The ongoing war is a reminder Australia and the West must work to revitalise collective security and international institutions both now and once peace comes, Dr William Stoltz writes.
Today Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address The Australian National University in Canberra and the wider nation in his latest effort to keep the Australian people alert to his country's fight for survival. While there is more Australia can do to aid Ukraine, the war is nevertheless a reminder of the limitations of Australian power and a signal that we need to help revitalise the international institutions of collective security upon which both countries rely.
Zelenskyy has been relentless at keeping the world alert to the struggle of his people. He has mastered the performance of being a wartime leader, with his rousing speeches and 'bunker chique' style of five o'clock shadow and muscle top khaki t-shirts. The president has also been the ringmaster of Ukraine's incredibly effective information fight. Deploying meme-warfare, viral videos and Vogue cover-shoots, Zelenskyy's government has countered Russian disinformation while sustaining Ukrainian morale and degrading their opponents'.
While his address to ANU students and others across the nation will be aimed at breaking-down the tyranny of distance separating our democracies, the reality of that distance is clear: Australia alone cannot project and sustain enough power to decisively affect the outcome of the war. Instead, it can only contribute as part of a global effort for which cohesive multilateral partnerships are essential.
In this sense the war in Ukraine is a reminder of a perennial challenge for Australia: as a sparsely populated liberal democracy and free-trading nation Australia has global interests that outpace its capabilities, meaning far-reaching international partnerships and institutions are required to help make the world safe for Australian interests. It's for these reasons that past Australian leaders played pivotal roles in shaping the UN and the League of Nations before it. It's also why advocating reform to the UN and its related bodies needs to be adopted as a long-term project for the Albanese government.
Labor governments have long touted their higher credentials over the Coalition for undertaking proactive internationalism, namely through a greater focus on multilateral institutions.
Current Labor parliamentarians can count among their forebears HV Evatt, a lion for smaller nations in the United Nations; Gough Whitlam who encouraged normalised relations with Mao's China; as well as the likes of Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and Gareth Evans who all in their own way exercised cunning, creativity, and boldness to tear down trade barriers, stand-up to injustice, or build bridges to new friends.
It is upon this legacy that many, particularly in Canberra, have welcomed the ascension of the Albanese government; believing that in keeping with this record Australia's diplomatic corps will be bolstered and revived, and that, put simply, Australia will do 'more' to make the world 'better'. However, adopting a clear and robust agenda to strengthen international institutions will be essential to ensuring this government lives up to its Labor legacy.
In recent years there has been a trend toward circumventing the frailties of the United Nations and other large multilateral bodies by turning to so-called 'minilateral' collective security groupings made up of a handful of nations with whom it is easier for Australia to agree. This trend has included revamping the Quad and the Five Eyes as well forging new pacts like AUKUS.
But there are global challenges small groups alone cannot address, including aiding Ukraine in fighting against and recovering from Russia's invasion. Ukraine was fortunate that dozens of nations from every region rose as one to support it in the first days of Russia's invasion. However, the decline of the UN as an effective collective security body means that the next time a smaller state is victimised by a bigger power the international response may not be as unified or decisive. Exploring initiatives to improve the effectiveness of the UN, even if they seem unlikely, needs to be a constant part of Australian diplomacy.
In the meantime, there are other contributions Australia can make to Ukraine. In his speech to parliament in March, Zelenskyy pleaded for Australia not to forget the enormous task of Ukraine's reconstruction that lies ahead. He asked that governments and private firms "take patronage of a [Ukrainian] region, city, or industry of your choice".
To take up Zelenskyy's call, the 47th Australian parliament should establish a joint committee to explore how parts of Australia's public and private sectors can best assist Ukraine in its post-war recovery. While this might seem premature given the war still rages, putting in place a national plan for Australia's contribution to Ukraine's reconstruction will ensure our system is ready to go when the time comes.
Ukraine's reconstruction will doubtless take decades and require the attention of dozens of states to avoid failure. For a nation that has drifted toward kleptocracy several times in its history, the outcome of reconstruction will be as pivotal as victory over Russia to ensuring the Ukrainian people can live free.
Dr William Stoltz is Policy Director at the ANU National Security College. This article is co-published with Policy Forum.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address ANU and Australia via video link today at 5pm AEST. Watch his speech online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKY6DvhIkcg