Not any more

PM on brink of world-stage coup

In Canada on September 2, 2010 at 07:54

When he became Prime Minister, Stephen Harper said his government would return Canada as a credible player on the world stage after years of waning influence.

His critics contend that since then, the Conservatives have squandered Canada’s good international reputation by retreating from Africa and adopting an “Israel: Right-or-wrong” policy.

Yet, in the wake of the Vancouver Olympics and the G8/G20 international summits, Mr. Harper stands on the brink of a foreign policy coup that would deliver on his promise to restore Canada’s influence on the world stage – namely a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Membership of the UNSC is held by five permanent members (France, the U.K., the U.S., China and Russia) and 10 elected, non-permanent members, who join the council for a two year term. Every year, half of these places are contested in five regional groups. Canada has sat on the UNSC on 6 separate occasions since 1948 but has been absent for the past decade.

On October 12, a secret ballot of the U.N.’s 192 members will choose between Canada, Portugal and Germany for the two “Western Europe and Other” seats on the security council.

Canada’s representatives at the U.N. in New York are said to be “reasonably optimistic” of a positive outcome. Foreign diplomats in Ottawa echo those sentiments. “Just look at the facts – the U.K. and France, two E.U. states, are permanent members of the Security Council. Germany and Portugal are also E.U. members. Four Europeans out of 15 is a lot,” said one senior diplomat.

In its early days, the Harper government was reluctant to compromise what it saw as its “principled” foreign policy in pursuit of a Security Council seat. Senior insiders say that the advice from diplomats was to lean more heavily on Israel, become more accommodating to the emerging international consensus on climate change, cozy up to China and spread Canada’s foreign aid budget even thinner – all in order to curry favour with U.N. members who might then vote for Canadian membership.

“Harper basically did none of that. He stayed with Israel, stayed quiet on climate change, was even-handed with China and forced CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) to focus and specialize. But, despite not playing this game, the votes are lining up,” he said.

Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.N., said it is looking good for Canada. Portugal’s chances appear to have been hampered by its stumbling economy, while Germany was on the UNSC as recently as 2004.

But Mr. Heinbecker believes that Canadian success may come in spite of the current government’s policies, rather than because of them. “It’s because of the experience and respect that we’ve built up over the years. Until lately, we had a good record at home on the protection of minorities and human rights – that carries weight. But the last four or five years have not added to our lustre,” he said.

Despite his reservations, Mr. Heinbecker says it is important for Canada to win the election. “It is still the premier international table for world peace and security. If it’s a question of war and peace, it’s going to happen at the Security Council. These are things that we have an interest in seeing done in the way they ought to be done,” he said.

Mr. Heinbecker’s views are similar to those expressed by another former U.N. ambassador, Robert Fowler, who issued a blistering attack on the Harper government’s foreign policy at the Liberal policy conference in March. Mr. Fowler said that the government is squandering Canada’s “unique credentials” in Africa by focusing on Latin America and has sold out its reputation for fairness and justice by backing Israel in all instances, in a scramble to lock up the Jewish vote in Canada.

“I’m not sure Canada deserves to win this election, for we no longer represent the qualities which we Canadians have long insisted candidates for the council should bring to such responsibilities,” he told the Liberal thinkers’ conference.

Conservatives refute such suggestions, pointing out that Canada has stepped up to the plate in Afghanistan, Haiti and Sudan; recently served at the helm of the G8/G20; and, imposed sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Burma.

Deserved or not, Mr. Harper is a good bet to cap off a year of unprecedented exposure on the international stage.

Canada’s victory is by no means assured – U.N. veterans refer to the Rotten Lying Bastard factor that can see one third of your promised votes disappear in the secret ballot, as Australia discovered to its cost during a recent UNSC election where it was a strong favourite.

But the feeling among many international observers, including Mr. Heinbecker, is that this is Canada’s time – the dawning of new golden age, where the tide of events have moved in this country’s favour.

Quite what we would do with the prize is unclear – government officials refuse to speculate about a beefed up commitment to peacekeeping. But they are quick to tout Canada’s hard won practical experience in Afghanistan as one reason why this country is qualified to assume a global leadership role.

A recent satirical British movie called In the Loop featured one snooty Brit advisor summarizing Canada’s role at the U.N. “You needn’t worry about the Canadians. They’re just happy to be there. They always look surprised they’ve been invited,” he said.

In the shifting techtonics of the multicultural, post-Great Recession world, it seems Canada is no longer just making up the numbers.

National Post

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