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Trudeau’s Security Council Bid Is a Vanity Project | Op-Ed

In June 2020, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a secret ballot election to determine who will serve as the next non-permanent members of the Security Council. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made Canada’s bid for this seat a foreign policy priority, despite strong opposing challenges from frontrunners Norway and Ireland.

The takeaway: Questions have been raised about what additions Canada’s “values-based foreign policy” can bring to the Security Council table, especially given its propensity to follow America’s lead on global issues.

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As we enter a new decade where authoritarian leadership dominates global relationships, one prime minister has established themselves as the progressive voice of reason. Their quick response to a violent domestic shooting outlawed semi-automatic weapons within one week. Their compassionate public persona has made them a celebrity for envious citizens of countries like the U.S. and Germany. Their genuine embodiment of feminist methods serves as a beacon for women seeking to enter politics all around the globe. 

Upon immediate consideration of this description, one might think of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Mr. Trudeau came into power with the aura of a new leader of the free world in the post-Obama/Angela Merkel era. Except for one hitch – these comments actually all apply to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand.

Lately, Ms. Ardern has usurped the idealistic Mr. Trudeau as a progressive figurehead of the 21st century. Her celebrity threatens the vision that the Trudeau Liberals first entered into government with – a vision where Mr. Trudeau was the sole voice needed to restore global balance in the age of Trump. 

Mr. Trudeau’s pledge of ‘Canada is back’ has run into several hurdles since the initial optimism surrounding his 2015 election. This is seen most notably in his underdog race to win back Canada’s seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). 

The UNSC was initially created in the aftermath of World War II to regulate international peace and security. It has two structural pillars, the first of which is more well known as a permanent core of the five victors of WWII – the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, and China. 

  • These permanent members all possess veto power over the council’s decision, while the remaining ten seats rotate through two-year terms through elections by a secret ballot. 

Under Stephen Harper’s cold-shoulder approach to foreign policy, Canada embarrassingly withdrew from its bid for a seat in 2010 that we lost to Portugal. The terms of the secret ballot meant that even though the Harper government had written promises of support from 135 countries, more than enough voted against Canada to slash our chances. 

  • Mr. Trudeau announced Canada’s candidacy for the 2020 UNSC election with high hopes, despite facing fierce competition from Ireland and Norway.

Ireland’s bid is part of a long-term “Global Ireland 2025” vision that sees them acting as a buffer in a post-Brexit world. Despite domestic optics that make it appear as if Mr. Trudeau is acting as the only leader who prioritizes gender equality, Ireland has worked diligently to combine a feminist foreign policy with its focus on achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Norway is the long-standing frontrunner for the seat. This is no surprise – the Scandinavian country’s development assistance consistently exceeds the UN target of 0.7% GDP with a 1.0% average. 

  • In contrast, Canada currently gives just 0.26%. 

Both Ireland and Norway have more peacekeepers deployed around the world than Canada and  – perhaps most importantly – both began their campaigns for the seat much earlier than the Trudeau government.

UNSC elections are often defined as much by personal relationships between diplomats as they are by domestic records of policy successes. 

  • Many supporters of Canada’s bid cite our UN ambassador, Marc-Andre Blanchard, as a wizard who can flip the final casting of ballots in our favour. 

However, both Ireland and Norway have equally talented envoys. In fact, Norway’s Mona Juul was elected last July to lead the UN’s central platform for development, reflecting that nation’s long-lasting commitment to foreign aid with which Canada has been playing catch-up for years. 

The Liberal government tends to employ a values-based foreign policy with a big bark, but not so much of a bite. For example, our support for ousting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro stands on a strong anti-authoritarian policy foundation, even as we continue to pursue healthy relationships with states like Cuba. 

While both countries have been accused of having authoritarian leaders, Canada’s business interests in Cuba facilitate continued dialogue. Meanwhile, the lack of concrete ties to Venezuela meant Mr. Trudeau could easily support the American-led push for regime change in that state without much pushback.

Considering these factors, key questions are raised about Canada’s seat: Is it really in Canada’s interest to win this seat? Is Canada even ready for it?

Being on the Security Council should not be seen as a prize, but as a responsibility

  • Each vote Canada would make would have to weigh supporting our progressive principles against irritating a U.S. administration with very different values. 
  • Mr. Trudeau would likely face more arm-twisting to fall in line behind the U.S. than either of our European competitors, particularly as it relates to the Trump administration’s polarizing support for Netanyahu’s government in Israel.  

Our tenuous geopolitical positioning would make us an easily-manipulated pawn in the chess game of UNSC voting between the U.S., Russia, and China. This situation would hinder many opportunities to promote the progressive ideals Mr. Trudeau claims are so needed on the council. 

If our true goal is to promote progressive values, then our weaker record of promoting these values in the past compared to our competitors proves that Canada is undeserving of this seat. 

Canada entered this race because our multilateralist status had collapsed through years of Mr. Harper’s mismanagement of foreign affairs. We need the seat not to help the world, but to restore a personal brand tarnished by Harper’s legacy and more recent memorable moments like Mr. Trudeau’s widely-derided India trip. 

  • If we lose this race, our core values will continue to be upheld on the council by Norway or Ireland. 

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg called the seat a “great responsibility” that places an enormous burden on the state that occupies it. In contrast, Mr. Trudeau sees it as a prize – far off, but not impossible to acquire and exploit for positive media optics. 

The bottom line: Gestures and platitudes between diplomats can only get us so far – when it comes time to mark the ballot, Canada’s subpar record on foreign aid may come back to haunt the Trudeau government. 

While progressivism will continue to be pushed globally with Ireland or Norway’s voice, the loss this would pose to the Liberal’s domestic image demonstrates that this race is more of a vanity project than a valiant effort.