to international politics that has no use for principles, values or any sort of moral judgement.

Ireland risks becoming a ¨Hollywood dealmaker¨ – more concerned with brokering a deal than the terms of that deal; which prioritises consensus-building over the actual results of deliberations, in the UN.

Ireland will always look to split the difference between states, particularly the Great Powers, without concern for the consequences for the poor, oppressed and marginalised. Ireland offers nothing more than a consensus in search of a cause.

The impulse to ingratiate ourselves with the other states will import self-censorship and a reticence to articulate principles and values. Like an anxious host, we seek to steer the conversation around the dinner table away from contentious subjects to stop any unseemly arguments breaking out.

Tellingly, the notion of asserting a principled but unpopular stance on the Council was dismissed by the  ambassador in 2001-2 Richard Ryan as ¨high-flying notions¨ and futile gestures.

 This attitude of cynicism masquerading as sophistication permeates Ireland”s foreign policy establishment as our current ambassador has made clear that Ireland`s UN team ¨are very pragmatic – we are not Pollyanna¨.

This view is echoed by the minister`s preference to ¨to be as influential as we possibly can be in terms of outcomes as opposed to grand-standing”. This stance is in embarrassing contrast with the description provided by Ambassador Rhonda King, of how tiny Saint Vincent and the Grenadines ¨held the moral compass¨ for the Security Council when they were elected.

The Security Council is in desperate need of moral clarity and someone, anyone, to affirm the values of justice and equity, but, Ireland will not fulfil that need. During his time in New York, Ambassador Ryan unimaginatively called diplomacy ¨the art of the possible¨ but there is scant evidence from his tenure that limits of what was possible were very much tested let alone stretched.

The conjunction of ¨presence¨, ¨agenda-setting¨ and ¨coalition-building¨ constitutes Ireland`s ambition: it is this logic that drives the nature and direction of Ireland`s engagement with the world. Influence rather than power  is the coin of the realm for small state diplomacy but like a miser with a hoard of gold coins, Ireland seeks to amass influence rather ever make use of it.

The misplaced obsession with accumulating influence led Micheál Martin to set out foreign policy priority as ¨increasing our influence internationally within and beyond the European Union¨ and ¨maintaining Ireland´s reputation abroad¨. From this perspective, influence is to be stored away as a contingency for an unforeseen crisis that is always in the future but never actually materialises.

Popularity is not won by giving voice to suffering and injustice when the international community would prefer to ignore them. In 2001-2, Ireland was too timid to offer leadership and we still lack ambition. Ireland will in 2021 again fail to asseverate the principles and values we think we proclaim to ourselves and the world.

This is the style of the nineteenth-century French revolutionary, Alexander Ledru-Rollin, who is said to have exclaimed: ¨(T)here go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader”.