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ANALYSIS: Trudeau’s personal brand tied to success — or failure — of UN Security Council race

Trudeau puts UN Security Council bid into overdrive
WATCH: Canada's campaign for a United Nations Security Council seat has moved online, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes virtual meetings with key voting blocs ahead of the June 21 vote.

Liars, cheats and hypocrites.

Many of the diplomats who get to cast a vote for the temporary members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will tell you they love you to your face but then vote for your enemy.

And why not? It’s a secret ballot. Which means no one ever knows which specific diplomats lied about their vote.

“People lie all the time,” said Adam Chapnick, a professor at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and the author of Canada on the United Nations Security Council, an excellent diplomatic history of Canada’s six successful bids for a seat on the UNSC and its two unsuccessful bids.

In the book, Chapnick charted the scorecard Canada had for its last attempt to win a UNSC seat on Oct. 21, 2010. In a battle between Germany, Portugal and Canada for two available seats, the government of Stephen Harper had managed to secure the support from diplomats representing 150 countries — including 135 who put it in writing that they would vote for Canada. To win a seat, a candidate country has to clear a threshold of two-thirds of the members of the general assembly, or 127 votes.

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But on the first ballot, Canada was shocked to find that it had finished third with just 114 ballots. And while Germany just managed to get over the necessary 127-vote threshold, Portugal had not. And so there was a second ballot, and this time, even more voters abandoned Canada. The country finished with 78 votes, got the message and withdrew from the race.

Clearly, about one-quarter — and possibly as many as one-half — of the diplomats who promised Canada their vote in 2010 were never true to their word.

READ MORE: Canada to co-host virtual UN conference on coronavirus amid bid for Security Council seat

And yet, despite the famous inconstancy of the UNSC voter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is spending a considerable amount of time this month wooing them ahead of this year’s UNSC vote, to be held in New York City on June 21. And, in doing so, Trudeau is binding himself — and himself only — to the success or failure of the bid.

Prime ministers have actively sought out seats on the Security Council before, but usually the foreign affairs minister for each one either fronted the bid or was one of the publicly visible politicians on the bid. But Trudeau’s three foreign affairs ministers — Stéphane Dion, Chrystia Freeland and, now, François-Philippe Champagne — were or are more closely identified with other files like NAFTA, Iran’s downing of the Ukraine International Airlines jet or the global response to COVID-19.

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“I think (Trudeau has) been reminded by his cabinet and caucus that this is on him,” said Colin Robertson, who is now the vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute after a long career as a Canadian diplomat. “He got us into this personally, and we didn’t have to do that. And so if he wants it, he’s really got to go after it. And I think he is going after it. I think he seemed to get that. He has to do this.”

READ MORE: Number of Canadian peacekeepers deployed abroad hits 60-year low

Harper and his government sloughed off the 2010 loss as something they didn’t want to win anyhow — they would not sacrifice principles to win votes or, to use the phrase Conservatives bandied about at the time, they would not go along to get along. Indeed, by the time it had made its way through the Conservative spin machine, losing the 2010 vote was touted as a sign of Canada’s virtue, not failure.

It will be different this time.

“This would be a severe personal disappointment and would be seen by some as a personal failure, not cabinet’s,” said Robertson.

Last week, Trudeau had separate virtual meetings with the permanent representatives to the UN from eastern European countries, from Asia-Pacific countries and from Arab countries. Canada’s candidacy for the UNSC seat was the main item on the agenda for those calls. He also had one-on-one calls last week with the heads of government from Mozambique and Barbados and this week with Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron. And while the readouts from those otherwise private calls are silent on any discussion specifically about the UNSC bid, the subject would mostly likely have come up in Trudeau’s chats with leaders.

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And now, in a move that will likely to continue to boost Canada’s standing among the smaller countries that make up the vast majority of UNSC voters, Trudeau will co-convene a special high-level United Nations meeting Thursday to discuss some of the economic and financial problems smaller countries around the world are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the just the latest example of Canada trying to use its influence as an affluent middle power, as a member of the G7 and G20, to assist smaller powers. Government sources say Champagne has been on the phone multiple times since the pandemic struck offering advice and assistance to counterparts representing smaller powers who may not have the resources or know-how to cope with COVID-19.

