A diplomatic game worth losing

COYNE on Canada’s defeat at the UN Security Council


A diplomatic game worth losing


The votes have been counted, the coveted “Western Europe and Others” seat on the UN Security Council has been decided, and it’s time to congratulate Portugal on its stunning victory. In a clear endorsement of the foreign policy of Prime Minister José Sócrates and his Socialist Party government, UN member states elected Portugal to a two-year term for only the third time in the republic’s history.

That at any rate is what you would gather from the Portuguese press, where it was celebrated as “a victory for Portuguese diplomacy” and confirmation of the country’s “influence and prestige”—though it rated somewhat less coverage than a 3-1 victory over Iceland in a qualifying round for the 2012 European futebol championships. My knowledge of Portuguese is a little rusty, but my sense is comparatively little credit was given to the failings of Canadian foreign policy.

Ah, but this is Canada, where it’s All. About. Us. If Portugal were selected over Canada, it can’t possibly be a reflection of Portugal’s merits, but only Canada’s defects. Plainly, the UN’s 192 member states intended to send a message to the Harper government, being as obsessed with Canadian foreign policy debates as most Canadians aren’t.

Oddly, that was the one point on which the government and its critics were agreed, the government suggesting its “principled stand” on Iran, North Korea and Arctic sovereignty (really? the Arctic?) might have raised some hackles, the opposition blaming its positions on global warming, foreign aid and the rights of indigenous peoples.

I don’t know what’s worse: the sort of self-absorption that believes the world revolves entirely around oneself, or the sort of adolescent insecurity whose self-esteem depends on being elected class prefect by the likes of Iran and Uzbekistan.

In any case, the notion that these votes are decided on the basis of broad principles of foreign policy—and that, by a remarkable coincidence, the UN’s complaints should exactly match the opposition’s—bears no resemblance to how the UN actually works. More typically, votes are “swapped,” one for another, with a frankness that would make a congressman blush. Guyana’s vote, for example, was purchased (or not: it’s a secret ballot, so you never know) in exchange for Canada’s support for a Guyanese judge’s bid for a seat on the International Criminal Court.

On the other hand, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s vote was apparently lost when Canada failed to deliver a promised loan in time for the country’s national day.

Well, all right. If the Harper government was outmanoeuvred at this game by Portugal (and Germany, the other non-loser), the first such defeat after a string of six wins, it deserves to take some heat. It may even be that its policies cost it some votes, notably its disdain toward the UN itself: it was Stephen Harper, after all, who famously passed on a special meeting of world leaders at the UN a year ago in favour of a photo op at an Oakville Tim Hortons. Which makes it something of a mystery why he should have invested so much of his government’s time and energy in seeking election to a body for which he clearly has little use.

No more a mystery, however, than why Michael Ignatieff should have said publicly that Canada had not “earned” a Security Council seat, if it’s as important as his party claims that we should be on it. (No, Ignatieff’s comments probably didn’t have much influence on the result, but they surely didn’t help.) Unless, of course, neither man thinks it matters a whit in substantive terms whether we grab a seat on the Security Council, and this is all about domestic politics.

What exactly do we have to show, after all, for our previous stints on the council? While we’re at it, what does the Security Council have to show for its 64-year existence? The League of Nations was supposedly undone by its failure to take action in the face of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. But the Security Council’s history has been one long series of Abyssinias, of crises it failed to resolve and invasions it did nothing to stop, from Hungary to Czechoslovakia to Afghanistan. Indeed, it could not even muster a futile vote against these atrocities, being stymied at every turn by the Soviet veto. The shining exception was Iraq, whose conformity the council demanded in 17 consecutive resolutions, but which in the crunch it declined to enforce, Saddam Hussein being the client of several members of the council, or indeed, via the UN’s own Oil for Food scam, their sponsors.

If the Security Council is an anomaly—France, let us recall, is a permanent member—the General Assembly to which it reports is a disgrace. Most of the regimes to which Canada submitted itself for election have never themselves been elected to anything, a motley collection of tyrannies and kleptocracies whose chief amusement, besides packing the UN Human Rights Council with the world’s worst human rights abusers—Libya is a current member—is to pass hilariously one-sided resolutions against Israel.

Ah, Israel. According to former UN ambassador Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s current “pro-Israel” stance probably cost us votes among the UN’s 57 Arab and Muslim members. I’ve no idea if that’s true, but if so we should wear our defeat like a badge of honour.