PM invokes Canada's peacekeeping past in seeking UN Security Council seat

Five years after Canada failed to win a seat on the UN security council, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced a campaign to get a spot in 2020.

Trudeau introduced to UN crowd as 'a person who deeply believes in multilateralism'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves as he wraps up his remarks during an event at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

So already San Marino has been scared off by Canada's entry in the race and now, if Ireland and Norway can be bested and if the Liberal government is re-elected in 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might have the opportunity to celebrate the successful acquisition of a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2020.

Four years from now, it could be a handy mark of succeeding where Stephen Harper's Conservative government failed.

In the meantime, the Liberals might have time to establish a new (if also old) idea of how the country should imagine itself to be in the world.

When the Conservatives became the first government to try and fail to win a seat on the Security Council five years ago, they first tried blaming Michael Ignatieff. But Lawrence Cannon, foreign affairs minister at the time, also hinted at another explanation: that perhaps the Conservative government's "principles" were what cost Canada a seat.

"Some would even say that because of our attachment to those values that we lost a seat on the council," he offered. "If that's the case, then so be it."

Eight months later, Harper would declare that under his leadership Canada was "no longer" aiming "to please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations."

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Six months after that, John Baird ventured that Canada's principled positions had probably cost it the votes of North Korea, Iran and Libya.

And so it was this week that a Conservative opposition critic attempted to frame the pursuit of a Security Council seat as a question of principle.

"It's worth seeking the seat, there's no harm in seeking a seat … but the question will be at what cost?" MP Garnett Genuis wondered Monday in an appearance on CBC TV's Power & Politics.

"Our approach on foreign policy was to engage with the United Nations, but to do it in a way that was principled ... not to compromise on things like human rights and support for Israel, support for religious and ethnic minorities. And what we're already seeing from this government, frankly, is a step back from that principled foreign policy."

So what the Harper government's critics view as an embarrassment — the result of the government's mistakes and mishandling — the Conservatives have come close to proclaiming as a point of pride. 

Trudeau says Canada will campaign for Security Council Seat

8 years ago
Duration 0:52
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is visiting the UN in New York today

Honest broker or courageous warrior?

That much is befitting of a government that was quite fond of saying that it would not "go along to get along" and dismissed the notion of being an "honest broker." And that much sets up part of the debate about Canadian foreign policy.

Now in opposition, for instance, the Conservatives have accused the Liberals of "cozying up" to Iran as sanctions have been lifted.

The Liberals, in response, have defended the value of engagement. "Our foreign policy is based on talking," Pam Goldsmith-Jones, the parliamentary secretary for Foreign Affairs, told the House in January, "something that the opposition was not that good at in the past."

In an essay published two years ago, Roland Paris, a professor at the University of Ottawa at the time and now a senior adviser to Trudeau, argued the Harper government had departed from a "liberal internationalist" consensus that defined Canadian foreign policy after the Second World War: disengaging from multilateral diplomacy while emphasizing military action and the notion of Canada as a "courageous warrior." (Ian Brodie, once chief of staff to Harper, quibbled with Paris's reading of events, but still agreed that something had changed.)

However, Paris argued, a fondness for both the UN and the notion of peacekeeping still endured amongst Canadians. And last year, when Paris wrote down his advice for a hypothetical future prime minister in an open letter, he recommended a recommitment to both. "Some might see a return to UN peace operations as retrograde, but they would be wrong," he said.

Revitalizing Canada's historic role

At the UN headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Canada's incoming ambassador to the UN, Marc-André Blanchard, introduced Trudeau as "a person who deeply believes in multilateralism" and "a person with a deep, personal commitment to the values and objectives of the United Nations."

And when the prime minister himself got to explaining why Canada should be elected to the security council, he offered that his government was "determined to revitalize Canada's historic role as a key contributor to United Nations peacekeeping."

Trudeau on future Canadian UN Peacekeeping

8 years ago
Duration 1:41
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is visiting the United Nations in New York today

There are simplistic choices here: between engaging and being principled; between using military force and peacekeeping. The UN needn't be unreservedly endorsed or completely condemned. But in between those choices are potentially useful debates about how Canada should be.

Canada's peacekeeping history is, in particular, fraught and debatable: After the scandal of Somalia and the bloodshed in Bosnia and Rwanda, it has been 20 years since Canada regularly had more than 500 officers involved in peacekeeping efforts.

It is likely worth noting that, three weeks before last fall's election, U.S. President Barack Obama convened a summit at the UN to "to strengthen and reform UN peacekeeping," But the readiness of the Canadian Forces to pursue peacekeeping operations has been questioned, and how precisely Canada would revitalize its role also remains to be seen.

How a country understands itself

Beyond those questions, Paris suggested in his 2014 essay that how a country conducts itself internationally can be entwined with how a country understands itself.

"For better or for worse, liberal internationalism appears to be deeply embedded in the Canadian public imagination, including in the form of symbols, such as peacekeeping," he wrote. "This might also explain why the Conservative government decided to target liberal internationalism: foreign policy 'roles' exist as shared understandings of national history and identity, and they contain their own logics of legitimate and rightful action. They are political powerful."

The Harper government was arguably very successful at establishing a Conservative idea of Canadian foreign policy: strident and outspoken and ready to use military force. 

The Liberals might now establish or re-establish a different idea. And at the start of the next decade, they might have a Security Council seat to point to as confirmation


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.