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opinion

Canada is back at it. Justin Trudeau already has his eye on a seat on the United Nations Security Council, even though he may no longer be in office by the time Canada's candidacy comes up for a vote in 2020. The Prime Minister is also promising to "revitalize Canada's historic role" in UN peacekeeping, befitting our nature as a global good guy who prevents wars instead of starting them.

That's what the Liberals would like you to think, anyway. But Canada's self-image as an "honest broker" in international affairs has always been the construct of a tiny elite of politicians, diplomats and academics eager to differentiate this country from that belligerent bully next door. It may be good for their egos and careers. But is it good for the country?

It depends on what Canada makes its limited influence as a middle power.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper was needlessly antagonist toward the UN and Canada punched below its weight in global affairs during his time in office. But his refusal to "please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations" had its charms as a governing principle in foreign policy.

The question facing the Trudeau government is whether its all-abiding desire to be seen as non-confrontational and easy to get along with translates into a mushy multilateralism that sells well at home but leaves our global allies in the lurch when they really need us. (See our modified mission against the Islamic State.) At its worst, mushiness makes for incoherent foreign policy.

Selling tanks to the Saudis posed no moral dilemma for Mr. Harper. Despite the kingdom's egregious human-rights record, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country capable of counterbalancing Iran's far more destructive influence in the Middle East. And defence contracts are a huge boon to Canada's economy, allowing Canadian suppliers to participate in global innovation chains.

The Liberals have already flip-flopped and prevaricated so much on the $15-billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, your head spins trying to keep up. They've managed to insult the Saudis and damage Canada's chances of winning future contracts from any Arab ally, all while fuelling cynicism with their bromides about standing up for human rights – next time.

Honest broker, or seriously confused?

What, then, would Mr. Trudeau do with a seat on the Security Council? The answer to that question is a long way off, if it ever comes. But it's worth asking whether the Prime Minister is merely interested in the bragging rights that come with winning a Security Council seat or seeks to make Canada a voice for reform from within a body notorious for its dysfunction and impotence.

It's an open secret that the real work of the Security Council goes on among the five permanent members – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. Each of the so-called P5 has a veto over resolutions, which explains why the council has been largely powerless to solve most of the global crises it was designed to defuse. Syria is the current Exhibit A.

We shouldn't need to wait until 2021, when Canada would take its seat on the council, for the Trudeau government to push for a more effective, transparent and democratic council. Such a campaign might damage Canada's chances of winning a seat in 2020, but it would be the true measure of whether Mr. Trudeau is willing to back up his rhetoric with "real change."

As for peacekeeping, the nostalgic notion of minimally armed blue berets in postwar zones is drastically out of sync with modern reality.

What the UN euphemistically calls peacekeeping today is expensive, trauma-inducing and often more deadly than direct combat. If you doubt that, check out the peacekeeping efforts in Mali or Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today's peacekeepers face constant terrorist threats and bear witness to genocides they may be powerless to stop, especially if they are hamstrung by UN mandates limiting their role.

Judging by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's comments last week, that is not what the government is talking about. Since African countries now provide the bulk of soldiers, he suggested Canada's participation could be limited to training and equipping peacekeepers.

If that's the case, Mr. Trudeau's promise to "revitalize" Canadian peacekeeping is just more hype from a government already well on its way to setting records for it.