From the Desk of Alex Binkley, Contributing Editor


No! Canada — No room at the U.N.

Weak Canadian hand played badly

By Mark Entwistle
Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Insitute
Mark Entwistle is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a former Ambassador and former Press Secretary to the Prime Minister of Canada.
The United Nations Security Council election has to be a wake-up call for the Prime Minister.
Yesterday Canada went before the 192 countries of the United Nations to seek election to the Security Council. We have been here six other times since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, and have never lost an election until now.

Canada's withdrawal from the election, which handed the contested seat to Portugal, is partly a reflection of the general disengagement from world affairs by Canada chronicled recently by authors from Andrew Cohen to Paul Heinbecker. The chickens are coming home to roost.

It is also partly be the wound of multiple sliver cuts caused by actions large and small of the Stephen Harper government itself: critical comments in the past about, and to, permanent members of the Security Council like China and Russia; intemperate comments about countries that have the capacity to persuade others at a time when all countries, no matter how small, have the same one vote; maladroit handling of decisions on African aid; insistence on a "made-in-Canada" approach to issues like climate change when other countries believe they need a collective response; a perception in the Arab world that Canada has abandoned a balanced Middle East policy; the failure to invite the Secretary General of the United Nations to the Muskoka G8 summit; slights caused by clumsy handling of visa issues.

Whether any of these decisions have been good for the country's interests is, of course, a matter for another election. None of them is, in itself, a sufficient explanation for failure to win a Council seat.

The outcome of any election is an unknown because so many factors are hidden from view. This is especially true for the U.N. Security Council, where there is no opinion polling to guide expectations and fuel the feel of a horse race. Everything is done behind closed doors and many of the voters remain inscrutable to the end, so much the better to secure greater enticements to support one candidate over another. It is a horse trader's bazaar.

But election to the Security Council was important for Canada's interests beyond prestige. As challenged as it is, the Council is unquestionably the most important organ of global governance, with the power to compel behaviour of any state though exercise of Article VII of the United Nations Charter.

Many of the big issues that will affect Canada directly over the next two years – Afghanistan, Iran – will be thrashed out there and Canada should have been at the table. The emergence of the G20 reflects an evolution in global institutional architecture that is underway right now, which includes reform of the Security Council itself. Canada should have been on the inside of that discussion to best protect its interests.

Our long history of multilateral engagement and cross-cutting membership in almost every global club there is from the G8 and G20 to the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, would normally have made Canadian election very likely. The diplomatic campaigning is always fierce to be sure, and starts traditionally years before an election where Canada will present itself.

I recall having made many visits as a career diplomat to foreign governments to lobby for support for Canada's candidature to the Council; chips are called in as commitment to bilateral relationships around the world is invoked.

But this election feels different for Canada on several levels. The tenor of the attitude of the Canadian Government was tentative, almost unsure, even as the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister campaigned hard at the end. There is a sense that the Canadian hand is weaker than perhaps it has been before. The current partisan toxicity of Canadian politics has not spared the Security Council bid, and global news media report the perceived internal squabbling over whether Canada even deserves a Security Council seat.

The world looks on, its mouth a little agape.

Does Canada deserve a seat? On the basis of the unsung work that Canadians do around the world, the answer has to be yes. A succession of talented ambassadors to the United Nations in New York points to the certainty that Canada would do a professional job on the Council of which Canadians could be proud.

But now that he has lost, the Prime Minister should articulate a vision and strategy for what Canada wishes to do with its decadal opportunity beyond satisfaction with occupying the Council seat; an equivalent, for example, to the Human Security Agenda pursued when Canada last sat at the Security Council.