After Canada lost its second consecutive bid for a United Nations Security Council seat on Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne was asked what he thought former Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson would say about the country now.
Champagne responded that he had just been reading about Pearson, who had also worked as a Canadian diplomat and who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the UN response to the Suez crisis.
“I think if Lester B. Pearson was here with us today, he would say, ‘Keep on going,'” Champagne responded.
Yet after Wednesday’s loss, Canada’s second in a row after Stephen Harper’s government failed to secure a seat in 2010, experts are warning that the real question now is, keep on going in what direction?
Canada lost to Norway and Ireland in a vote that saw its candidacy for one of two rotating “Western bloc” seats receive even fewer votes than its failed 2010 bid under the former Conservative government.
It’s a blow foreign policy experts say is “personally embarrassing” to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
But it’s also one they say signals a pressing need for a top-to-bottom foreign policy review as officials grapple with the challenge of figuring out where exactly Canada fits in a world where traditional diplomacy and the rule of law at times seem to be going the way of the dodo bird.
“I think there’s a tendency to look at the world through the same eyes that Lester B. Pearson did,” said Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.
“He was a realist in a lot of ways but we have this idealized version of his foreign policy.”
Canadians like to talk about Pearson. They point to his achievements, his leadership, his vision. Throughout successive governments, his name has graced the headquarters of the Canadian foreign service in Ottawa, the Lester B. Pearson building.
Pearson did a lot with a little: he led two back-to-back minority governments that produced many of the policies and social systems Canadians rely on today. Universal health care, unified military branches, the Canada Pension Plan and the familiar Maple leaf flag are just a few examples.
Just after the Second World War, Pearson very nearly almost became the first head of the United Nations before the then-Soviet Union blocked him, and he’s widely viewed as the father of the traditional model of peacekeeping.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force, which separated the warring parties during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
The world then was very different to the world now, however.
Traditional peacekeeping is largely dead. To many, the credibility of the United Nations and other international institutions set up after the end of the Second World War are in tatters. Rules, to the rising and established global powers, are really more suggestions that they face little consequences for breaking.
But Canada can still learn from the past, says one expert.
“In some ways, the world is more like it was back then because we had a major global power competition — it was just between two states, not many states,” said Andrea Charron, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.
Canada has traditionally advocated foreign policy based on principles like the rule of law. But Charron said Canada will have to adapt to a world in which the powers that are driving the global agenda, such as Russia and China, are disregarding the usual international rules in favour of their own interests.
“What we’re going to realize is that Canada needs to deal issue by issue through like-minded coalitions rather than trying to gather everybody under one big tent,” she said.
“It’s going to depend on who the great power is that drives the agenda for this issue.”
The Liberal government has done major policy reviews before. After winning election in 2015, it launched overhauls of Canadian national security and defence policies that it billed as ways to ask big questions about where the world was going and what Canada needed to do to keep up.
The same has not taken place with foreign policy since 2005, when the government finally published a review it had begun writing back in 2001.
The 2005 review concluded that Canada prioritize its ties with the U.S., then our most important ally, and focus on targeted forms of multilateral diplomacy abroad.
Jump forward 15 years, and the world is a different place. The American administration is no longer a reliable Canadian ally, a single ministerial tweet can spark a diplomatic crisis, and Canada is routinely criticized for not putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to backing up its political rhetoric.
“We can’t rely on the things we used to rely on,” Carvin said.
“We don’t really have a foreign policy right now,” she continued. Since the Harper government, Global Affairs Canada has not really been innovative and has lost a lot of its boldness and ideas, she said, adding that there’s “a very heavy risk management culture there at this time.“
Bessma Momani, a professor of international relations at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said the risk-averse culture at Global Affairs Canada makes it a challenge to bring forward a new vision of how Canada can exert influence in a volatile, changing world.
“The legacy of John Baird as (Stephen Harper’s) foreign minister was that people didn’t want to poke their head up — it might get chopped,” Momani said. That changes behaviours, she said.
“People stop poking their head up, or they retire, or they leave.”
This risk-averse attitude hasn’t changed under the Trudeau government, Momani said, pointing to a bureaucratic system that rewards people who keep their heads down and to chronic underfunding that means many promising young foreign service workers end up on back-to-back, short-term contracts that can end at any time.
“It’s all rhetoric and no substance,” Momani said.
She said she doesn’t expect to see any concrete proposals for a foreign policy review until there is some kind of a majority government.
Charron said the reliance on rhetoric means Canada often falls into trying to add its voice to every problem and be everything on the world stage instead of standing out on the world stage by picking the specific, niche issues that advance the Canadian national interest and excelling at those.
Pearson, she said, did exactly by focusing on the problems of his time that were well within Canada’s range of expertise. Canada now needs to do the same for the volatile modern era, she said.
“(That’s) why it was the golden age. We used this theory of functionalism to create foreign policy — what’s in our capacity and what’s in our national interest — and we went issue by issue,” she said.
“We want to take a short cut now.”