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Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Millennium Development Goals Summit at United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 21, 2010. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Millennium Development Goals Summit at United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 21, 2010. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Doug Saunders

Canada said things, but just wasn't there Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper considers himself a leader who has firm principles in world affairs and sticks to them, however unpopular and regardless of the consequences.

And that, in his view, is why his two-year, multibillion-dollar, all-hands-on-deck bid to get Canada a temporary seat around the horseshoe-shaped table of the United Nations Security Council failed Tuesday, with Canada coming in a distant third to Portugal. "Our engagement internationally is based on the principles that this country holds dear," Mr. Harper said. "It is not based on popularity."

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To get a sense of what really went wrong, you need only turn your clock back a few hours before the Manhattan vote, when Ottawa found itself in a bizarrely aggressive feud with the United Arab Emirates. The sheiks had banned Defence Minister Peter MacKay from flying over their territory and kicked the Canadian armed forces out of a staging base in Dubai. And then the UAE became the only UN member to admit publicly that it had lobbied against Canada's Security Council seat.

This would be all worth the price, as Mr. Harper suggests, if it were in the name of a dearly held principle - after all, the Emirates are far from clean, accountable or democratic partners.

But the principle involved was, specifically, the protection of a national company, Air Canada, from competition and the closing of Canadian markets to consumer choice. This was all done to prevent Dubai-based Emirates Airline and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways from getting more landing slots in Canadian airports.

Mr. Harper threw a fit at the sheiks, arguing, rightly, that it was immoral to interfere with something as important as the Afghan war. But that gained him nothing with the war's remaining supporters, because Canada is withdrawing in a few months, to their considerable anger.

This is the problem: As the world sees it, Mr. Harper's supposed principles are more often observed in the breach. A week earlier, members of the European Union - who've spent the past year in free-trade talks with Ottawa, surely a matter of core Conservative principle - watched as Quebec-based Bombardier (with a token French partner) was given a $1.3-billion no-bid contract to build Montreal subway cars, despite more competitive-looking offers (never considered) from Chinese and Spanish companies. That contract may have destroyed the trade deal; it certainly caused many of the 27 EU member states to go to New York with a certain idea of Canada.

These things get noticed. And there's a pattern to them. When I talk to those who worked on the bid, they tend to point to a similar set of challenges: It isn't Canada's positions that get in the way. It's our function.

It's the question, asked in the capitals of all those member countries, of what use Canada could serve in making things happen.

And things do happen on the Security Council: The UN-mandated Afghan war, for example, is being fought to satisfy Security Council resolutions dating back to 1999.

Mr. Harper and his more stenographic media followers claim that Canada's positions in support of Israel and against traditional foreign aid were the country's undoing. This, as everyone on the ground knows, is nonsense: Those views are near-universal in the West today. (The votes of the 56 Islamic Conference states were never part of Canada's victory plan, and weren't necessary.)

But UN members, including influential ones such as Britain and France and the United States, did ask themselves what Canada was actually doing: What was Ottawa contributing to the progress they desired in these areas; what clout could it add to the table?

And here they came up blank. On the Middle East, Mr. Harper's ministers cut themselves out of the game. They didn't help the interests of Israel; instead, for short-term political gain, they gave almost lone backing to the partisan views and extreme actions of the coalition government that happened to hold power there at the moment - a coalition containing the most fringe religious fundamentalist parties and opposed by a large majority of Israelis. To satisfy one faction, Canada lost any future role in helping the country or its region.

On aid, our stated principles were solid but our shift of funds out of the eight poorest African states - right in the midst of the Security Council bid - infuriated not just Africa's 47 states but also Europeans, who are struggling with their own African development goals. The same happened in climate change and financial reform (where we were, remember, the spoilers at the G20 summit): Canada said things, but just wasn't there.

Canada just needed to do something, somewhere, to suggest we were capable of realizing those principles. Instead, too often, we did the opposite.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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