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The United Nations graces a door at the world body's headquarters in New York. (STAN HONDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
The United Nations graces a door at the world body's headquarters in New York. (STAN HONDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

David Malone

Canada and the Security Council: We must move past a position of comfort rooted in the past Add to ...

Much ink has been flowing on Canada's campaign for an elected United Nations Security Council seat. Twenty years ago, the Security Council was the crucible for profound shifts in international relations after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. This resulted from fundamental change in great power interaction following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Canada occupied a seat on the council at the time.

International relations are again undergoing profound, if subtler, change today, with "emerging" powers claiming the influence their economic growth has earned them and challenging the supremacy of Western powers.

Why would countries, particularly influential ones, care about the Security Council? It's an open secret that the council's five permanent members call the tune on most issues. While two of them (China and the U.S.) are genuinely significant, one (Russia) remains important but of declining international reach due to severe demographic, public health and other challenges, while two more (France and Britain) owe their seats to the outcome of the Second World War rather than to their current global clout.

Europe is dramatically overrepresented on the council, a fact that raises hackles elsewhere. And the permanent five have often neglected their (high) table manners, coming off at times as an arrogant and condescending group of uneven relevance. Regional powers such as Brazil, South Africa and India are now in a position to demand that their views be taken into account., as they are in the Group of 20.

The UN commands little treasure (unlike the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, nominally part of the UN system), and is only lent military might by member states for peacekeeping purposes. But its Security Council enjoys unique powers under international law to mandate coercive measures, including the use of force and mandatory sanctions, to enforce its decisions. Both Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic felt the sting of the council's tail when significant military force under a council mandate forced them into retreat.

At times, the Security Council lends itself to epochal confrontations. This was the case during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and also in 2003, when China, France and Russia faced off with the U.S. and the U.K. over Iraq. The council declined to provide a mandate for the use of force against Iraq that George W. Bush and, particularly, Tony Blair had been seeking. The denial of a council mandate for their overthrow of Saddam Hussein cost Washington and London many potential allies, including Canada, but, most important, any overt allies in the Arab world, rendering their burden much heavier and the legitimacy of their military action much more questionable.

Canada last sat on the council in 1999 and 2000. The world has changed a great deal since then, with the U.S. experiencing a bruising decade marked by 9/11 and two subsequent wars, one of them (Afghanistan) still raging and the other (Iraq) muted rather than resolved. The economic crisis of 2007-2009 has revealed just how debilitating to the U.S. Treasury those conflicts have proved beyond depressing results on the ground.

The geostrategic shifts of the past decade - marked by U.S. capacity under stress, a (perhaps exaggerated) sense of exhaustion of Western military and economic power, and recognition of the rising role of emerging countries - are now reflected in the council's substantive agenda and in the jockeying among the UN membership for reform of the council's composition.

The council, together with the African Union, tried seriously to address the Darfur crisis, but failed to make enough of a difference, while tensions between northern and southern Sudan may soon lead to secession of the latter, under the terms of an agreement reached in 2006. The conflict in Afghanistan, in which Canada has been bravely but painfully engaged, has mutated from a fight against terrorism into a complex pan-regional struggle for dominance recalling the "great game" in South and Central Asia of the 19th century. Iraq struggles to reconstitute itself, while long-standing Israeli-Palestinian differences at best edge toward solution. And Iran's nuclear program continues to worry those for whom nuclear proliferation vies with environmental sustainability and growing resource and food scarcity as our age's most severe global challenge.

The emerging countries have long chafed at the unequal international order enshrined in the Security Council. Some, like Mexico, simply avoided competing for a seat, as they saw little prospect of wielding influence there and feared clashing on matters of principle with the U.S. at significant cost. But Mexico is back, in a seat it will soon yield to Colombia. India, having lost to Japan in 1996, avoided the council until this year, when it's running again, unopposed, for an Asian seat. Brazil, a frequent member, is present this year and next. And Nigeria (also present now and next year) will soon be joined by South Africa, back next year after an absence of only two years.

These emerging powers are laying siege to a council in which, so far, they've been unable to secure equality with the permanent five through UN reform. Rather than sulking, though, they look determined to force the permanent five to take them into account. There was a hint of this in May, when Brazil and Turkey (another current council member, and very much a rising force in international relations) engaged Iran in an effort to avert the need for stronger Security Council-mandated sanctions that have since come into effect.

For Canada, these times of slow-moving tectonic shift recall those of 1989-90 as the Cold War thawed. Canada was then very close to the administration of George H.W. Bush, entertained excellent ties with the developing world, was viewed with favour by China and Russia, and was able to play a "helpful fixer" role throughout its term.

The international dispensation is now different. Canada would need to define a new sort of meaningful role in rapidly evolving global circumstances over which the West exerts diminishing influence. This will require thought, commitment and deft footwork when opportunity arises. It calls for strong political engagement and that old standby, creative diplomacy, as Canada grapples with a new world it can help shape but only by moving beyond positions of comfort rooted in the past.

David Malone, president of the Ottawa-based International Development Research Centre and a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, is a co-author of Law and Practice of the United Nations .

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