Ben Rowswell is president of the Canadian International Council. He was previously Canada’s ambassador to Venezuela, from 2014 to 2017.
To a lifelong diplomat like me, the breadth of opposition to Canada’s pursuit of a seat on the Security Council has come as a surprise. In a rules-based international order, this is the body that writes the rules. A Security Council Resolution makes the difference, for example, between a legal use of force and a war of naked aggression.
But the COVID-19 crisis has forced us to confront the reality that the rules-based international order is now over. This order was a set of rules and institutions that aligned the actions of the powerful toward some degree of shared interest. Think of it as a collective commitment of nations to work together, instead of undermining one another. When that commitment is gone, it’s every country for itself.
In my conversations with Canadians in the 16 cities where our organization is based, I’ve sensed a real anxiety many citizens have about the world we now live in. They are right to fear the chaos that has set in, because their lives and livelihoods are in the balance.
Take the current pandemic, for example. We’ve seen equally frightening pathogens cross borders, from the Spanish flu to SARS to the Ebola virus. When countries are conditioned to work together in defence of shared interests, we make a concerted international effort to thwart the disease. When the law of the jungle dominates, infections spread unabated.
Across our country, citizens are now paying the price of the failure of effective cooperation to contain the novel coronavirus. Some blame Chinese efforts to mask the scale of the original outbreak; others reserve their anger for the many countries that delayed even a little bit once the full extent was revealed. Others still blame U.S. attacks on the WHO, the only organization that could coordinate an effective response. Regardless the effect is the same for Canadians: close to 10,000 of us dead, because of a global threat gone unchecked.
This pandemic has been a catastrophic failure of the international system. Absent true global cooperation, each country has had to fend for itself, resorting to shutting down entire economies to slow the death toll.
Now that order has given way to disorder, it’s time for a new foreign policy based on this new reality.
Where should we start building a new foreign policy? We should start with the needs of our citizens. It is their lives that we are trying to save, their prosperity we are trying to protect.
The COVID-19 crisis offers some useful lessons. Canadians are now attuned to a global threat and the destruction it brings to our economy. They understand that we need to change outcomes beyond our borders if we are to address either challenge. That means we need to have influence over the behaviour of other countries. Canada needs a foreign policy that takes full account of power to secure the international cooperation our citizens need.
Now that the rules-based international order is gone, the Security Council might not be the body that writes the rules anymore. But it remains a table of the powerful – notably, the two superpowers whose rivalry exacerbated the crisis. If Canada wins the seat on June 17, we should use our seat to force the pandemic to the top of the international security agenda.
But Canada can pursue the same foreign policy without a Security Council seat. The important thing is that we wield what power we have to get other countries to cooperate in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and to developing, producing and distributing a vaccine. We should bring a similarly pragmatic, results-oriented approach to every other global threat that places the lives of our citizens in danger.
Some of us are not waiting for the results of the Security Council election. The Canadian International Council is joining with Global Canada and other partners to explore what a new foreign policy might look like.
Starting from the perspective of citizens could take us in new directions. We may need to align our economies with countries with effective public health policies so that our trade and investment relationships survive future shocks. We may need to rethink national security, after the pandemic showed that countries with high levels of social trust and policies based on science rather than ideology do a much better job of keeping citizens alive.
No matter what, citizens should have a say in foreign policy. That’s why we are launching an effort to tap into citizen voices and discover where public support for more ambitious foreign policy might exist. Through the interactive online platform called Open Canada, the CIC and the development partnership organization CanWaCH will connect citizens to foreign policy and vice versa.
Canadians have the right to be skeptical about the UN. But we do not have the luxury of withdrawing from a world in disorder. We owe it to our dead to make sure this catastrophic failure never happens again.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.