Canada and the UN: It’s time to grow up
Our political leaders must realize foreign policy is not a partisan issue
It’s been a month since Canadians first learned that their country would not be a member of the United Nations Security Council in 2011-12, and there is little evidence that any of Canada’s political leaders have taken the national failure to heart.
The most recent explanation for Canada’s loss from the Prime Minister’s Office, for example — that Canada’s defeat is an acceptable loss caused by Ottawa’s unwillingness to compromise national principles — is hardly satisfying.
Such messaging wrongly minimizes the impact of the prime minister’s decidedly unprincipled decision to miss three consecutive meetings of the UN General Assembly (on one occasion to attend a photo op at a doughnut shop), only to reappear in New York the year that Canada needed the votes of the UN membership to secure election to the Security Council.
Even more disconcerting is the government’s unwillingness to concede that something went wrong. There would have been no shame in allowing that the campaign could have been more effective and that Ottawa would do better in the future.
Admittedly, the actions of the political opposition have hardly facilitated such humility. Under leader Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals have yet to miss an opportunity to remind Canadians of the government’s failure.
By using the failed bid for partisan gain, the Liberals are obscuring the strategic implications of the defeat. In reality, the council seat was never the Conservatives to lose. It was Canada’s.
As long as Ignatieff continues to delineate the alleged differences between Conservative and Liberal approaches to foreign policy, the harder it will be for Canadians to rally behind a set of strategic principles that can be sustained beyond a single electoral cycle.
What’s more, emphasizing partisan differences sends a disturbing message to Canada’s allies and to recipients of Canadian development assistance. It suggests that Canadian support should never be counted upon for longer than the life of a single Parliament.
For Canada to move forward, the country’s political leadership must acknowledge that foreign policy is not just a game to be played to build domestic political support.
Ottawa’s electoral defeat has resulted in Canada’s exclusion from the most powerful Security Council in the UN’s history.
Regardless of what one thinks of the UN, missing the opportunity for regular access to high-level leaders from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia, not to mention non-permanent members Germany, Brazil, South Africa, India, Nigeria, and Colombia, will have significant diplomatic and strategic implications.
The solution, while easier said than done, is not complicated. Canada must pursue less partisan methods of determining and supporting its national interests.
Such efforts must be initiated by the government and then embraced by an opposition flexible enough to recognize that compromise will be critical to the establishment of a set of foreign policy goals that can be pursued consistently for an extended period.
Contrary to what both the government and the opposition seem to believe, there is little political risk in a less partisan approach. Foreign policy decisions in Canada have virtually no effect on voters’ party preferences, and there is little evidence that things will change any time soon.
So it’s not courage that’s needed so much as a little bit of good old maturity.