Tánaiste's address to the Forum of Small States at the United Nations in New York
Small States and their Role in International Relations
Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am proud and pleased that Ireland has been invited to speak at this gathering today.
Ireland’s sense of identity is complex: a modern European state bearing the marks of a long and turbulent history; a country whose literature and music has travelled the world; an island whose own population has long been dwarfed in size by our great global diaspora.
But woven through all the complexity is an abiding sense of ourselves as a small country. We know the vulnerabilities of our size: history did not spare us those lessons. Today – as a vibrant open economy, one of the most open in the world - we are acutely conscious of our dependence on global markets. But we have also come to understand the strengths of small states: the determination, resilience, and openness of mind and heart that we must summon in order to survive and prosper.
This 20th anniversary of the Forum of Small States is a way station, providing an opportunity to look back and reflect but also to regroup and strategise.
We live in a time when the only certainty is change. The years since the foundation of FOSS have been momentous. We have seen the continued outworking of the fall of the Berlin Wall; the dark shadow of 9/11; the shifts in relative economic strength that are leading to a reordering of world power; and now the cataclysm that is gripping the Arab world. We are witnessing a communications revolution beyond any of our imaginings, and experiencing climate change on a scale that is challenging the very way we share this earth.
For all of us – and perhaps especially for small states which account for well over half the UN membership – this is a time to recalibrate and refocus.
I have been asked to speak in particular about the role of small states in regional organisations and will gladly do so. Throughout this year Ireland is chairing the 56 member Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and on 1st January we take over the six month rotating Presidency of the European Union.
It is our first time to take on the OSCE role and our seventh to chair the EU. These two chairing roles of course differ significantly. Each carries weighty responsibilities, but they are clearly of a very different kind and scope.
It will be for others, in due time, to measure our success in these roles but let me share some thoughts from a small state perspective.
What has stood to us in our previous EU Presidencies, and stands to us in our current OSCE Presidency, are what I believe to be quintessential small state qualities. Small states are natural consensus builders – less preoccupied by their own national agendas, but keen to listen and to work towards fair and balanced outcomes. Our working methods are well attuned to chairing responsibilities: we tend to have small and tightly knit teams, allowing us to respond flexibly in fast evolving situations. Short lines of communication help us to speak with a single voice.
But there are also challenges that perhaps are more keenly felt by small states. Doing the job properly – mastering the issues, inspiring confidence in others – requires a significant commitment of resources. And, coupled with the readiness to listen, there has to be the confidence to withstand pressure. A principled independence – acting without fear or favour – underwrites the integrity of any chairing role. I suspect there will be a resonance in this room if I say that small states may need to exhibit a particular hardiness in this regard.
There is no question of special pleading for small states – we all fully and freely acknowledge what large states, for their part, bring to the table. But it is important and necessary that small states should remind ourselves of our distinctive assets, so that we take confidence from our strengths and recommit ourselves to engagement.
Staying with the regional perspective, there are a couple of other points to be made.
For small states, membership of a regional organisation has the potential to amplify our voice. Because it carries the weight of numbers, the regional voice will almost always command a more attentive hearing. As the UN agenda grows ever more complex, and the struggle for influence and impact increases, the benefits of coordinated messaging are obvious.
We must be vigilant, however, that streamlining and group positions do not come at the cost of substance. Lowest common denominator approaches are always a risk. And so is introversion: groups can all too easily turn in on themselves rather than looking and reaching outwards.
Because we small states often have more at stake in the group approach, there is a particular onus on us to strive for quality in our group positions - to preserve substance and balance and ensure openness.
It is important to embrace our small state identity but not be constrained by it.
In our own case, during almost 40 years of EU membership, Ireland has never been comfortable with any kind of generic compartmentalisation of EU members along large/small lines. Coalitions differ on key policy issues – the phrase ‘variable geometry’ is now firmly established in the EU lexicon. As we sit around the table in Brussels, our best allies on some issues are among the large member states; on others not.
This same ‘variable geometry’ holds true at the United Nations. All of us inhabit multiple roles simultaneously. We are defined not just by our size, but by our values, our geography, our state of development, and by the range of political and economic choices we make. And our UN coalitions will vary accordingly – that is the diversity and richness of our work.
It is perhaps more accurate to speak of small state sensibilities than small state policies.
These small state sensibilities condition our approach across a range of issues. It is part of who we are: a way of looking at the world that is both instinctive and ingrained by experience.
But the sensibilities come into play most directly when we are dealing with institutional issues involving the relative weight accorded to individual members. Within the EU, Ireland has been a highly engaged player in successive negotiations on these issues over many years. Our objective has remained consistent throughout: to safeguard the entitlements of and respect for small members, while maintaining the overall institutional effectiveness and credibility.
These are the same sensibilities and concerns we bring to bear in discussions at the UN: whether on Security Council reform (where we strongly supported the recent S5 initiative) or in seeking a fair and appropriate rotation in membership of key UN bodies.
Finally, a word about the period ahead.
I remarked at the outset on the radical changes since FOSS was established. Alongside all the other changes, the growing interdependence of states has become an ever more striking feature of our world.
This has an important corollary in terms of our discussion today.
The conventional wisdom has been that small states are more invested in multilateralism because we have more at stake: in the jungle that would prevail in the absence of multilateralism, small states would not be the predators – we would be the prey.
It remains the case that small states have a particular stake in multilateralism. But the incentive for multilateral engagement by large states has increased. In a multi-polar and interdependent world, the option for any state to go it alone is increasingly less viable, and the need to convince and legitimise is greater.
We thus have a climate, and a moment, in which multilateralism can be advanced. And small states – who are still the special custodians of multilateralism – have a particular responsibility in this regard.
It is up to us to demonstrate the commitment, the seriousness of purpose, and the solidarity with each other, which will allow us to seize this moment.
Thank you, Mr. President.
1 October, 2012