Over the past few years, the Canadian government’s relations with the United Nations have changed dramatically. Once regarded as an important player in many UN initiatives, Canada has distanced itself from the organization, a trend most clearly evidenced by its failed bid for a seat on the Security Council. This shift has evoked some criticism mainly directed at the governing Conservatives, whose ascent to power more or less coincided with a less enthusiastic embrace of the UN’s efforts. Critics generally argue that Canada’s current approach to the UN is a by-product of what they regard as the current government’s more hawkish, uncompromising, and dangerously assertive approach to international affairs. Additionally, they fear that a long-held tradition of pragmatic multilateralism is being undermined by a new ideologically driven foreign policy model less able to accommodate the dynamics and nuances of international politics. There may be some merit to these criticisms, but it is worth exploring the possibility that Canada’s recent approach to the UN is grounded in geopolitical strategy, rather than simply being hamstrung by ideology as some might suggest.
Canada’s failure to obtain a Security Council seat in 2010 was a startling indication of how seriously the country’s standing in the UN has deteriorated. It was a surprising failure to many, and there was some debate as to who or what was mainly responsible, but it was only the most prominent instance of disharmony in recent years. Since 2008, Canada has participated in a walk out in the General Assembly, boycotted UN-sponsored conferences, and removed itself from international agreements. Just this year, Canada quietly withdrew from a convention relating to drought relief primarily in Africa, becoming the only country not party to the agreement. In each of these cases, the government has publically defended its actions, but the trend toward more limited engagement with the UN is nonetheless apparent.
All of this is likely to disappoint or anger those who believe in the UN’s mission, and satisfy those who are sceptical of the international body’s influence and authority. But it should not be assumed that Canada’s behaviour is entirely attributable to its opinions on the UN itself. There may be other geopolitical concerns informing its approach. The shift in Canadian-UN relations, and the assertive turn in Canada’s foreign policy more generally, might stem from a perceived need to present itself more forcefully toward other states, particularly its arctic rival Russia. The Canadian government might actually wish to jettison Canada’s relatively dovish reputation as a means of signalling its commitment and strength to potential rivals. So while some decry the diminution of Canada’s reputation for international peacekeeping, mediation, and aid, this might be entirely the point. By removing itself from the strictures of UN conventions, and displaying its foreign policy without compromise or ambiguity through an organization like the UN, Canada can display a degree of fortitude or even defiance without undermining relations with specific states. This is not to say these actions are without consequence, but deteriorating relations with an international institution is not equivalent to worsening relations between states.
If Canada’s relationship with the UN is partly informed by political posturing, this does not necessarily mean it is advisable. It will however need to be subjected to a different critique than one which views recent years’ events as simply part and parcel of a Conservative foreign policy. Rather than lambasting the government for ideological rigidity or unsophisticated heavy handedness, it must be explained why Canada would be better off retaining its reputation as a small, peaceable, and cooperative country. Fears that Canada would appear pliable and weak to future threats must be allayed. In other words, the benefits of a return to a more diplomatic foreign policy must be defended rather than asserted. Fortunately, for opponents of the Conservative government, this is hardly an impossible task.
Although the current government’s attempts to display fortitude are to some degree defensible on security grounds, it is not at all clear that such posturing is worth the price of isolation that may have to be paid. Aside from its close ties with the United States, Canada’s reputation throughout the world as a quiet and peaceful country can be counter-intuitively interpreted as its greatest source of strength. This international standing has afforded the country a heightened degree of legitimacy and prevented it from becoming completely beholden to its southern neighbour upon which it depends so immensely. Furthermore, future issues of territorial sovereignty that the current government so vocally prioritizes are almost certainly going to be adjudicated by international authorities, not simply negotiated by the disputants themselves. This suggests that the current government might be trying to get Canada’s main arctic rival to take the country seriously, when it is the rest of the world that really counts. Therefore, maintaining and rehabilitating Canada’s international reputation through the UN cannot be dismissed as an idealistic liberal project. It makes security sense as well.