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Canada’s Bid for the UN Security Council: A Post-Mortem

October 23, 2010

Last week, I sat at the computer, with my fingers crossed, waiting to hear the election results for the UN Security Council’s non-permanent seats. This was my country’s once-every-decade shot at a 2-year membership on the most important body in international affairs.

Canada was in a tight race against Germany and Portugal. Three countries, two seats. Everyone knew that Germany was a sure bet. The other seat was up for grabs. We wanted it.

Canada's Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon (bottom left) at the UN in New York on October 12, 2010. Courtesy of: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

But as many of you already know, Canada lost to Portugal.

It was a humiliating defeat given that we expected to win. But it was also humiliating because we see ourselves as good global citizens. We belong up there. In fact, I think that was partly why this loss stung so badly. Canadians have a certain view of our place in the world and in the Security Council election post-mortem that followed, many of us had to face up to how Canada is now perceived on the international stage and the decline in our world standing. It quickly became apparent that our foreign policies were unpopular, our PM was quite disengaged from the UN, and that other countries were wondering where we had disappeared to in the past seven years.

For a variety of reasons, I think we felt entitled to that Security Council seat. We are indeed much more active on the international stage than Portugal is— this is difficult to dispute. Consider our contributions to Afghanistan, our consistent leadership in Haiti pre- and post-earthquake, the financial contributions that we make to international aid, our recent efforts on maternal health, etc. etc. And of course, we have just finished hosting the newly convened G8/G20 summit and the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Did I mention that we also have our fiscal house in order?

These are some pretty compelling reasons for why that seat should have been ours and not Portugal’s. We merited the win, if you will… at least, relative to Portugal. As Betty Plewes and Hunter McGill point out in their article, we may be a shadow of our former selves when it comes to doing good on the world stage, but I still think it’s fair to say that we are contributing more than Portugal. After all, the UN Charter lays out the criteria for election as being “the contribution…. to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization, and also to equitable geographical distribution.

You can compare how Canada’s strengths stacked up against Germany’s and Portugal’s, as laid out by Security Council Report:

  • Canada stresses its long-standing commitment to multilateralism and peacekeeping, and the positive feedback it has consistently received for its previous service on the Council. In addition, Canada views its global involvement (including its recent hosting of the G8 and G20) as key indicators of its commitment in terms of security, economic and cultural ties, and highlights its status as a bilingual anglophone and francophone nation.
  • Germany stresses that its commitment to peacekeeping missions over the last twenty years is serious (Germany’s first participation in a peace mission, to Namibia, occurred in 1989). Germany also recognises a wide approach to international security including threats which cannot be addressed with primarily military means.
  • Portugal stresses the value for medium and small-sized countries to be represented on the Council in order to foster inclusiveness and transparency, as well as its ongoing involvement in numerous peacekeeping missions. It also highlights its role as a maritime nation and as a lusophone leader, participating actively in the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries.

The Post-Mortem

Having said all that, I want to provide my own post-mortem on why we didn’t get that coveted seat. There are two sides to every story, in this case, ours and Portugal’s. On our end, there were two types of problems that contributed to our loss: Policy and Tactics.

Our Foreign Policy

Our unflinching support for Israel hurt us substantially with Arab countries. From the New York Sun: “While blocs that included the African and Latin American countries were largely thought to have split their vote on the contested seat, the Arab countries and the OIC were largely believed to have voted en-bloc to bar Canada entry to the council.” Which brings me to another group of countries that were swayed by our policies: Africa.

If Canada really wanted that Security Council seat, it should have thought harder about alienating the largest bloc of voters (52 seats) with cuts in bilateral development aid. Lee-Anne Goodman writes: “African ambassadors, in particular, pointed to a series of Canadian stances on issues ranging from African debt relief to the Conservative government cutting funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and accusing it of having terrorist links.” Not all African countries voted against Canada, but whereas many of these countries were solidly in our corner in years past, the same could certainly not be said this time around

Add to this the visa fiasco with Mexico and the Czech Republic (which nearly resulted in a visa war with the EU) and the blow-up with the UAE at the most inopportune moment. Never mind the numerous other problems with our foreign policy that have slowly tarnished our international reputation (as pointed out by Haroon Siddiqui). With such poorly received policies, former UN ambassador Robert Fowler says, “The world doesn’t need more of the Canada it has been getting.”

Our Tactical Mistakes

Poor Leadership: Our biggest tactical error was a simple one: we just didn’t want it badly enough. A Western European diplomat said that he would like to see Canada succeed, “But you can’t take it for granted. You have to want something. That’s what we find a bit lacking.”

Others have already pointed out that Prime Minister Harper was insufficiently engaged with international affairs, paid little attention to the UN, did not step up for peacekeeping missions (as with the Congo), and most notably, skipped out on a UN General Assembly meeting for a Tim Horton’s opening in Oakville. (While I am sure that Tim Horton’s was not the *only* reason that the PM stayed home, it sure makes for some bad PR after the fact.)

To emphasize this point further, Mike Blanchfield, writing for The Canadian Press, summarized the view of a Western European Diplomat on our UN SC campaign:

[The diplomat] cites the fact that Canada entered the race late, and that Harper has made only one speech to the UN General Assembly, in 2006. His foreign ministers, Maxime Bernier and Cannon, filled in for him in 2007 and 2009 but the diplomat said giving the job to an unelected bureaucrat, Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Len Edwards, in 2008 “speaks for itself.” (the Prime Ministers Office noted Friday that the government was embroiled in a federal election in September 2008).

