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If it seems hard to square the smug self-satisfaction that is one of our defining national traits with the abiding insecurity that is another, the meltdown following Canada’s failed bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council offers some insight.

Because it is all externally driven, the self-love as much as the self-doubt. We preen ourselves in the belief that the rest of the world cannot get enough of us, looking to us as the shining beacon of internationalism we imagine ourselves to be. And so we are shattered to discover on occasion that, in fact, the world does not need more Canada. The world has quite enough Canada, to be honest.

Is any other country on Earth quite so adolescently obsessed with what other countries think of it? Surely this alone explains why we become so invested every few years in winning one of the rotating two-year memberships on the Security Council, alongside its five permanent members: the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and (checks notes) France.

Canada lost its bid for a UN Security Council seat. That’s a blessing in disguise

Certainly it can’t be for any practical good it can do us or the world. The Security Council is perhaps the least effective part of the whole UN apparatus. Unable to act without the consent of all five permanent members, it has remained inert in the face of one conflict or disaster after another more or less since its founding, from Hungary to Czechoslovakia, Iraq to Crimea, the Syrian refugee crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic.

No doubt there is some benefit to being a member of this club, however fleetingly. But whether it is worth the time and expense – not only in cash but in principle – to round up the required number of votes among the squalid assortment of dictatorships and kleptocracies that make up the bulk of the General Assembly is very much an open question.

We will probably never know how many votes were traded, abuses overlooked and favours offered in the course of the Trudeau government’s four-year campaign for the seat. All we need know is that it was not enough, leaving us with fewer votes than Norway and Ireland – fewer votes, even, than the Harper government obtained in its own abortive bid a decade ago.

That’s obviously a bitter blow to the Liberals, who never missed an opportunity to portray the 2010 vote as a rebuke to Conservative foreign policy and to suggest that their own would find more favour with the international community. Doubtless it should be recorded as one of this government’s failures, especially given how hard Justin Trudeau campaigned for it, in notable contrast with his predecessor. It’s just not as clear that it represents some failure of Canada.

You’d never know it from all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that went on after the vote was announced. The inability of our diplomats to secure enough support from their Asian or African counterparts was not, in the testimony of various despairing foreign-policy mavens, because they did not promise them enough in the way of debt relief or seats on the International Criminal Court. Rather, it was held out as proof there was something fundamentally wrong with Canadian foreign policy. We were too close to the United States or too soft on Israel, too this or too that.

Doubtless our record on foreign aid and peacekeeping, where our contributions, proportionately, rank as far behind other countries under the caring, multilateralist Liberals as under the uncaring, unilateralist Conservatives, contributed to the debacle. Ditto, perhaps, our dilatory bipartisan performance on climate change. But this tendency to substitute talk for action, to preach to others what we do not practise ourselves, is a failing in itself and would be so regardless of whether it cost us votes at the UN, where I am told hypocrisy is not unknown.

By the same token, how closely or otherwise we align ourselves with the United States or Israel, as with any other question of foreign policy, should be judged on its own merits, through whatever analytical lens one chooses to view it. Whether it makes us popular with other countries is of course one consideration to take into account; we do need to work with them, after all. But it is not the only one – or even a particularly important one.

The object of Canadian foreign policy is not to win a seat at the Security Council. Nor should its success or failure be measured by whether or not we succeed in this regard. It is rather to protect our people, advance our interests and defend our values in a world that is sometimes hostile to all three. Whether to seek Security Council membership and by what means should be assessed in light of how far either contributes to these objectives, not the other way around.

What is true of our foreign policy at the moment – and what would remain true even if Canada had won the Security Council vote – is that it is confused. This is only natural. The actual, if not declared, aim of Canadian foreign policy for many decades, under governments of either party, has been to cultivate our relationship with the United States, enjoying the fruits of proximity to the hegemon – free trade, defence sharing, plus whatever influence we could peddle – without being entirely consumed by it.

The waning of Pax Americana, of which Donald Trump is both cause and consequence, has therefore left us a little adrift, unsure of what it means or how to proceed. But we remain a rich, powerful country, a thriving liberal democracy, a member of virtually every international club worth belonging to, from NATO to the G7, NAFTA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Maybe we have been a little too content to free ride on others on some issues; maybe we need to outgrow our dependency on the U.S.; maybe a second consecutive Security Council rebuff, whatever the reason for it, will serve as a useful slap in the face, a corrective to our complacency.

But we should not see it as more than that, still less take it as an indicator of our self-worth.

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