The Central Conundrum of Baird’s UN Speech

It’s too easy to dismiss John Baird’s October 1 speech to the UN General Assembly as simply another exercise in appealing to the party’s base. True, it did precisely that, capturing headlines back home as a “scathing rebuke” to the organization for its failure to address the Syrian situation seriously. But the problem is that speeches like this, drafted to please domestic audiences, aren’t free rides. They have consequences. People read them. And what the international community will read in this speech isn’t a reasoned critique of the UN Security Council’s ongoing inability to address a key international crisis. Instead, they’ll read an embarrassing tirade, devoid of informed context, that will weigh heavily on Canada’s foreign policy reputation.

Those who criticize the UN generally focus on its lack of results in crises (of which  Syria is only the most recent example). The Harper government likes to take this approach and many in the media favour it, because it’s easy to present and produces quick headlines. Unfortunately, though, the problem is more complex. Simply put, the UN is only a secretariat, and not a very large one. Its member states are the bosses, and those member states dictate what the organization will do. They can authorize the organization to do useful and constructive work that saves lives and secures peace; or they can prevent the organization from doing anything, for a variety of reasons.

“Baird’s more egregious error is taking Canada out of the game of working towards a more effective UN organization.”

The Syrian situation is enlightening because of its simplicity: the UN Security Council can’t act because the five permanent members of the Council, who have veto power, are deadlocked. And until they find a way forward, the UN Secretary General has no authority to do anything about it besides advising, encouraging and warning. Creative folks within the UN secretariat are doubtless producing papers with various ‘options’ and ‘strategies’, as well as reporting regularly on initiatives suggested by others. But the UN can’t initiate action on its own, nor can it confront Russia and China, the two states holding the Security Council to ransom on this issue.

The central weakness of the UN over the past 60 years hasn’t been that it’s too strong (the major complaint of the conspiracy theorists of global government). It’s that it’s too weak, having very little power of initiative, especially when member states refuse to act or are divided on a possible response to crisis. More than that, the organization is hostage on budget issues to virtually every major state, compromising the flow of resources in any crisis. This isn’t news to anyone. To those that have been working the Syrian issue for months behind the scenes, therefore, Baird’s criticisms can most charitably be characterized as missing the point completely.

Every serious state has long been conscious of the enormous discrepancy between the UN’s aims and its capacity to deliver. Almost since the first years of the organization, reform efforts have sought to create an organization that can deliver on its goals. Lots of states are at work on these issues at any given time. Most diplomatic missions to the United Nations know what it’s like to confront crises with imperfect tools designed in a different era. But they try to make the best out of bad situations, hopeful that each new crisis will produce an impetus for change, whether in the UN charter (hard to do), UN structures (somewhat easier), or in UN policies and procedures (tough but manageable). In the real UN world, the central dilemma is to seek organizational effectiveness for dealing with situations as complex as Syria while meeting the demands of the major powers for a system that safeguards their dominant interests. It’s not easy to reconcile these objectives.  But the efforts of Canada and others over the past decade and more on a raft of procedural issues—the very issues that Baird disparages—show that progress is possible.

So what is John Baird’s diagnosis? His first observation, offered in a “constructive and positive spirit” that seems to have eluded the media who reported on the speech, is that the UN spends too much time “looking at itself” and is preoccupied with issues of “procedure and process”. His second observation is that it should be spending “more time focused on the problems that demand its attention.” He then concludes with the bizarre statement that “if the UN focuses on the achievement of goals—such as prosperity, security and human dignity—then reform will take care of itself.” Having condemned the organization for its reform efforts (confusing once again the organization with what its member states are doing), he announces that Canada will no longer “participate in endless, fruitless inward-looking exercises”, and that the Canadian mission to the UN will “henceforth devote primary attention to what the United Nations is achieving, not to how the UN arranges its affairs.”

This baffling diagnosis of the problem is bad enough. But Baird’s more egregious error is taking Canada out of the game of working towards a more effective UN organization. If he doesn’t want his troops working on efforts to build an effective organization, how does he expect the institution to improve? What happens with the next crisis, the next Syrian situation?

Since about 1945, Canadians working under various governments have sought to make multilateral institutions function constructively. There’s nothing ideological here; working with others to create effective organizations should be in everyone’s best interests. So the new formula offered in Baird’s speech doesn’t simply reflect a perplexing error of analysis. It’s a stunning decision, based on flawed reasoning, that will reverse decades of work and seriously compromise Canada’s stature among UN member states. Along the way, it will undermine our position on a host of other foreign policy issues. One can only hope that very few delegations were taking notes as John Baird offered his constructive observations on the UN’s future.

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