EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the time of publication, Canada has lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. For more details on the vote, click here.
Losing the quest for a seat on the United Nations Security Council might lead to red cheeks for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even if many Canadians aren’t following the race closely, experts say.
But a loss would signal a much bigger problem with Canadian foreign policy, they add.
“I don’t think it will have an impact on the next election, but I think it would be personally a bit embarrassing for Trudeau,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“I think there’s a sense that everybody likes Canada, or at least we like to think that.”
Canada will learn either Wednesday or Thursday afternoon whether Trudeau’s multi-year push for one of the two Security Council seats available in the Western Europe and others category is a success.
Two-thirds of the available votes are needed to win on the first ballot on Wednesday afternoon.
If that’s not achieved, voting continues for a second ballot and those results will come out on Thursday.
Trudeau was asked by a journalist on Wednesday whether he believed a defeat would be a personal failing for him, but did not answer. Instead, he characterized the bid for a seat as “just an extra way” for Canada to make its voice heard on the world stage.
“A seat on the United Nations Security Council is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end.”
Trudeau vowed during the 2015 election campaign to run for one of the rotating seats and made the argument that the former Conservative government’s pivot away from the United Nations and toward institutions like NATO and the G20 hurt Canada’s standing in the world.
But in the years since, critics have frequently argued the government isn’t living up to its support for the United Nations, particularly when it comes to peacekeeping.
Canadian troop deployments to UN missions now stand at a 60-year low despite Trudeau making a commitment to peacekeeping a pillar of his 2015 platform.
Bessma Momani, a professor of international relations at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said another loss for Canada would go beyond just a defeat for Trudeau personally but serve as a broader indictment of Canadian investment in the UN.
“It’s not just about him,” Momani said. “It’s not American Idol.”
“If we don’t get it, it’s going to be: Canada, you guys talk a big game, you guys are full of great rhetoric, you look awesome. But, you know, where’s the beef?”
“Trudeau may be the amicable poster child of multilateralism and diversity … but at the end of the day, that’s not enough,” Momani continued. “Where’s the dollars? Where’s the troops? Where’s the presence that people expect?”
At the same time, highlighting the value Canada places on things like diversity, inclusion and economic security — as Global Affairs Canada did on Twitter this week — likely does little to set Canada apart.
“I just am not especially convinced there’s anything that’s particularly Canadian about what he’s proposing,” said David Perry, also a vice president with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Perry said it’s like doing so implicitly implies the Irish or the Norwegians aren’t also supporters of all those things when surely they are.
Perry also said a loss would serve as a signal of a bigger issue with Canadian foreign policy.
“If we don’t win again, I think that it potentially implies more about some of the structural factors of our foreign policy than we might have thought,” he said.
“The Trudeau government certainly seemed to have put an awful lot of stock in the fact that by saying Canada was back and presenting a more traditional Canadian image on the international scene, that that alone would help reset some of our foreign policy.“
Momani said she hopes that if Canada loses the seat, the government will use it as a real chance to evaluate where it needs to do better in creating concrete change in its foreign policy.
“If we lose, I think we should take stock,” she said.
“It’s a time for self-reflection and to say: OK, why didn’t we get it? And hopefully, it spurs a conversation about how we are really high on the rhetoric, but not on the substance.”
Robertson added that while a loss would likely fuel criticism from Conservatives around whether the campaign was a waste of time and money, it would be unlikely to have much of an impact at the polls.
“I think it will be a bit deflating for Canadians, who like to think of ourselves as internationalists,” Robertson said. “But does it matter to the average voter? Ultimately, I don’t think a lot.”
“A seat at the UN Security Council would be nice. It would be kind of a vindication of Canada as a nice internationalist. But I’m not sure that would rank in the top 10 priorities of most Canadians right now.“
Ambassadors have been casting their secret ballots in staggered time slots rather than at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly out of fears about the spread of COVID-19.