Canadian engagement at the U.N.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced his government's intention to seek a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But a lot has changed since Canada helped usher in the U.N. decades ago, including the global body’s reputation and Canada’s commitment to that form of multilateralism.


Last week’s visit to the United Nations by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with his second sit-down meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, seems to indicate a definite shift by Canada’s new government regarding world affairs. But it remains to be seen if the new direction is just part of a marketing strategy outlining a return to a more traditional path for Canada than a dramatic shift in direction.

In the course of the visit, Prime Minister Trudeau announced his government’s intention to pursue a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council in the 2020-2021 General Assembly vote. Winning the vote may be a long way off (and Trudeau will have to survive a Canadian federal election first), but Trudeau’s initiative and words are in marked contrast to the previous government of Conservative Stephen Harper. The latter vied for a seat in 2010, only to lose to Germany and Portugal. While this represented the first-ever loss by Canada for a seat on the Security Council (Canada has had 6 separate terms since 1945), it was not clear whether Canada’s government saw it as a real setback, and whether Canada played its strongest hand. The U.N. has lost some of its luster in recent years, and the Harper government seemed to consider bilateral engagement more in line with its foreign policy than multilateral engagement. Besides, according to the Harper government, multilateralism was thought to be more effective through NATO initiatives rather than the United Nations.

For Canadians, the U.N. has always had a special aura. Aside from being one of its founders, Canada has been an instrumental force in promoting human rights and initiating peacekeeping. From the outset of the U.N. founding, McGill University professor John Peters Humphrey headed the special division on human rights within the U.N. secretariat, eventually leading to a larger role for promoting human rights, and was a principal architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the area of peacekeeping, former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (then Canada’s Foreign Minister in 1956) won a Nobel Peace Prize for initiating the United Nations Emerging Force following the Suez Crisis. The success of this effort ingrained in the minds of subsequent generations of Canadians that peacekeeping was very much a central component of our role in world affairs and a unique contribution to a more secure world at the height of the Cold War.

Over the years, Canada has made other significant contributions, including to the U.N. Blue Helmet peacekeepers. In recent years, however, the level of engagement has been on a definite decline. While our Canadian Prime Ministers have paid lip service to the U.N. by addressing its General Assembly and lauding U.N. objectives, troop involvement in peacekeeping is now in the dozens, down from over 120,000 in 50 missions prior to the 1990’s. (Canada went from #1 in 1992 to #58 in 2010 in peacekeeping missions.) This, coupled by similar reductions in defense expenditures by Canadian governments of different stripes, seems to convey the notion that Canada talks a good shop, but delivers significantly less since its founding status with United Nations.

Trudeau’s visit communicates a desire to change course with respect to our U.N. profile. In order to obtain a seat, the new Prime Minister is aware that he will be in competition likely against Ireland and Norway, and he wishes to present a Canada dedicated to climate change, displaying humanitarian values and actions, promoting diversity, and acting on gender parity. He speaks of Canada’s added value to peacekeeping efforts and it is clear that enhancing Canada’s foreign profile is now central to how he sees the Canada of the future.

Usually when the leader of a country names a close and respected collaborator in the posting, he or she is trying to send a diplomatic signal that he or she has prioritized the U.N. as an essential part of the country’s foreign policy. And throughout the history of Canadian engagement with the U.N., high-level, respected bureaucrats have occupied Canada’s U.N. ambassador post. Come April 1, Marc-André Blanchard will become Canada’s U.N. Ambassador.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have known Ambassador Blanchard for over 20 years and consider his appointment highly indicative of the importance Trudeau holds for the United Nations. His qualifications are well regarded. He is a successful lawyer who has engaged in politics over the years and has also been involved in a number of international cases in the course of his professional activities. A graduate of the University of Montreal, the London School of Economics, and Columbia University, he has the temperament, the character as well as the access to push the Trudeau government vision in the United Nations. He is also personally close to the Prime Minister, but his task will still not be an easy one.

Intentions are one thing, but the level of engagement and subsequent action will best determine how serious the new Canadian government is about its foreign policy engagement. Will we be part of the Security Council and push for reform of the U.N. structures, or will we revert to a productive and important yet traditional role related to peacekeeping? Canada will be judged by its deeds between now and 2020, and whether we will invest in measurable ways (financial and human) to back up our goals and intentions. Many in Canada would like to see Canada’s place on the world stage reflect better who we are as a nation. In recent years, it has been wanting. The hope is that this is about to change.

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