Thursday, October 14, 2010

Politics: The UN Loss is a Big Deal

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Earlier this week, Canada lost out to Portugal in a bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. This was the first time in the history of United Nations that Canada had failed to be voted in to a Security Council seat. While it is true that a long list of reasons contributed to the lack of international support for Canada's candidacy, the bottom line is that it where Canada was once viewed as a "Honest Broker," it is now isolated. It's not so much that we lost--shifting dynamics in the world may have favored Portugal in any event--it's that it wasn't even close, and much of the blame falls squarely on the Harper government.

It wasn't so long ago that Canada was viewed positively by many of the nations in the world as a fundamentally internationalist country. It once had the most peacekeepers deployed under UN auspices--now it ranks 12th, with almost all of its foreign deployment under NATO, not the UN, in Afghanistan--a change that started under Liberal governments (and the extent to which peacekeeping leadership was a myth in the first place is a whole separate topic). More importantly, there was a reputation of Canada as the honest broker, willing to listen to less developed countries, willing to take environmental leadership, willing to stand up to the United States, and willing to compromise on issues. That has largely disappeared under the Conservatives--Canada was basically absent on climate change, its support for right-wing elements in Israel has exceeded that of the United States, and off the top of my head I can't think of single issue in which Canada has stood up to the United States on the behalf of the world in the past four years. The epitome of the anti-internationalist attitude of the present government was when Harper decided to go to Tim Horton's instead of a UN meeting.

While he clearly should not have said so publicly, especially before the vote, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is fundamentally right--this Canadian government hasn't earned the right for Canada to be on the security council. In its defense, the government tried to blame Ignatieff, and when it was pointed out that the foreign delegations didn't even know about his statements, they stated that principle was more important to them than the UN seat.

They're missing the point. Why did I start to have positive emotions about Canada in the first place? It wasn't because of bilingualism, which I thought at the age of 11 was rather strange. It wasn't because of multiculturalism, which I appreciate now but didn't understand then. It wasn't because of the more civilized culture, which was not at all obvious in comparing Seattle and Vancouver. It was precisely because Canada seemed to be viewed positively by the whole world, that it had an internationalist stance that matched my ideals, and that its government would publicly stand up to the United States on occasion when it seemed warranted that earned my attention.

Harper's foreign policy has changed all that. Now those with internationalist ideals won't be attracted to Canada. To the outside observer, Canada now seems like an environmentally-irresponsible, resource-based economy that happens to have more financial regulations and nationalized health care. The United Nations vote was a wake-up call from the rest of the world that Canada's international image has changed.

I speak with enough Canadians to know that the Canadian people haven't changed, only their government. The vast majority of the people I encounter liked the old image that Canada had, and don't think much of the current one. Yet, they won't give more than a moment's thought to the UN vote this week. It will take political leadership to talk about what that vote really reflects. If Michael Ignatieff chooses to make this issue in the next election, it won't be enough to win the election unless it is accompanied by more bread-and-butter economic issues, but I suspect it will hit a nerve in the Canadian populace.

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