Justin Trudeau got Canada on the cover of Rolling Stone, but he could not get Canada a temporary seat on the United Nations security council.
We can debate which of those prizes is more valuable, but Wednesday’s loss is a difficult one to bear for a prime minister who proudly told the world that Canada was “back” after his party won the federal election in 2015.
Nonetheless, winning that seat would not have answered the many questions that can be asked about Trudeau’s foreign policy and Canada’s place in the world.
The Trudeau government’s pursuit of a seat on the security council over the last four years was framed by the former Conservative government’s failure to win a seat in 2010 — and the Liberals’s insistence at the time that the defeat was a de facto indictment of Stephen Harper’s approach to the world.
Not since 1946 had Canada failed when it went after one of the rotating spots. The Liberals argued the loss in 2010 — to Germany and Portugal — embarrassed the country and symbolized the Harper government’s unwillingness or inability to engage constructively with the world.
Turning defeat into a talking point
The Conservatives, never big fans of the United Nations, tried to turn the defeat around by arguing that they’d been rejected only because they had refused to compromise on their principles — including their vocal support for Israel. A year later, John Baird went to the UN as foreign minister and declared that Canada “would not go along to get along” in an attempt to establish this country as an international iconoclast.
In advance of this week’s vote, Conservatives already were beginning to argue that a victory for Canada would happen only because the Liberal government had been less principled in its pursuit.
But the decision by the Liberals to pursue a seat was almost certainly influenced by a desire to demonstrate just how much different and better the Trudeau government’s approach to the world would be.
Watch: Chrystia Freeland is questioned about Canada’s UN loss
Trudeau’s claim that Canada was “back” was always a bit awkward — the country had not disappeared completely from the planet for the nine years between 2006 and 2015. But it was premised on the return of a certain idea of Canada — the helpful, progressive, productive and alliance-building Canada that was supposed to have existed before Stephen Harper.
The claim that Canada would take a different approach under the Liberals has turned out to be true, basically. But in 2016, Canada was arriving late to a race that already included two decent global citizens and allies — Ireland and Norway — who had been actively campaigning for years.
“The Trudeau government chose the wrong time to run,” Adam Chapnick, a scholar who has studied and written about Canada’s participation at the security council, concluded in January.
This week’s loss might be framed as more of a strategic or political misstep than a wholesale repudiation of Trudeau’s foreign policy. But losing out on a seat will refocus attention on Trudeau’s record — and reinforce recent commentary about the need to rethink Canada’s approach to the world.
Trudeau argues that Canada can be a positive example for the world on important issues — pluralism, economic inclusion, climate policy, gender equality and reconciliation. These are the issues that have allowed Canada over the past five years to present a contrast in the international press to the populists and nationalists who have risen to power in other countries.
A mixed record
But Canada’s record on actions taken outside our borders over the last five years is harder to get excited about.
Canada enthusiastically re-engaged with international climate talks, provided new funds to help smaller countries deal with the impacts of climate change and spearheaded an effort to deal with plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Trade deals were completed with the European Union and Pacific Rim nations, while new labour and Indigenous protections were written into a renegotiated NAFTA.
Foreign aid has been reoriented to focus almost entirely on supporting women and girls, but the actual budget for foreign aid has barely increased. In 2018, the OECD lamented that, as a share of gross national income, Canada’s spending on international development was still below where it was in 2012. Meanwhile, the Liberal promise to revive Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping has amounted to less than might have been imagined.
And there was also that unfortunate trip to India.
The lack of dramatic action on foreign aid and peacekeeping might have held back Canada’s bid for the security council — but what bedevils the idea of Canada in the world most now are the forces that seem to have been unleashed by the American presidential election in 2016.
Multilateralism in a dog-eat-dog world
With the United States threatening to upend and unravel the structures that have largely governed global affairs since the end of the Second World War, Trudeau’s Liberals have become a loud proponent of the rules-based international order. Canada has joined a few potentially interesting efforts at forging new coalitions, including the “alliance for multilateralism” and a recent joint statement on Hong Kong.
But at times over the last four years, it has felt like significant portions of the Canadian economy were being held hostage by the unrestrained whims of the United States and China — with China going so far as to actually hold two Canadian citizens hostage. Maybe things will get better after November, but there’s no guarantee of that.
Trudeau’s approach to such conflicts has been to quietly pursue resolution while generally declining to escalate matters publicly. But the Conservatives like to argue that Trudeau has not been tough enough, particularly when it comes to China.
Being tougher with a country that is significantly stronger than you, and apparently won’t hesitate to block your trade or imprison your citizens, is a lot easier said than done. But the alternative can’t be to assume that this is just the way things are going to be from now on.
The world was a very different place when Trudeau said Canada was “back” in the fall of 2015. Backing that up with action was always going to be important. But explaining what it means to be “back” in the post-2016 world is now a significant part of the equation.
Both the Trudeau government and Canadian voters are likely to be consumed with domestic concerns for the foreseeable future. But a renewed vision of how Canada can be both relevant and secure on the world stage couldn’t hurt.
Losing out on a seat at the security council only adds to the pressure on the Liberals to back up the rhetorical enthusiasm they brought with them in 2015.