“I do think that helpful fixing kind of stuff we’ve been trying to do as a country helps — and the consistent multilateralism,” Robertson said.

Coronavirus outbreak: UN Security Council needs Canada post-pandemic, Trudeau says
Coronavirus outbreak: UN Security Council needs Canada post-pandemic, Trudeau says

And for Trudeau, the pandemic has completely changed his motivation to win a seat on the council. When he became prime minister in 2015, Trudeau spoke about returning Canada’s foreign policy to Pearson’s day and, a la Pearson, a return to a focus on peacekeeper missions. Back then, the motivation for being on the Security Council was part and parcel of a vaguely expressed image of how the new Liberal government thought Canada should relate to the world. Pressed for specifics as to the value of a UNSC seat, Trudeau would often talk about advancing its climate change agenda and its international feminist foreign policy goals.

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Trudeau now sees the value to Canada of a two-year term on the UNSC in a much different light.

“I think when we reflect on the scale of this (COVID-19) crisis, many people have compared it to what happened 75 years ago around World War II,” Trudeau told reporters last week during one of his Rideau Cottage press conferences. “Well, in the years following World War II, we created a range of multilateral and multinational institutions like the (International Monetary Fund), like the World Bank, the Bretton Woods Institutions that helped the world over the following decades develop tremendous prosperity and opportunity for people right around the world.

“Seventy-five years later, we have another crisis that is comparable in scale to that Second World War, and I think there need to be real reflections on how we move forward as a world, how we update and adjust our various multilateral institutions to better respond to the world we’re becoming part of right now in a post-COVID era. Canada’s voice is going to be really important, as it was around the forming of the Bretton Woods Institutions, as it will be as we create a better, more prosperous, fairer world for everyone. And Canada having a voice at the UN Security Council will allow us to continue to be at the heart of those discussions as we move forward as a planet.”

Gone is any 2015 talk of peacekeeping. Indeed, data released by the UN itself last week shows that the number of Canadians on UN peacekeeping missions is now at a 60-year low. Trudeau may have talked up the value of peacekeeping six years ago, but his government has never been enthusiastic about putting Canadian troops into harm’s way overseas.

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And so, in its first kick at the council can since that failed 2010 vote, Canada is up against Norway and Ireland for the two slots reserved on the council for “western European and other states.” Within Canada’s diplomatic community, there is a general feeling that Norway is the most likely to succeed and may even be the closest thing to a lock in the murky world of UN politics. (Germany was thought to be a lock in the 2010 Germany-Canada-Portugal race but squeaked in with just one vote more than the required 127!) The race now between Ireland and Canada is, from Canada’s perspective, a toss-up.

READ MORE: Canada’s campaign for UN Security Council seat enters final stage

Norway and Ireland have been campaigning for this vote for a decade and have already locked up support from dozens of countries. European Union countries, for example, are widely believed to have told Ireland that it can count on their support. Canada, having not started to really campaign until Trudeau became PM in 2015, is late and now must get countries to switch or, more likely, sew up second-ballot support.

“It’s quite possible that a country will promise their vote to one country and then we’ll vote for someone else because it’s a secret ballot. No one will ever know. So there is time for a charm offensive at that level,” said Chapnick. “The other reason that there’s time is that we deal with a lot of democracies when we’re making deals. And not every damn democratic government feels bound by an agreement made by previous democratic governments. So if the government changes over the five to 10 years leading up to his council election, it’s entirely possible that a vote promised to someone else becomes in play again as we go forward. So it never really is too late in this sort of campaign. But at the same time, you can never trust any assurance of support that you get.”

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And so, the personal, patient and enthusiastic intervention of the prime minister in these dying weeks could very well make the difference.

“I do think that are our end game is excellent. We are doing everything we should do. I think we’ve got a good shot at it,” Robertson said. “But it’s even more complicated this year because of COVID, and we’re just not sure.”

David Akin is the chief political correspondent for Global News.