The United Nations Security Council and Canadian Policy

I have said, many times, that I think Canada’s quest for a temporary, second class (no veto power) seat on the UN Security Council, which I have also described as worthless, is a waste of time and effort. I have also said that Professor Roland Paris of uOttawa is a very smart guy.

Now, in an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, Professor Paris explains why I am wrong about that worthless, second class, temporary seat. His piece is well worth a read.

He explains, first, that “The last time Canada served on the council, in 1999-2000, it led a successful campaign to establish civilian protection as a centrepiece of the UN’s activities and to control the trade in “conflict diamonds,” which were fuelling African wars. Behind the scenes, Canada helped develop new, more effective working methods in the council … [but, he adds] … The challenges facing the UN today are greater than they were two decades ago. Russia’s veto has paralyzed the Security Council’s response to both the crisis in Ukraine and the war in Syria, the worst catastrophe of the young 21st century. The council has little to say about the Iranian nuclear agreement now that the United States has renounced the pact. Nor is it doing much about the dangerous sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea thanks to China’s veto.

Given that, he asks: “why should Canada even bother seeking a seat?

Professor Paris offers three main reasons:

  • First, he says “Canada can make progress in areas where the Security Council is still able to act. Most of the world’s conflicts, and almost a third of its displaced people, are in Africa. Canada could champion efforts to strengthen the UN’s conflict-prevention tools, a long-standing goal for the organization. It could lead an international campaign to provide 100 per cent of refugee children and youth with quality primary education, providing them with skills and hope for the future and reducing their susceptibility to radicalization. It could strengthen the patchwork system for training peacekeeping troops, while also asking difficult, but necessary, questions about which UN peace operations should be shut down;”
  • Second, he adds, “Canada can insert its own issues onto the Security Council’s agenda. The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has emphasized the empowerment of women and children, along with combatting the effects of climate change and improving the health of oceans. All of these issues have security dimensions falling under the Security Council’s mandate. If a different Canadian government comes to power after next year’s federal election, it can promote its own set of priorities. Either way, a seat on the council offers an unmatched opportunity to elevate Canada’s concerns;” and
  • Third, Professor Paris says “serving on the council would strengthen Canada’s ability to assemble coalitions of like-minded states in order to address pressing problems outside the framework of the United Nations. Canada has a recognized capacity to convene and mobilize groups on specific international issues. We are helped in this regard by being close to the United States without being the United States, by having a reputation for effective consensus-building and by being members of some of the world’s most important groupings, including the Group of Seven, the Group of 20, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – and, hopefully, the Security Council.

I can see the value in all three; I suppose that if I was sitting in a well furnished office in the Lester B Pearson Building I would find them all compelling. I especially like his ideas about working to improve the lot of refugees in those huge, ramshackle camps in the Middle east and Africa; his ideas are likely better that Justin Trudeau’s knee-jerk reaction which is to bring a bunch of them (but only the tiniest fraction of those who desperately need help) to Canada. I also really like the idea of Canada working to help make some sense out of UN peacekeeping ~ but I don’t think Canada can offer any useful ideas at all:

  • As long as this, Trudeau, government is in office; and
  • Until there is a thorough overhaul of the foreign affairs bureaucracy.

My second reason for thinking that Canada cannot offer useful ideas is because I think that our foreign affairs bureaucracy has become highly politicized and no longer serves the best interests of Canada ~ rather it serves the perceived interests of the Laurentian Elites. As John Ibbitson explained, back in 2011 “From Confederation until quite recently, the direction of this country was determined by the elites in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and other cities along the St. Lawrence River or its watershed … [and] … On all of the great issues of the day, the Laurentian elites debated among themselves, reached a consensus and implemented that consensus. In short, they governed the country … [and he says that, generally] … they governed it well … [but, he explains] … one of the dangers of any consensus is that reality can evolve out from underneath it. When shared belief parts company with facts on the ground, inevitably there is confusion, even a sense of anger and betrayal.” We could see that, he said, back in 2011, in the way the Laurentian elites reacted to the Harper government: They didn’t just oppose Stephen Harper’s policies – they considered him illegitimate. Mr Ibbitson said that ” The Laurentian elites never really understood the importance of … [major shifts, in Canada (the rise of the West) and the world (the ruse of China)] … and the Liberal Party, which most closely reflected the Laurentian world view, preferred to concentrate on winning votes in Central Canada with a message of protecting the environment and advancing social programs through modestly higher taxes.” In my opinion, way back in the late 1960s, Pierre Trudeau set about dismantling what many regarded as the world’s finest foreign service and replacing it with something that he felt was more representative of his own, personal world view. The sort of men ~ they were still largely men in 1968 ~ that old O.D. Skelton had recruited and trained were replaced by people who would toe the Trudeau party-line which was very illiberal, statist, even socialist, anti-American and progressive. I believe that Foreign Affairs is, now, the department of government that most reflects that Laurentian Consensus and I believe that consensus is deeply, fatally flawed.

Professor Paris offers some compelling examples of how Canada can and does, right now, engage in “practical problem solving” in international relations and he suggests that we could do that sort of thing better, more effectively, if we have a seat on the UN Security Council. I’m sure he’s right; I also think that Canada would be more ‘effective’ in advancing a socio-political agenda that reflects, too much, the positions of the Liberal Party of Canada. That’s not Justin Trudeau’s fault, his father, Pierre Trudeau, set us on that course and Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien were, generally, happy to follow along. Paul Martin made a brief, bold attempt to rethink Canada’s foreign and defence policies but, for a whole host of good reasons, he and his Liberals were booted out of office before he could make any changes. Stephen Harper did what may have been the only practical thing while he was in office: he appointed weak foreign ministers and he made his own foreign policy decisions, only very incrementally, from his own office on the advice of his own staff. But Prime Minister Harper did not do what needs to be done: he did not grab the bureaucracy by the throat and shake some sense into it; it was not in his nature to make radical changes like that.

Roland Paris says that “A seat on the Security Council would help Canada pursue [it’s] goals. It is not the only means of doing so, but as a platform for international action, nothing beats it.” I agree, broadly … but I’m not sure we, Canadians or our government (elected and bureaucratic) actually have a set of generally accepted goals. The Global Affairs Department certainly has a coherent set of goals but we have not had a real, serious debate about them since about 1970 ~ Paul Martin’s attempt died, stillborn.

Despite Professor Paris’ eloquent and well reasoned arguments, I remain unconvinced; it’s not because I think he’s wrong but rather because I believe that Canada lacks a set of policies, and therefore political goals that are in the national interest, which are worth the effort. Perhaps a new government, one led by a functioning adult,  would change my view.

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