In a recent CIPS blog, also published in the Globe and Mail, my colleague Roland Paris outlined the reasons “Why Canada cares about that Security Council seat.” This blog wonders whether the world cares about Canada’s candidacy for the Security Council, and if so, what the Canadian government needs to do to win election in 2020.
There is no doubt that a seat on the UN Security Council would advance Canada’s foreign policy reach. What’s not clear is whether “the world needs more Canada.” Certainly, parts of the world want less. The 2020 campaign pits three countries (Canada, Norway, and Ireland) for two seats, in a contest in which Europe’s numbers place Canada at a significant disadvantage. It’s possible that 27 EU states will vote only for Norway (a European non-EU state) and Ireland (an EU-member). That’s only the starting point of Canada’s challenges. (To be elected to the Council, a country needs the votes of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly, in practice, at least 129 votes out of the UN’s membership of 193 states.)
The big electoral issues on which the Trudeau government needs to reflect are in part inheritances from the Harper period that still have not been addressed. These include an inadequately funded and unduly limited development assistance program; shuttered embassies in several countries; policies on the Middle East and other parts of the world that have attracted more critics than allies; and an emaciated foreign service now on life support after years of negligent management and purposeful destruction. These issues cost Harper a Council seat in 2010; unless remedied, they will do the same for Trudeau in 2020.
After three years in office, the current government should have a positive advertisement for the campaign in a fully functioning foreign policy agenda with lots of activity and excellent communications with Canadians and the world. Instead, the government has offered a little-understood feminist international assistance program that is embarrassingly under-funded and over-advertised. Other countries do more and talk less. The government’s policies on gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights would sit well in a broad foreign policy agenda with substance and impact. But they don’t add up to much in the G7 and G20 where leaders want to talk about existential issues of pressing urgency. The Canadian government has launched important initiatives, including one on WTO reform, but it is seen as missing in action on other issues at a time when the international system needs leadership, coalition-building, and burden-sharing.
A continuing issue bedevilling the Canadian Security Council campaign is the absence of the foreign minister, who was double-hatted with the task of managing NAFTA re-negotiation and trade relations with the US. Ms. Freeland has performed an essential and successful job advancing Canada’s interests in its most important relationship. But it’s come at the cost of leaving her foreign minister’s job largely vacant. Solutions to conflicts of scheduling and issue-management could have been found, including giving important work to others of demonstrated capacity. But the PMO chose to do nothing, to the detriment of Canada’s impact abroad and to our support for the Council in two years’ time.
All of this reflects the central weakness in the current Canadian campaign: our lack of global “engagement.” It’s not enough to have a foreign policy based on domestic platitudes. Our views on international issues can’t be conveyed with tweets and speeches delivered from safe Canadian territory. At a time of global anxiety, Canadian leaders and ministers have to address issues of importance to the global community, lending our weight to potential solutions. They have to know their opposite numbers in all regions of the world, even their adversaries, speaking to them in ways advancing global interests. They have to be adept at effective communications with others, which often involves private conversations rather than public debate. Engagement earns respect. Tweets get you into trouble.
The blame for the government’s lacklustre foreign policy should be put squarely on the PMO crowd around the prime minister. It has failed to use Canadian assets, missed important opportunities, and not made proper use of the talents on the Liberal benches. Dismissive of expert advice and ill-disposed to play well with others, this group has chosen to advance image over effectiveness and done a mediocre job at both.
It’s not too late to reboot the Security Council campaign, but it will require considerable dexterity in the search for votes and support. This type of election is not a popularity contest. Often, it’s mainly a series of vote swaps, as we exchange another country’s support for our candidacy in return for our support for one of theirs. We also know that the votes of adversaries like Venezuela, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, and perhaps China, can already be written off. Some countries, preferring a less dynamic Council, will not be attracted to the activism explicit in the Canadian campaign, and the populists now emerging in Europe and elsewhere won’t be devotees of the liberal internationalism that the Canadian candidacy espouses. There is also the “voting discount”: the unknown states that commit to supporting Canada but who will change their minds when it comes to the secret ballot in the UN General Assembly.
Canada could reasonably pursue two other options in months ahead. It could defer to a later term, with the hope of an uncontested election, or it could opt to split a term with either Norway or Ireland. If Canada persists, however, it needs a more dynamic game. The first step is committing to increased international engagement, including measures to compensate for the current foreign minister’s other duties. A vital second step is getting Canada’s foreign policy instruments, including representation abroad and development assistance policies, into the current century and part of the dialogue on the Council campaign. Over time, the measure of whether these steps are successful would be a third essential step, namely, enhancing the government’s communications. Canadians need to understand the government’s foreign policy roadmap and where the Security Council candidacy really fits.