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The desert kingdom of Oman received a discreet Canadian visitor last month. Jean Charest came to Muscat and hand-delivered a letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the monarch. He met with the higher-education minister and announced Canada’s desire to expand educational ties. And he had confidential meetings with a number of other senior officials.

What was unusual was not that Mr. Charest was representing Canada – given his experience and connections, he is a good choice – but the purpose of his visit. His title, he told the Omanis, is “Special Envoy of the Canadian Prime Minister for the United Nations Security Council Mission,” I learned this week. My colleague Michelle Zilio confirmed this with the Foreign Minister’s office.

In other words, Mr. Charest was on a tour of the Persian Gulf states to try to persuade them to cast their ballot for Canada next year, when the 193 United Nations member countries vote on one of the non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council, which votes on crucial matters of defence and international law, has five permanent seats – China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States – and 10 open ones. Canada is vying for a two-year temporary position in 2021 and 2022, and both Norway and Ireland are competing for the same seat.

Mr. Charest’s role – it’s an unpaid volunteer position, although Ottawa covers his travel expenses and costs – is only one part of a big campaign the federal Liberals have mounted to win that seat. Since 2016, they’ve spent $1.5-million on the campaign, mainly on the salaries of 11 full-time employees based in New York, but also on expenses for a number of high-profile volunteer “influencers” including Mr. Charest – and unspecified costs for gifts.

That isn’t a lot of money, even compared with the sums previous governments have paid. But that doesn’t include the considerable time and money spent by most of Canada’s 129 embassies and scores of Global Affairs Canada staff in negotiating and making deals to try to win votes. It is, I’ve been told by staff at several embassies, a full-court press involving the entire Canadian diplomatic corps.

Nor does it include the cost of those deals. To win a reluctant country’s vote, Canada will typically promise to vote for that country’s favourite person to be head of a big international organization, or for that country to host something such as the Olympics – even if that vote is otherwise contrary to Canada’s interests. Or Canada will offer to participate in their pet project. Why did Canada sign a foreign-investment promotion and protection agreement with Moldova last year? Some say it was the quid pro quo for their Security Council vote.

This isn’t just a Liberal thing. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer announced this week that he’d continue the Security Council campaign if his party comes to power. It’s Canada’s never-ending inter-governmental relay race; this campaign was begun by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, who spent considerable time and money on a campaign for a 2010 Security Council seat, which they lost to Portugal.

That loss helps explain why nobody’s talking about getting out of the Security Council-seat game. Why does Canada expend so many resources on something of so little actual value? Because it makes your government look bad when you don’t.

If you ask Liberals why they’re bothering with this, they’ll point out that Canada has a long tradition of using Security Council seats to promote its values, that it’s important to have a stable liberal democracy on the body and that in the eighties and nineties, it used those seats to push for ending apartheid and banning conflict diamonds.

But Canada didn’t prevail on those files because it was on the Security Council for a couple years. (Canada last sat on the Security Council in 1999 and 2000.) While its seat didn’t hurt, those wins were accomplished by old-fashioned one-on-one meetings between leaders.

And the rules-based international order would be up for grabs if Canada were competing against, say, less liberal-minded countries such as Hungary and Venezuela. Norway and Ireland sure aren’t threats to that order, and may in fact be better choices than Canada.

Ireland, a popular European Union member, probably has most of the 44 European votes tied up. So Canada is going aggressively after a similar number of votes in the Middle East and North Africa, which Mr. Harper lost due to his unpopular Middle East policies.

How is Canada doing in that corner? People close to the Omani government tell me that Mr. Charest’s exertions to win their vote were welcomed, but may not have been successful. Shortly after meeting with him, the country’s foreign minister flew to Oslo where he heard a lavish pitch, replete with promises, from their delegation. If Canada wants to outdo that, it may have to come back with better goods.

Multiply that by 100 countries and a decade of efforts and compromises and deals and promises, and you have a good sense of what Canada’s spending for two years of symbolism.

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