Roland Paris is a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, associate fellow at Chatham House and former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Canada will stand for election to the United Nations Security Council in June, 2020. Our competitors are Norway and Ireland. Of the three countries, two will win seats on the council and begin their two-year terms in January, 2021.
There is no guarantee of victory for Canada, but it is still worth the effort. As international tensions mount and the United States retreats from global leadership, Canada and like-minded countries must do what they can to sustain co-operation and the wobbling structures of a rules-based international system. This task extends far beyond the United Nations, but the world body remains the flagship of the multilateral system.
At the core of the UN is the Security Council, still the most important table in international politics. Its 15 members, including five permanent ones – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – and 10 that hold rotating seats, grapple with the world’s most pressing security problems. With geopolitical rivalry on the rise, however, they are increasingly grappling with each other.
The last time Canada served on the council, in 1999-2000, it led a successful campaign to establish civilian protection as a centrepiece of the UN’s activities and to control the trade in “conflict diamonds,” which were fuelling African wars. Behind the scenes, Canada helped develop new, more effective working methods in the council.
The challenges facing the UN today are greater than they were two decades ago. Russia’s veto has paralyzed the Security Council’s response to both the crisis in Ukraine and the war in Syria, the worst catastrophe of the young 21st century. The council has little to say about the Iranian nuclear agreement now that the United States has renounced the pact. Nor is it doing much about the dangerous sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea thanks to China’s veto.
Given this lamentable state of affairs, why should Canada even bother seeking a seat?
First, Canada can make progress in areas where the Security Council is still able to act. Most of the world’s conflicts, and almost a third of its displaced people, are in Africa. Canada could champion efforts to strengthen the UN’s conflict-prevention tools, a long-standing goal for the organization. It could lead an international campaign to provide 100 per cent of refugee children and youth with quality primary education, providing them with skills and hope for the future and reducing their susceptibility to radicalization. It could strengthen the patchwork system for training peacekeeping troops, while also asking difficult, but necessary, questions about which UN peace operations should be shut down.
Second, Canada can insert its own issues onto the Security Council’s agenda. The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has emphasized the empowerment of women and children, along with combatting the effects of climate change and improving the health of oceans. All of these issues have security dimensions falling under the Security Council’s mandate. If a different Canadian government comes to power after next year’s federal election, it can promote its own set of priorities. Either way, a seat on the council offers an unmatched opportunity to elevate Canada’s concerns.
Third, serving on the council would strengthen Canada’s ability to assemble coalitions of like-minded states in order to address pressing problems outside the framework of the United Nations. Canada has a recognized capacity to convene and mobilize groups on specific international issues. We are helped in this regard by being close to the United States without being the United States, by having a reputation for effective consensus-building and by being members of some of the world’s most important groupings, including the Group of Seven, the Group of 20, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – and, hopefully, the Security Council.
The value of these memberships is often underestimated as a means of achieving Canadian goals.
Consider, for example, Ottawa’s recent efforts to sustain the international trade regime. The World Trade Organization is at the centre of a growing battle between the United States and China. The United States argues, with good reason, that certain Chinese practices – such as forcing technology transfers from foreign companies and subsidizing politically directed, state-owned enterprises – violate the spirit, if not the letter, of WTO rules on free and open trade. Washington’s response, however, has included blocking appointments to the WTO’s rule-enforcing body, thus putting the entire multilateral trading system at risk.
Canada, an advanced but relatively small economy that depends on open international trade, has a clear interest in the system’s survival. It therefore made perfect sense for the federal government to convene a meeting of trade ministers from 13 like-minded partners last month – including the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Chile – to begin exploring possible fixes. I met one of the visiting ministers the day after the meeting. He said Canada was a natural host for such a gathering, in part because we are members of both the G7 and the G20.
The ministerial group hopes to bring more countries into the process over time. The United States and China have been kept informed of these discussions and are watching with interest. Achieving universal agreement on reforming the WTO will be nigh impossible, but finding practical measures that can at least forestall the organization’s collapse may be achievable. A subset of WTO members could agree, for example, to additional standards on the financing of state-owned enterprises, then encourage other countries to sign on.
Practical problem-solving of this kind, including the reform of outmoded international institutions, is a fitting role for Canada and an increasingly necessary one, given the erosion of so many rules and norms. It is also a role that Canadians expect their country to play. In poll after poll, they express a desire for Canada to make a constructive contribution in world affairs – the furthest thing from isolationism. Public support for the United Nations, in particular, is consistently strong. In a survey earlier this year, 88 per cent of Canadians indicated that supporting the UN was “important,” with 57 per cent calling it “critically important.” In 2016, more than three-quarters of Canadians said that seeking a Security Council seat should be a “priority” for Canada.
Some of this sentiment may be rooted in nostalgia or an exaggerated belief in Canada’s importance. In truth, we can shape international events only at the margins. However, those who dismiss the multilateralist inclinations of Canadians as naive “do-goodism” overlook the connection between these sentiments and our core foreign-policy interests. Canada is not strong enough to flourish in a world where powerful states abandon multilateral rules and replace them with unilateral threats. The multilateralist impulses of Canadians, in other words, make good strategic sense.
The challenge now is to channel these impulses into a more focused set of initiatives aimed at shoring up key institutions. It will require creative diplomacy – including with non-traditional partners and non-governmental actors – along with a guiding plan and the sustained attention of our political leaders.
A seat on the Security Council would help Canada pursue these goals. It is not the only means of doing so, but as a platform for international action, nothing beats it.