The Real Lessons of the Security Council Election Campaign

The Real Lessons of the Security Council Election Campaign

The usual suspects have commented on Canada’s defeat on June 17 in its bid to gain election to the UN Security Council.  The external factors in this race have been analyzed adequately, even by those with minimal knowledge of the UN.  Canada entered this contest too late in 2016 when many votes were already committed to Norway and Ireland.  

The Trudeau government then frittered away most of its first mandate, when the incumbent Foreign Minister failed to mount an effective campaign.  It finished by investing too much time and political capital over the past few months in an uphill effort when it was far too late.

One should treat some of the current commentaries on the significance of the election with caution, especially those that suggest that this was an international referendum of Canadian foreign policy. There aren’t many differences of view among Norway, Ireland and Canada, and the world is no worse off as a result of the vote.  Lots of things now matter in the world;  our membership in the Security Council isn’t one of them.

Nor was the vote an embarrassing loss.  The results were surprising:  a low vote (130) for Norway, a high vote (128) for Ireland, and only one ballot.  Canada’s 108 votes were more than expected, some consolation for the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.  It’s a mug game to speculate on who voted for whom.  The European Union, with its 27 members, was the essential difference.  Canada will always start a campaign of this nature with a vast electoral disadvantage against any European state.

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The relatively decent Canadian showing sparked a round of self-satisfied delusional thinking in the senior management of Global Affairs Canada (GAC).  While busily congratulating themselves on the results, they are ignoring a more significant problem than this election campaign.  What they should be asking is what has happened to Canadian foreign policy, and why our voice doesn’t resonate more effectively abroad.  A tone-deaf government resorted to the slogan – “Canada is back” – when there’s precious little evidence that the slogan is true.  

Canada’s problem, both in this campaign and in a broader sense, can be summed up in a single word:  engagement. Simply put, you cannot approach countries to support us when we have no long-standing, stable, respected relationships as the foundation for cooperation.  You can’t invite a region or a continent to embrace Canada when the Canadian government ignores it for years and spurns invitations to visit.  Relationships based on mutual engagement are the foundation of international cooperation, whether they are based on trade, aid or political ties, anchored by embassies with good reach and communications capacity.      

Simply put, you cannot approach countries to support us when we have no long-standing, stable, respected relationships as the foundation for cooperation.

Canada’s international engagement has declined precipitously over the past two decades.  The Harper government shuttered embassies, reduced aid programming, and minimized the Canadian voice abroad.  Yet since 2015, the Liberals have only marginally succeeded in getting Canada back in the game.  The Security Council candidacy should have capped a concerted, well-organized, multi-faceted effort at all levels to redress the damage of the past.  Instead, it was the only item in a feeble, communications-led foreign policy that has produced more talk than action in the past five years.  The foundations for foreign policy success aren’t in place, and the Security Council campaign was premature. 

Don’t ask senior management in GAC about these problems.  It has lost the capacity to speak truth to power, even within its own ranks.  And don’t blame the Trump election, which is irrelevant to most of the issues dogging Canadian performance abroad.  The most obvious difficulty is GAC itself, which has become a bloated, cumbersome, slow-moving ship, incapable of quick turns and deft navigation.  The Canadian foreign service is on death’s door, and senior management, woefully lacking international experience, is prone to micromanagement and endless discussions.  The Department is also stunningly risk-averse, absorbed in a culture of likeability and happy consensus, immune to realities beyond its doors.  It has lost its policy voice, particularly with a PMO crowd focussed on sloganeering and photo ops.

To these problems should be added the indigestibility of the CIDA merger, which brought antiquated and labour-intensive administration to GAC’s foreign programming, even eliminating valued programs that once moved quickly to Canadian advantage.

So what’s next?  In one sense, the Trudeau government should shrug off this minor road-bump, particularly in the UN, in which Canada continues to enjoy high standing.  We have other UN priorities;  let’s stick to the game-plan.  When relevant Security Council issues arise, we can intervene in discussions as a non-member, as we have on previous occasions.  We can play an important role if we have something to say.

One also hopes that the government will not succumb to the delusion that we need a foreign policy review.  No matter how it might be constructed, a review would involve raising public expectations on development assistance, military spending, peacekeeping, etc. that cannot be met.  That idea simply kicks decision-making processes a few years down the road.  While it might be dressed up as a good option, it’s only an elegant excuse for not fixing problems that we’ve been aware of for years.

The Canadian foreign service is on death’s door, and senior management, woefully lacking international experience, is prone to micromanagement and endless discussions. 

In a more fundamental sense, the government can’t afford to ignore the problems in GAC much longer.  Canada’s foreign policy challenges are becoming more pressing, and they require more than a modicum of imagination and organization. The most central issues, like putting into place a strategic framework for the long-term struggle with China, require engagement with the United States (in time), Europe and a host of countries around the world.  We’re not prepared for these tasks.   

A reform effort could be initiated within weeks, but results will take time to bear fruit.  

In an odd way, defeat in New York on June 17 did Canada a favour.  It relieved us of a task more symbolic than substantive, and it freed capacity and energies for potentially more important purposes.  It’s time to get the foreign policy train back on the tracks.  Let’s start rebuilding the foundations of Canadian engagement abroad.

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