The Kazakhstan Mission to the United Nations occupies a floor in a Midtown office building two blocks away from the UN headquarters. The office, designed in light tones and decorated with national paraphernalia, hosts a small team of diplomats dispatched from Astana to represent the nation in the UN and, specifically for 2017 and 2018, in the Security Council. In a landslide victory in 2016, Kazakhstan secured 138 votes against Thailand’s 55 in its bid for a non-permanent seat in the Security Council – the most important global decision-making body that exclusively deals with matters of peace and security. With that move, Astana was elevated to the top level of global diplomacy.
It was by no means an easy prize. It took six years and an enormous effort to persuade those 138 nations to support Kazakhstan (and, accordingly, not to support Thailand). This astute diplomatic game against such an influential regional power as Thailand was played out in the UN headquarters itself, in the country’s capital, and from Kazakhstan’s embassies worldwide. Certainly, behind the scenes there were commitments, compromises, and concessions – handling foreign affairs without bargaining is unimaginable. For example, since 75 percent of the UNSC agenda is devoted to African issues, it was crucial to gain support from African nations and demonstrate firm commitment to help the continent. So it may not be coincidental that Kazakhstan recently opened an embassy in Addis Ababa, became an observer to the African Union, and sent a small military contingent to the UN operations in Western Sahara and the Ivory Coast.
However, it would not matter how resourceful the campaign for the Security Council seat was if Kazakhstan did not prove itself a responsible and active actor in world affairs. Indeed, Astana has an impressive track record of contributions to regional and global peace and development. Most importantly, Kazakhstan, having voluntarily given up the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world, became a champion of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Moreover, ever since setting up a peace mission on Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992, Kazakhstan’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been committed to finding solutions to conflicts in Eurasia and serving the role of “honest broker.” As such, Astana was instrumental in resolving the Iranian nuclear program deadlock, Russian-Turkey rift, constructing the Minsk framework for solving the crisis in eastern Ukraine, and establishing the Astana platform for Syria. Being at heart of Central Asia, Kazakhstan has also been an outspoken advocate for the region’s security and sustainable development – a role recognized by all of its Central Asian neighbors and, recently, by Afghanistan.
It would therefore not be fully correct to call Kazakh membership in the Security Council simply a reward for the six-year campaign – in reality the membership is a culmination of a quarter century of Kazakh diplomacy aimed at the peace, stability, and prosperity of its own region and the world.
Kazakhstan has a seven-point agenda for its work in the UNSC: a world free of nuclear weapons; preventing and ending military confrontations at regional and global levels; making Central Asia a model for a regional zone of peace, security, cooperation, and development; reaching peace and security in Africa; fighting international terrorism and violent extremism; advancing the nexus between security and development; and adapting the UN system to the needs of the 21st century.
These priorities reflect Astana’s views on world affairs and the foundational principles of its foreign policy model. Naturally, most of them directly correspond to the country’s national interests, particularly on matters related to security. Take for example the Central Asian priority. Kazakhstan is promoting a regional approach and agenda because it has always been interested in having its immediate geostrategic environment safe and prosperous. Most of the security and developmental issues in Central Asia are of a transnational character and it was always Astana’s understanding that these problems can only be tackled through the common regional action. Hence the intention to promote the entire Central Asian region’s interests at the UN.
Obviously it takes talent and skill to work effectively in such a complex and bureaucratic body as the UN. Apart from work on its declared priorities, and a rotational presidency in January 2018, Kazakhstan is also chairing Security Council committees on the Taliban, Islamic State, and al-Qaeda, and Somalia and Eritrea.
It also takes tact and will to assert Kazakhstan’s position on global matters such as the Syrian crisis or North Korea’s nuclear program without estranging other UNSC members, particularly the permanent ones. The so-called mutlivector foreign policy model of Kazakhstan translates directly to the statistics of its votes in favor of or against UNSC resolutions. Astana is not leaning toward a pro-Russian or a pro-Western orientation – its only orientation is a pro-Kazakhstan one.
A case in point is Astana’s recent vote in the Security Council and, after a veto imposed by the United States, in the General Assembly on the resolution on the status of Jerusalem. Even though this was happening on the eve of Nazarbayev’s visit to the United States, Kazakhstan voted according to its own views and the UN view on Jerusalem.
At the end of the day, diplomacy comes down to the quality of personnel. UN representation in New York has always been a prestigious posting for Astana’s diplomats and its importance only increased with the UNSC seat. Tellingly, the Mission is led by a career diplomat who was previously Astana’s ambassador to the United States (another demanding and prestigious post) and the preceding permanent representative is now a foreign minister.
Even though lately the size of Kazakhstan delegation was slightly increased, it is beyond comparison with some of the other non-permanent members of the Security Council, not to mention the P5 members. Everyone in the Mission has a large area of responsibility spanning entire geographic regions and functional dimensions. And it is reassuring that the Mission is staffed with diplomats bringing experience from different regions of the world. To illustrate – the Mission’s diplomat working on the Middle East and the Syrian process is, naturally, fluent in Arabic and has been posted to the region many times; a diplomat charged with Eurasian issues worked in different European capitals for many years and is well versed in Eurasian affairs. So the maturity and competence of Kazakhstan foreign service manifests fully at the Security Council.
Kazakhstan has one more year in the Security Council. After that, it may take another generation or two until a different Central Asian nation will be able to obtain membership in the Security Council. This puts Kazakhstan in a very demanding position where it is in fact representing the region and is responsible for utilizing the opportunity for the region’s advantage. So for the remainder of the year Kazakhstan is expected to remain an active player in the UNSC. The best indicator should be the upcoming Security Council speech by President Nazarbayev setting the goals for 2018 and beyond.
Anuar Ayazbekov, Ph.D., is Director of the Institute of Diplomacy of the Academy of Public Administration under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.