A Slow Start: In addition to bad optics, there was also bad organization. The reality was that we got off to a slow start with our campaign. Former US Ambassador to the UN Sichan Siv tells us that the US would typically begin lobbying 2-3 years in advance of an important election. In our case, the Harper government didn’t throw its full effort behind the enterprise until much much later than that. From what I can gather, our big push began only in the year leading up to the election.

Lee Berthiaume’s insightful article (written a full year before the vote) lays out what we needed to do to win. With hindsight, his article makes it clear that there was a failure in Cabinet leadership, especially with respect to tactics:

“Your public stance in the year running up to the election has to take into account the fact that you are a candidate, without sacrificing your fundamental values and principles,” the [retired senior diplomatic] official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“You have to bear in mind that you’re going to be judged by your peers in the next couple of years, and every single decision that you make is going to have an impact.”

Wheeling and Dealing: And then there is all of the horse-trading that goes on. The soft power and the quid pro quos deals that are all about bilateral relationships. In the words of the retired senior diplomat:

“It’s part of a complicated diplomatic process where a lot of it has to do with trading votes. ‘I’ll vote for you in this or that election if you vote for me on the Security Council.’ It builds on bilateral relations…. You tug on the heart strings and remind them of all the great things you’ve done with them. You try to identify issues on which you share similar points of view. You commit yourself to consulting. That’s how you win.”

We have experience in this department. We know how to do it well. And yet somehow we messed that up too. It comes down to our unusually high “burn rate”. In other words, we were double-crossed. Countries that had promised to vote for us (with signed, but not binding support) went back on their promises. It was on the basis of these 135 written promises + 15 verbal promises that Minister Cannon thought we had it in the bag. We needed 128 votes (2/3 of 192 votes). We got 114 of these votes in the first round, so the “rotten lying bastards” factor did play a role— but would our burn rate have been so high if our foreign policy wasn’t so distasteful? I doubt it.

To win a UN SC seat, members keep voting until the 2/3 threshold is reached. Candidates horse-trade for votes, but these promises only apply for the first round of voting. After that, all bets are off and countries do as they wish. This is where the depth of our support became critical. In Round 2, we received 78 votes to Portugal’s 113. In this second round, our foreign policy choices didn’t just hurt us, they humiliated us. Freed from their original promises, states flocked to Portugal.

Lack of US support: Our closest ally, and normally, one of our staunchest supporters, did not go to bat for us this time around. Former American diplomat Richard Grenell details how the US not only “didn’t campaign for Canada’s election but instructed American diplomats to not get involved in the weeks leading up to the heated contest.” Compare that to previous our previous bids for the Security Council when American diplomats directly supported our bid as part of their diplomatic dealings. (In the same way that Brazil strongly supported Portugal’s bid this time around.)

Portugal’s Successful Campaign

EU Support: Undoubtedly the biggest advantage that Portugal had over Canada was that it had the full unqualified backing of the EU. As David Frum notes in his piece on the intricacies of Security Council nominations, “the EU countries have been negotiating these UN nominations among themselves first. They decide that they want Germany and Portugal — and then they muscle their way through the rest of the bloc onto the UN floor.” Which is absolutely true— at the nomination stage. But all the muscling does is simply force an election— whereby the EU nominees have a 27-31 vote head start. This was not what did us in.

The EU’s Attractive Power: The final nail in the coffin was what my DFAIT friend (who prefers to remain anonymous) referred to as the EU’s willingness to use its attractive power (not just re: potential membership, but also for trade deals or other incentives) to pull in the votes.

Portugal and the EU as a whole wanted that seat much more badly than we did. After all, the advantages to the EU are enormous. In the 2011 Security Council, Europe will have control over *five* of the 15 seats (UK, France, Germany, Portugal, Bosnia). That is an enormous amount of influence on a Security Council loaded with power players. It certainly means that Europe will be extremely influential in setting the agenda.

Our 2020 Bid

This loss hurt. But as with all stumbles, we pick ourselves up and keep going. The McLeod Group laid out a coherent set of policies that we could have pursued if we had in fact been elected. Nothing is stopping us from moving forward with this agenda.

What we definitely should *not* do is sulk in a corner and withdraw further from UN engagement. In another ten years, the government will have another crack at that rotating seat. Hopefully, the next around, we will be better prepared.

In the meantime, we need to show the world that it made a mistake in failing to elect Canada to the UN Security Council.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2011 8:48 pm

    Merit has nothing to do with winning a popularity contest.

  2. Shaun Narine permalink
    September 25, 2011 2:16 am

    Excellent overview. But, as I recall, Harper ultimately responded to the loss by saying that Canada had no use for the UN. If Harper is still around in 2020 – God forbid, what a nightmare that would be! – I suspect that Canada won’t fare any better. But, let’s face it, we don’t deserve a UNSC seat, just on the basis of the Harper government’s mindless and “principled” (i.e, deeply racist) support for Israel. Harper is trying to reorient Canadian foreign policy and until we get rid of him and his cronies, we will not have the respect or regard for the world again.

    • September 25, 2011 3:38 pm

      Hi Shaun,

      I was hunting around for his exact quote, but couldn’t find it. Could you post please to satisfy my curiosity?

      I suspect that when Harper made his comment, it was simply that of a sore loser trying to save face. And if he genuinely meant it, then perhaps the bid for Palestinian statehood will help change Harper’s mind about the relevance of the UN, and especially the UN General Assembly (which you might agree that many world leaders really do see as useless).

      Agreed that Harper is trying to reorient Canadian foreign policy, but I have a different take on Harper’s unwillingness to support Palestinian statehood at the UN GA. Will save that for another post!


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