The House

Chris Hall: Breaking down Canada's latest Security Council election loss

Canada's second failure in a row to win a Security Council seat was a blow to the Trudeau government's prestige. But how much will it matter to this country in the long run?

Was Canada's campaign for a seat a waste of time and money? Not even the experts can agree.

Senegal's President Macky Sall, left, walks alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during an official visit in Dakar, Senegal, Feb. 12, 2020. The visit was part of the Trudeau's government's charm campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. (Cheikh A.T/The Associated Press)

Reactions this week to Canada's failure to secure a spot on the UN Security Council ran the gamut — depending on who you were asking, or your political stripe.

Some (Conservatives, mostly) called it a waste of time and money — a failed vanity project for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Others (Liberals, mostly) argued the UN campaign allowed Canada to forge new alliances around the globe and strengthen existing bilateral relations.

The divergent views aren't solely the product of partisan politics. Two of this country's leading experts in international relations, interviewed for this weekend's edition of CBC's The House, also disagree on what the loss says about Canada's role in the world and how we are perceived internationally.

Two leading international relations experts, Janice Stein and Bessma Momani, debate what Canada’s failure to win a temporary U.N. Security Council seat says about Canada’s foreign policy and place in the world. 10:59

'It is embarrassing'

"We need to take stock of why we didn't get it," said University of Waterloo professor Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation.

"It is embarrassing because it really is a bit of a wake-up call for many of us Canadians who kind of thought, 'Well, why wouldn't they want us?' We're really internationalized. We have this wonderful commitment to multilateralism, we feel like we embody the United Nations' spirit of diversity and inclusion in this country."

Janice Stein, a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs at U of T, has opposed the Security Council bid since it was launched four years ago. She argues it would have put Canada on the "firing line" as the competition between the United State and China deepens.

"It would force us, over and over, to take defined positions when the strategy often for Canada is to choose the areas where we want to weigh in. We have made significant contributions to multilateral institutions in focused ways," Stein said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York Sept. 25, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

One of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's most quoted statements in his first term was his declaration that "Canada is back" — that it had returned to the world stage after nearly a decade of Conservative governments.

It was both a shot at his predecessor, Stephen Harper, and an expression of a different view of the value of the United Nations and multilateralism.

Harper made no effort to conceal his lack of interest in the UN, preferring instead to focus his attention on the G7 and G20 groups of nations.

It was that stance, and the Harper government's staunch support for Israel, that pundits blamed for Canada's failure to win a Security Council seat back in 2010.

'We were focused on the wrong institution'

But being "back" apparently didn't make a difference this week. Not only did Canada finish third in the race for the two open seats, the Trudeau bid ended up with fewer votes than the 2010 bid received.

So what does that say about Canada's role in global affairs and how the rest of the world views this country?

"I don't think it tells us anything about the way we're regarded in the world," Stein said. She points out that Canada played a significant leadership role in reforming the World Trade Organization and helped to shift the focus of UN agencies toward sustainable development.

"So really, the argument I'm making is we were focused on the wrong institution and the wrong part of the UN system."

Momani said she believes the problems inside the UN, and the frequent stalemates on the Security Council over efforts to end human rights abuses in Syria, are not reasons to discount either its importance as an institution or the value of holding one of the two-year rotating seats.

"I think there's merit in being there," she said. "We can absolutely talk about the question of whether or not we had the chops to be at the table, or whether or not we had the investment in organization and all the other things to go into consideration of our bids, such as our official development assistance, peacekeeping and all the rest.

"But the merit of being at the table to me is still very much there. And organizations are only as good as the people who get engaged in them."

Canada's UN Ambassador Marc-Andre Blanchard insisted after the vote that this country been a global leader on many fronts — promoting food and economic security, pressing for action against climate change and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both he and Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said those initiatives matter to UN members, even if they didn't generate enough votes.

Talk is cheap

Momani said Canada's problem was it that talked a good multilateral game without offering the necessary financial commitments.

"We have wonderful rhetoric, wonderful ideas … and at the end of the day we really hope that others just, you know, bask in the glory of our wonderful ideas with very little money," she said. "And that's not how the international system works."

She said Canada needs to re-think its foreign policy priorities. Champagne has said he's open to such a review.

Stein, again, offers a different view.

"I really think we're making a big mistake here if we treat this as any kind of referendum on how Canada is viewed in the world," she said.

Still, the loss is a blow to the Trudeau government. The prime minister said this week that his government will continue to work through the UN to promote Canada's objectives. It just won't have that coveted seat at the Security Council to help make them happen.

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