OTTAWA — In Friday morning’s early darkness, Marc-Andre Blanchard will catch his first new glimpse of New York City‘s sparkling skyline from behind the wheel of a modestly priced rental car.
For Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, the moment will mark not only the home stretch of a long, solitary car ride from Toronto, but the start of a big round of politicking — the final push to win Canada a temporary seat on the UN Security Council next month.
Since mid-March, Blanchard has been running the UN mission remotely from Toronto, directing staff that have been working at home since COVID-19‘s assault on New York shut them out of their Manhattan embassy as it ground life to a halt at the epicentre of the pandemic.
But with less than a month to go before a vote that will pit Canada against Norway and Ireland for two available temporary seats on the council, Blanchard said Thursday it is time to get to back to New York — even it means doing diplomacy a little bit differently.
Diplomacy during COVID-19 has been a steady stream of videoconferences from early morning to late evening, sometimes punctuated with virtual “Zoom dinners” with small groups of fellow ambassadors.
On Thursday morning, Blanchard spoke to a few of his international colleagues about his impending return.
“For the first time, we were raising the prospect that maybe we’ll go for walks in Central Park together and observe social distancing,” Blanchard said in an interview.
“But at least try to start again, to work, to see others and have those conversations that are so important in diplomacy.”
He said Canada’s campaign for the council rests on what it has been doing to help fight the pandemic — convening like-minded countries to ensure food security in developing countries, keeping vital supply chains open across the globe, and working on new financing models to help struggling countries whose economies have been decimated by the pandemic.
Canada also convened a meeting of smaller embassies in New York in March to help them set up work-at-home systems as the pandemic was in process of crippling the city.
“If you ask me, what’s your campaign? Well, this is our campaign,” he said. “The best campaign possible for Canada is let Canada be Canada.”
Canada lost its last bid for a security council seat in 2010 when tiny Portugal won more support. Canada had held a seat on the council six times, one each in the six previous decades.
In 1999-2000, Canada ran and won on the “human security” platform espoused by Lloyd Axworthy, who was the foreign affairs minister leading up to the campaign.
“We did that with protection of civilians when we were last on the security council. We’re going to do this with inequality and economic security when we get to the security council,” he said.
“Inequalities are a very, very big source of conflict and instability. The security council needs to look at conflicts through the prism of the economics of it.”
In addition to its five permanent members — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China — the council is comprised of a rotating cast of 10 non-permanent members who serve two-year terms.
Blanchard said Canada hopes to leverage its nine other non-permanent members to focus the big powers on something they might agree on — the need to elevate economic conditions in all countries.
“We’re strong enough to be able to reach out to other member states, but we’re small enough to know that we need to be acting together if we want results.”
Blanchard is clear-eyed about the failings and limits of the Security Council, including its inability to stop a decade worth of carnage in Syria because of Russia and China’s opposition as veto-wielding permanent members.
“There are issues on which we will never agree with China or Russia, and other members of the Security Council, maybe,” said Blanchard. “We saw that in Syria ? we see that in COVID with China and the United States.”
Blanchard, 54, is a not a career diplomat. He was a successful lawyer who supported the Liberal party and was given the UN job in 2016.
He’s not the first political appointee to win a plumb diplomatic post, but he has become a natural at the delicate balancing act of diplomacy, said Stephen Lewis, a New Democrat who served as Canada’s UN ambassador in the 1980s under Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.
If Canada wins a seat, it will be because of Blanchard, said Lewis, who remains active in UN circles as the head of an organization that is trying to stamp out abuse by peacekeepers.
“We have an ambassador in New York who happens to be intelligent, articulate, persuasive, very highly respected and regarded by the colleague ambassadors in the UN. And that makes all the difference in the world,” said Lewis.
Blanchard holds his UN colleagues in equally high regard. He’s looking forward to seeing them after he arrives alone and drops his rental car at LaGuardia Airport.
“The biggest perk of this job is the relationship I build with my colleagues, individually. Everybody is very special,” he said.
“Everybody brings a lot to the table, whether it’s a big country or a small country. This is what we miss.”