Canada's pitch for UN security seat will cost 'financial and political capital'

A seat on the UN Security Council will cost millions in aid and political promises to the smaller nations whose votes will be critical to Canada winning its 2021 bid, international affairs experts told CBC News.

'It’ll be a question of what Canada is prepared to give up,' foreign policy researcher says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday that Canada will try to win a 2021 seat on the UN Security Council, something that academics say will be both costly and competitive. (Marco Dormino/United Nations/Associated Press)

A seat on the UN Security Council will cost millions in aid and political promises to the smaller nations whose votes will be critical to Canada winning its 2021 bid, international affairs experts told CBC News.

The new Liberal government may also need to modify some of the tough language the previous government deployed against Russia and on behalf of Israel if it wants to play the mediator role that such a seat requires, one observer added.

Canada spent roughly $10 million to win its last term on the council, Carleton University professor David Carment said. That was for a post held by former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy from 1999 to 2000. 

Carment also questioned the return on such an investment as the perceived power of the Security Council has begun to wane amidst infighting.

Fifteen members sit on the UN Security council. Five countries — the U.S., Russia, the U.K., China and France — have permanent membership, while the other 10 seats rotate between countries elected to them.

Canada competes against those in what's called the Western European and Other States bloc, which earns two of the 10 non-permanent seats. Every other year, two countries from that bloc are elected.

It's a position Canada has held six times since the council's inception in January 1946.

At this point, the two main competitors for the 2021 seat look to be Ireland and Norway, which have signalled their intention to run for a seat on the council.

Choosing sides

Trudeau speaks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon following a news conference in February where he said Canada would seek another seat on the Security Council. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The UN was established in 1945 in the wake of the Second World War to prevent another multi-nation conflict. 

But Wilfrid Greaves, a fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, questions whether that's still a good measure of its success — especially considering the chilly relations around the table right now.

"As long as the Security Council provides an environment in which the United States and Russia and China, primarily, are able to discuss their interests and able to come to any agreement [then] it actually provides a valuable forum," Greaves said.

"I think that there are important roles the council can play, unfortunately, it's primarily as a talk shop."

In 2011, the Security Council alienated Russia after it allowed for outside intervention in Libya. And both Greaves and Carment said the council itself seems at an impasse.

Whether Canada could help heal that rift is uncertain, Greaves said.

"It's certainly not impossible that if we chose to dial down our rhetoric about the present government and President [Vladimir] Putin that we actually have the capacity to mediate," he said.

But Canada cannot expect to return to its past role of peacekeeper and mediator, and still plan to choose sides, Greaves cautioned. That's largely what cost the country its 2010 bid for a seat: the Harper government's close ties with Israel had a chilling effect on the Middle Eastern and African nations, observers said at the time.

"It's a horse-trading game," Greaves said. "And it'll be a question of what Canada is prepared to give up, both monetarily and materially."

The competition

Competitors Ireland and Norway have built up their reputations as international negotiators in the past decade at a time when Canada traded its peacekeeping image for combat missions. 

"Those are two very challenging countries for Canada to be up against," Greaves said. "Both, in their own ways, are more independent and viewed as more neutral.

"Canada is too closely aligned to the United States, we're too firmly planted in this kind of superpower orbit, and the role that we've played in the last decade or so has been more belligerent."

Trudeau says Canada will campaign for Security Council Seat

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

Ireland has boosted its reputation on human rights, he said, by becoming the first to hold a referendum on allowing gay marriage.

At the same time, Norway spent much of the 2000s helping to negotiate a ceasefire between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government.

To rebuild its international reputation, Canada will need to work in areas of the world that "don't make headlines" and re-brand itself as a country that's genuinely invested in foreign aid and foreign policy, something that its response to the Syrian refugee could help with, Greaves said.

"But anything can happen five years from now."


  • An earlier version of this story said a council seat in the Western European and Other States bloc becomes available each year. In fact, elections are held for that bloc every other year and two countries are elected at the time.
    Mar 17, 2016 10:38 AM ET


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