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opinion

Question: Why did the Trudeau government want to win one of the temporary, rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council? Answer: So it could tell voters it had won one of the temporary, rotating seats on the UN Security Council.

Tip O’Neill, long-time Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, famously quipped that all politics is local. Make that a double-double when the politics are Canadian foreign policy. Its aims tend to be insistently parochial extensions of domestic politics, deployed to serve the needs of domestic politicians. When Ottawa goes abroad, it’s to build a brand at home. Blame the game, not the player.

Though we have to give at least some blame to the current player. Since before there was a Trudeau government, the Trudeau government has been talking up its plan to reconquer a seat on the Security Council. It chose this game, and never stopped reminding everyone how much it mattered. As such, it arrived at Wednesday’s UN vote carrying its own custom-made hoist and petard.

A decade ago, the last time Canada was eligible to stand for election – with victory contingent on charming various unsavoury regimes – the Harper government lost to Portugal. And the consequences of that? There were none.

Or rather, there were none outside the realm of domestic political image manufacturing. Within that space, however, the result was treated as a disaster – and for the opposition, an opportunity. It allowed the Liberals to claim that the Harper government had forgotten Canada’s place in the world, and the world was shunning us for it. It also allowed the Trudeau Liberals to promise they could reclaim the seat, thereby healing our allegedly wounded national pride.

This was, in other words, never about marketing Canada to the rest of the planet, but rather about selling the sitting government to Canadians.

Canada has recently faced several serious foreign policy challenges, from the Trump administration’s threat to torpedo North American free trade; to China’s taking Canadians hostage and blocking our exports; to questions about Chinese technology in our 5G networks; to delicate negotiations with the the U.S. over border closures. Those are real issues, with real impacts on the pocketbooks, lives and liberties of Canadians. The UN seat? It isn’t.

In fact, according to recent work by Adam Chapnick, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and author of a history of Canada at the UN, a seat on the Security Council was something that Ottawa, until relatively recently, treated as a burden and distraction, not a prize.

Canada helped create the United Nations, but, at its founding, Canada was reluctant to stand for one of the rotating seats. Prime Minister Mackenzie King refused to lobby for votes; the seat went to Australia. The following year, Hume Wrong, one of the mandarins who crafted Canada’s postwar international role, wrote that “we have more constructive things to do.” In 1948, out a sense of duty, Canada reluctantly accepted a seat.

Over the following decade, secretary of state for External Affairs Lester Pearson – yes, that Lester Pearson – twice declined to stand for the Security Council. When Canada did take a seat, for the 1958-59 term, it was under Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker.

Half a decade later, with the Liberals back in power, the United Kingdom asked Canada to put its name forward in the 1966 vote. Clerk of the privy council Gordon Robertson was strongly opposed; External Affairs studied the issue and reached no conclusion. A reluctant Prime Minister Pearson – yes, Pearson – said that while Canada could not refuse a chair if one was forced upon it, it should try to avoid the whole business. “The important thing,” Pearson wrote, “is to show no particular desire to take on this responsibility.”

Canada already has reserved seats at high tables that are often more relevant, including the G7. And one pitfall of a Security Council place is the possibility of being forced to take public stands on disputes that Canada would rather sidestep or address behind the scenes, and which could have fallout in domestic politics – such as India versus China, Israel versus Palestine and the Trump administration versus anybody.

The Harper government didn’t deserve the seat-shaming of a decade ago. And even though the Liberals will now have to eat 10 years worth of crow, that might be for the best – even for the Trudeau government.