Every decade or so, Canada competes for a coveted spot on the fifteen-member United Nations Security Council. We have a respectable six-and-two record in these contests, which are organized on a regional basis, having last held a two-year term that ended in 2000 (we lost in 1946 and, most notably, in 2010). This year’s election will be held in June, at the General Assembly in New York, and national representatives — from Justin Trudeau to Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors — have been spending lots of time championing Canada around the globe.
The prime minister and his Liberal government announced the current bid in 2016, building upon their “Canada is back” theme of 2015. At the time, UN secretary general Ban Ki‑Moon “enthusiastically” welcomed the news. Nevertheless, with Ireland and Norway also campaigning for the two openings assigned to the Western European and Others bloc, Canada faces stiff competition.
As if diplomatic darlings like Ireland and Norway were not barrier enough, it’s not clear that Canada has done enough to woo the necessary two-thirds of the UN’s 193 member states. In addition, it’s possible the current government hasn’t learned from the mistakes that the former Conservative government made in 2010. What’s even worse, according to Canada on the United Nations Security Council, by Adam Chapnick, is that officials may in fact be repeating them.
Chapnick, of the Canadian Forces College, in Toronto, is the author of several books, including The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations, from 2005. With his latest, he fills a critical gap in diplomatic history by offering the first systematic study of this country’s experiences on the Security Council.
Proceeding chronologically, starting in 1946, this book offers a sober correction to the myths about the relationship that many imagine Canada has with the UN. It details the complex realities of sitting at a table that, while entrusted by international law to make decisions on war and peace, is encumbered by the permanent status of five members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Unlike the council’s ten rotating members, the P5 states are armed with veto power over all resolutions. That Canada shares close ties and military alliances with Paris, London, and Washington has only complicated its ability to support the interests of friendly capitals while striking an independent path at the UN.
At times, this balancing act has proven frustrating. During the Cold War, governments around the world, including even Lester Pearson’s, were often reluctant to vie for a seat. Superpower tensions reinforced by vetoes had partially paralyzed the council, turning it into a “secondary stage” that gave little priority to wider concerns, especially those emanating from newly decolonized members in Africa and Asia. “Pragmatic self-interest” finally motivated Canada to pursue a 1967–68 term, along with the reality that “few among its allies wanted the responsibility.”
Adding to this frustration was a sense of alliance solidarity, which did not always translate into influence. For decades, Canada contributed the bulk of troops and related costs to the UN mission in Cyprus, yet it proved unable to truly shape that mission. Debates over Vietnam and Rhodesia, along with Egypt’s abrupt ouster of peacekeepers in 1967, further soured political and public opinion toward the Security Council at home, so much so that by the time Canada next won a seat, in 1976, news media barely took notice — a stark contrast to the aftermath of the 2010 loss to Portugal.
Still, Ottawa balanced things in Canada’s favour, even if without headlines. Sitting on the council brought diplomatic prestige, direct access to the influential powers, and, crucially, a deeper understanding of the global security environment. Despite the frustrations, successive PMOs knew the strategic value of being on the council and welcomed the political capital that came with a seat. Brian Mulroney, for one, famously utilized Canada’s position to mobilize international assistance and convince Washington to endorse a multilateral response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in 1990.
Canada has also seen success through the efforts of the capable and respected diplomats it sent to New York. General Andrew McNaughton helped broker the Dutch withdrawal from Indonesia in 1949. Decades later, Canada’s ambassador to the UN during the first Gulf War, Yves Fortier, co-sponsored eleven of the dozen resolutions to condemn Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait by force.
Chapnick argues that Canada has been operating under a “hyper-partisan” cloud. Although he does not fully unpack this critique, it is clear that the UN has shifted in Canadian minds, from an organization that enjoyed broad approval to a wedge issue. Partisanship helps explain the “disjointed” 2010 campaign for a council seat. Instead of drawing from the lessons of 1988 and 1998 — when bipartisan backing, adequate funding, high-level engagement, and diplomatic coordination proved a winning formula — the Conservatives did the opposite. That government’s avowed support for Israel often gets blamed for the loss, but this is a convenient scapegoat. In fact, in the minds of many UN members, Canada was a country that no longer took Security Council elections seriously.
This perception risks undermining today’s bid. Despite the Trudeau government’s stated desire to get back in the room, it did not mention a Security Council seat in either its 2015 or its 2019 campaign platforms. In the era of brand politics, the prime minister’s global fame has led to a “personalizing” of the bid, which has made bipartisan support even more elusive. Whatever high-level political engagement we have seen came in late 2019, led by figures of a different era altogether, Joe Clark and Jean Chrétien. Moreover, the budget committed to the campaign, $2 million so far, seems insufficient compared with those of Norway and Ireland — equivalent to $3.6 million and $940,000, respectively. (Australia, for its part, spent an estimated $22 million on its 2012 win.)
For sure, complex geopolitical events in Eastern Europe and Iraq, and closer to home with Donald Trump’s presidency, have lately consumed Canada’s military and diplomatic attention. But this country’s peacekeeping contributions are a pittance compared with what they once were. In 1992, over 3,800 military personnel were deployed as blue berets; in fall 2019, the total was forty-five. Meanwhile, Ireland, with fewer people than the Greater Toronto Area, deployed over 600. Since 2016, Canada has passed on several UN requests, whether to command missions, provide military observers to Colombia, or extend helicopter operations in Mali. Our limited spend on overseas aid is a liability too. Norway remains the world’s leading per capita state donor, at 1 percent of GDP, and therefore exceeds the 0.7 percent target set by a World Bank commission, led by Pearson, in 1969. Canada manages just over a quarter of a percent — one of the lowest levels among the world’s richest countries.
The irony of the haphazard Security Council bid, so far, is that it’s never been more important for us to take a seat. Nationalist and isolationist governments, including in some of the P5 member states, are undermining the multilateral institutions carved out of the ruins of the Second World War. Tensions with China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, to say nothing of episodic trade conflicts with the US, have all demonstrated the uncertainty we confront. If there was ever a time for Canada to exert itself in key global decision-making bodies, this is it. It’s just a pity that the debate has yet to truly happen at home.