United Nations Security Council Elections and the Canadian Brand: The End of the Illusion?

On October 12, 1957 the Nobel Committee announced that Lester Pearson would be awarded the Peace Prize for his role in addressing the Suez Crisis. Fifty-three years later to the day, Canada lost out to Portugal – a small, former colonial power –  in its bid for election to the United Nations Security Council.

To my mind that irony, and those bookends provide compelling testament to the fact that Canada’s place in the world has a come a long way in half a century.

Wherever this country is now, it is certainly not where we were then.

Most of the reports and op-eds seeking to explain Canada’s historic failure have interpreted the outcome as some kind of global referendum on the foreign policy of the Harper government. In particular, pundits have cited the:

  • shift from multilateral peacekeeping operations to aggressive counterinsurgency in Afghanistan
  • repudiation of the Kyoto accords and regression on climate change
  • tilt towards Israel on issues of Middle East peace and security
  • pull-back from Africa and reduction in the number of aid recipients
  • inattention to the management of key bilateral relationships with China and India
  • disdain for the UN as an international organization

International policy decisions do have consequences, and it may well be that such factors contributed to Canada’s inability to generate the necessary support.  But there were undoubtedly other forces at work. Several commentators, for instance, have made reference to the government’s indecision on, and late entry into the race. Others have focussed on the way in which Security Council elections are conducted in the General Assembly and especially to the tendency towards bloc voting. These elements, too, may have played a role.

Of at least equal importance, however, must be current state of Canadian diplomacy. Diplomatic performance is in large part a function of, and is conditioned by the the investment of economic and political resources. In recent years, DFAIT has faced a debilitating budgetary squeeze, and the department has been sidelined in the process of international policy decision-making. The conduct of public diplomacy, which for a country like Canada is its ace in the hole vis-a-vis the competition, has been made all but impossible as a consequence of the unprecedented centralization and control over all communications. Absent sufficient resources and the fundamental prerequisites of confidence, trust and respect, employee burn out and organizational rust out become near inevitable.

It stands to reason that a foreign ministry whose influence has been marginalized and whose institutional capacity has been relentlessly run down is unlikely to be able to perform at, or even near peak effectiveness. When it comes to managing a complex and difficult task such as the campaign to secure election to the Security Council, this could really hurt.

I suspect that it did.

Policy? Capacity? Leadership? Any way you cut it, this is a signal moment for Canada, and a full assessment will take time and require concerted analytical attention. In that respect it is unfortunate that dramatic resolution of the Chilean mining disaster came on the same day as the UN elections. In Canada, that human interest mega-tale immediately bumped the Security Council story from top billing in the news cycle on October 12. As coverage this week of the rescue’s aftermath has continued to dominate the media, attention to the implications for Canada of its repudiated candidacy has waned. That’s too bad, because there remains much to consider and reflect upon.

It seems to me that a larger, and longer term consequence of the defeat may reside in the impact on Canada’s image and reputation, expressed both in terms of how others see us, and how we see ourselves.

This country has been coasting for years on a set of internationalist credentials – generous aid donor, committed peacekeeper, helpful fixer, and honest broker – which date from Pearson’s day but which can no longer be sustained.  However familiar and comfortable, that narrative is now exhausted, and for over a decade it has been clear that its attributes are inaccurate. The message from the floor of the General Assembly, despite the PM Harper’s last ditch attempt at revival, is that the world is no longer buying.

The emperor not only has no clothes, but has been undressed in public.

That humiliation, and the exposure of a profound credibility gap, was perhaps as shocking as the loss itself.

At minimum, it will no longer be possible – and certainly not advisable – for Canada to fall back onto the old verities associated with Pearsonian internationalism. That tradition of engaged, enlightened self-interest was a significant part of the Canadian brand. Yet as we moved from the Cold War era into the globalization age, the internationalist brand did not evolve in tandem with our changing role and place in the world.

It is likely to take considerably more effort to address that disconnect than it will to get over the train wreck at  the Security Council.