Canada’s humiliating loss in its bid for a temporary United Nations Security Council seat is a stunning example of hubris. Despite the government’s sunny assurance in 2015 that “Canada is back” and that the world needs “more Canada,” the UN General Assembly said “no thanks” on the first ballot. We received fewer votes than the half-hearted effort by the Harper government delivered in 2010. This is especially embarrassing given that the Security Council has become moribund, paralyzed by sharp divisions among the five permanent members. The verdict confirms the futility of the costly effort and the misguided priority it was given. It calls for sombre reflection and a recalibration of government priorities, and not just on foreign policy.
The government should have known that the deck was stacked against us from the outset, partly because of our comparatively dismal track record on official development assistance and peacekeeping. When Canada was a world leader on both, we handily won a seat. Nowadays, we talk a better game on the world stage than we play. It should now be apparent that we are neither loved nor respected as much as we think we should be.
More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that, unlike Ireland and Norway, we cannot count on the automatic support of 30 countries from Europe, or any other region, for that matter. North America offers only two potential allies, leaving us shortchanged in the group in which we compete.
Given this handicap and the increasing irrelevance of the UN and many of its agencies, our first order of business should be to scale back our contributions, to better reflect our limited voice and scope of influence. The fact that Canada is the seventh-largest contributor to the UN budget makes no sense.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still clobbering Canada’s economy, the overwhelming priority for government must be to plan beyond immediate relief measures and establish a coherent economic strategy, one that restores both fiscal stability and our triple-A credit rating and bolsters growth in our most promising sectors — resources, notably energy, agriculture, transportation and technology. Specifically, we need economic policies that will help us regain our competitive advantage in North America.
On foreign policy, we should recognize that self-interest is the prevailing force. The Trump administration has no appetite for global leadership and grants little privilege to Canada or any of its erstwhile allies. We are in a dysfunctional multipolar world where the instinct to act unilaterally and compete for influence is more compelling than the desire to work together. The consequences of this will be unconventional and unpredictable. Canada should accept this reality and the threat it poses to our interests and values.
In a much more precarious world, Canada is obliged to manage its limited resources shrewdly and set priorities that will serve our national interests and strengthen our ability to control our own destiny. This is not a time for virtue signalling or posturing on the fads of the moment, as if we were governed by a university model parliament.
First, even though our relations with the United States are no longer “special” or “privileged,” our top priority must be to advance and defend our preferential access to the U.S. market. We must counter politically motivated efforts to reinstate tariffs on Canadian aluminum with retaliatory measures, if necessary, and by invoking the dispute settlement mechanism that was retained from the NAFTA. The U.S. needs six million tons of aluminum to support its own industry, especially as domestic supply amounts to a mere 800,000 tons. Tariffs against Canadian imports would hurt U.S. consumers and producers alike. But, in an election year, protectionists have the ear of many politicians.
We need to cut the Gordian knot that has paralyzed our relations with China and recognize that we are dealing with an authoritarian regime that does not operate under normal international rules. But we cannot blindly ignore our relationship with a country that is expected to be the world’s leading economic power later this century.
To the pious critics of a letter to the prime minister that I co-signed, along with 18 others, on the deadlock over the fate of the two Michaels and Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, I would ask: what do you propose? After all, there is a difference between being resolute and being pig-headed. Hand-wringing is not a solution, nor is planting your head in the sand. The moment that U.S. President Donald Trump declared that he would deal with the Meng case as part of his trade negotiation, thereby politicizing the arrest, the minister of justice should have acted to terminate the extradition. Better late than never. Besides, the U.S. and Israel have long records of hostage exchanges with nefarious regimes. Must Canada be more pristine?
We should stop dithering on national security and restore pride, focus and discipline in our Armed Forces. Moving toward the two per cent NATO obligation would be timely and would bolster our standing in Washington. Implementing a sensible plan on equipment purchases would ensure that Canada can play a realistic role in its own defence, notably in the Arctic, which is fast becoming a region of interest for several unfriendly global powers.
Canada also needs stronger cyberwarfare capabilities, in order to meet the threat posed by China and others. We also need to do more to make ourselves a world leader in artificial intelligence and other technologies, to strengthen our competitive advantage.
On climate change, we should work with others to re-engage America. For Canada to act without parallel commitments from the U.S. is tantamount to economic suicide. A major diplomatic initiative is also needed to attain more balanced and achievable commitments from the major emitters — the U.S., China and India — without whose resolve no meaningful progress is possible. New technologies are more likely to be more effective than a checker board of tax and cap-and-trade schemes.
Canada should act in concert with the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and others to reinvigorate selective multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization, which are essential to our future prosperity.
Canada’s foreign policy should be rooted in pragmatic assertions of Canadian values, especially those pertaining to human rights and democratic freedom. Concrete actions to advance and defend Canada’s own interests should be paramount, reflecting the confidence and maturity of a nation that’s fully conscious of its capabilities and mindful that it must operate in the world as it is and not as we might like it to be.
A career foreign service officer for more than 30 years, Derek H. Burney is a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. and chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.