The UN General Assembly votes June 17 to decide which countries get a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2021 and 2022.
Canada is one of the candidates, and there are numerous reasons it does not deserve to win.
Justin Trudeau’s government, like Stephen Harper’s before him, has cut foreign aid spending. And five years ago, Trudeau claimed peacekeeping would be a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Today, only a few dozen Canadian blue berets are employed around the world.
The number of days Prime Minister Trudeau spent in the developing world since winning office in 2015 can be counted on one hand. He spent more time surfing or on vacation with the likes of his immensely wealthy family friend, the Aga Khan.
Such priorities may matter to some UN members, particularly the poorest, which hold many of the votes.
Canada is in a three-way race with Norway and Ireland for two rotating UNSC spots. Whoever wins gets to share the same lowly council status as current minnows such as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Estonia, Niger and Tunisia.
On the other hand, the winners will also get to briefly breathe the same rarefied air as the five veto-wielding permanent council members — the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and France.
Unless it is simply a vanity project, it is a bit of a mystery why the Prime Minister’s Office has been putting immense pressure on Global Affairs Canada to put other files aside and get all hands on deck for the final days of the UNSC campaign push. The PMO’s intense interest begs this question: if sitting on the Security Council is so important, why did the government only raise its game a few months ago, though the plan to make a serious run for a seat was well known several years ago?
The issues most likely to be discussed at the UNSC begin and end with how to get along with the nascent superpower, China. Also part of this toxic stew is a mischievous, irredentist Russia, jihadists and homegrown terrorists, cyber and information warfare, climate change, and most recently, how to tackle public health emergencies such as the current coronavirus pandemic.
Climate change excepted, Canada has a different agenda than almost any other country. Its top priorities include feminism, gender equality and indigenous rights. As Trudeau discovered at the G7 in Tadoussac two years ago and when he went to China in 2017, as popular as his signature issues may be among some Canadians, they often get short shrift abroad.
With the world in tumult, few nations are keen to be lectured by the UN’s Dudley Do-Right.
The frantic late campaign to sell the UN members on Canada’s Security Council candidacy took a new twist in March. Global Affairs suddenly became focused on the idea that the country was uniquely qualified to help other countries navigate the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 universe.
Though you’d never know it from some of the domestic media coverage, which has concentrated on how well Canada has fared compared to the U.S. in crushing the virus, in the global context Canada has not done particularly well. Far fewer people per capita have died from COVID-19 in Germany, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, Norway, Cuba, Greece and Finland, among others.
On the economic front, it is still far too early to figure out which countries have best managed the pandemic.
Much of Canada’s salesmanship has centred on Trudeau’s personal brand. This is a two-edged sword. As smooth as he sometimes can be, UN members are unlikely to have forgotten his Indian costume drama, his wearing blackface and the anger he caused when he literally stood up the leaders of Japan and Australia at a key trade meeting in Vietnam.
Missing from Canada’s UNSC campaign is a well-defined vision of what Ottawa hopes to achieve and what direction Canada is headed in as regards countries such as China. There has been little discussion of Canada’s place in the world for decades. The campaign has produced stirring jargon such as Canada intends to lead in “revitalizing the rules-based international order (and) continue implementing its Feminist International Assistance Policy … which seeks to eradicate poverty and build a more peaceful, more inclusive and more prosperous world.”
Senior foreign diplomats privately reckon that Canada’s Security Council candidacy has little chance of winning. The consensus is that Norway is a shoo-in and that Ireland is ahead of Canada for the other spot. Their reasoning is that these European countries have been more adroit diplomatically, have helped poor countries, and have demonstrated a much stronger commitment to humanitarian aid and to peacekeeping.
Those who work at GAC speak of relentless, effective lobbying by Foreign minister Philippe-Francois Champagne and UN ambassador Marc-Andre Blanchard. Their colleagues believe that thanks to Champagne and Blanchard, Canada is now at least in the running.
Canada’s Achilles’ heel remains its naivete about the world. The Norwegians and the Irish have spent more time at the coal face and have street smarts. The Canadians are well informed but they can miss meaningful gestures because they are often tone deaf and blind to the rough and tumble of diplomacy in the developing world.
What inducements Canada has been offering to get votes is a closely guarded secret. But given the economic impact of COVID-19, the needs everywhere are enormous.
Canada will likely open its first embassy in a South Pacific tropical paradise fairly soon and open embassies or consulates in Africa. However, given the parlous state of Canada’s finances, it is unlikely that there will be a dramatic offer of a big aid package to woo voters.
A key determining factor for Canada will be what China decides to do.
Beijing long ago bought many of Africa’s 54 UN votes with a slew of gleaming airports, railways and expressways. Will it urge African states to support Canada’s bid because Ottawa is considered to be soft on China? Conversely, out of spite, might Beijing tell Africa to vote en masse against Canada to rebuke it for seizing Huawei heiress Meng Wanzhou and putting her through an extradition process?
A potential positive for Ottawa may be that some members of the vote-rich Arab bloc could support Canada because it dropped its traditional neutrality and sided with the Palestinians against Israel on self-determination last November. That shift may provide a hint as to how cynical Canada may have to get to realize Trudeau’s UNSC dream.
Next Wednesday’s vote will be an opaque process decided by a secret ballot. Maybe Canada can pull it off. Maybe not.
The biggest question is why, other than perhaps to have something to boast about, Canadians should even care about a marginal role on a council totally dominated by the permanent five members.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas