By all accounts, 2010 was a challenging time for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the foreign policy front.
The low point came when Canada failed to win a non-permanent seat in a secret vote at the United Nations Security Council in October, the first time since 1948. Canada had held the prestigious two-year position virtually nonstop every 10 years or so since the early days of the United Nations.
As expected, Germany easily one of two Western Bloc regional seats but most observers had not seen the duel shaping up between Canada and Portugal for the second seat. To avoid a humiliating defeat, Canada withdrew from the race after the second ballot.
The outcome sent shockwaves across the nation.
Opposition parties labelled the loss a blow to Canada’s international reputation. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff attributed the rebuke to the Harper government’s ideological positions, incompetence and neglect of African issues. He reminded the government 80 percent of the Security Council’s work is focused on Africa.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin said the failure to get a seat showed Canada was too absent on the international stage.
“I think it sends a pretty strong message to the government,” Martin said after a speech in Montreal, Québec, in November. “I think they should basically listen to the rest of the world.”
For Louise Fréchette, former Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, the failed bid means Canada’s reputation on the international stage has taken a hit. “Is it a black mark? I don’t know. But it sends the message that we are not all that important,” according to Fréchette.
A combination of factors played a part in Canada’s loss, says Fréchette, namely it’s lukewarm position at the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change and a new focus on Latin America rather than Africa for development aid, a break from tradition. Political instability in Ottawa after the successive minority Martin and Harper governments may also have been a factor.
Some observers feel Harper was too focused on surviving on a day-to-day basis in the House of Commons to pay attention to international issues. For starters, Harper did not make any friends in China by boycotting the Chinese Olympics. He sent the wrong signals by waiting too long to engage China and India. His position on the Middle East conflict was seen as too blatantly pro-Israel, a situation which angered the Arab bloc at the UN.
While the stage was being set at the UN General Assembly, another plot was playing out behind the scenes. Canada refused to grant more landing rights in Canada to the United Arab Emirates’ state-run airlines because, according to some reports, it would be detrimental to Air Canada. Throughout the fall, negotiations were less than courteous, according to opposition parties, Canada refusing to return the United Arab Emirates’ phone calls. The U.A.E. was furious. The dispute spilled over at the United Nations. The Arab nation admitted it had lobbied against Canada at the UN for a non-permanent seat at the Security Council.
With no end in sight to the dispute, the United Arab Emirates kicked Canadian troops out of Camp Mirage, a secret military supply base in Dubai used to stage operations in Afghanistan. The move sent troops scrambling, complicating Canada’s withdrawal from Afghanistan which starts in 2011.
Harper did not endear himself to United Nation members when he chose to speak at a Tim Hortons coffee plant in Oakville, Ontario, rather than speak at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2009.
The prime minister had to be convinced to put Canada’s name on the ballot at the UN vote last fall, observers say. In the end, he decided to jump in. Before the October vote, he made some overtures to Arab groups in Canada and delivered two speeches at the UN at the Millennium Development Goals Summit and the General Assembly.
But it seems the writing was on the wall.
Harper acknowledged Canada payed a price for its principled positions. But winning a seat at the Security Council is not a popularity contest, he hinted. At a speech before parliamentarians in Ottawa, he said Canada was “morally obligated to take a stand” for Israel, “the only country in the world whose very existence is under attack...”
“I know, by the way, because I have the bruises to show for it, that whether it is at the United Nations, or any other international forum, the easiest thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israeli rhetoric, to pretend it is just about being even-handed, and to excuse oneself with the label of ‘honest broker.’
“There are, after all, a lot more votes in being anti-Israeli than in taking a stand. But, as long as I am prime minister, whether it is at the UN or the Francophonie or anywhere else, Canada will take that stand, whatever the cost...”
Initially, Canada`s Foreign Affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, blamed Ignatieff for the loss of the Security Council vote, saying his criticism sent the message Canada was not speaking with a unified voice. Before the vote, Ignatieff had complained Harper’s poor record in foreign affairs had not “earned” Canada a spot at the Security Council.
In a year-end interview, Cannon said he had no regrets and that he would wage the same type of campaign to win over hearts at the UN General Assembly.
Political science expert Jonathan Paquin at the Institut québécois des hautes études internationales at l’Université Laval in Québec City says while Canada’s failed bid is disappointing, Canada’s star had started to fade at the UN since the 1970s. Gone is the afterwar golden age of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, a strong supporter of the UN and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
On a positive note, observers say Harper hosted successfully the back-to-back G8 and G20 summits in Muskoka, Ontario, and Toronto. John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto told Embassy, a foreign policy newsweekly, that the G8 Summit was a “striking success.” He pointed to the Muskoka Initiative which helped to raise nearly $5 billion for maternal and child health in developing countries. The G20 Summit also showcased Canada’s strong fiscal position and banking standards.
The year also started with the successful winter Olympics Games in Vancouver on Canada’s West Coast. Canada was quick to respond to Haiti’s massive earthquake in January, sending troops and funds, and hosting a conference in Montréal two weeks later.
Harper did make an impression with international watchers. The Wall Street Journal praised Canada’s foreign policy in an October 21 editorial, noting Canada’s principled positions and courage of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.
Canada should view the Security Council snub as “badge of honor” because “Canada seems to have annoyed a sufficient number of Third World dictators and liberally pious Westerners to come up short in a secret General Assembly ballot.”
That may be the case. But what does it say about Canada if it can’t even get the respect of Third World dictators?
*Huguette Young is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.