With the glory days of Pearson’s internationalist foreign policy behind us, Canada needs a new brand.
On Oct. 12, 1957, the Nobel Committee announced that Lester Pearson would be awarded the Peace Prize for his role in addressing the Suez Crisis. Fifty-three years later to the day, Canada lost out to Portugal, a small, former colonial power in deep financial trouble, in its bid for election to the United Nations Security Council.
To my mind, that irony and those bookends provide compelling testament to the fact that Canada’s place in the world has a come a long way in half a century. Wherever this country is now, it is certainly not where we were then.
Most of the reports and op-eds seeking to explain Canada’s historic failure have interpreted the outcome as some kind of global referendum on the foreign policy of the Harper government. In particular, pundits have cited:
- the shift from multilateral peacekeeping operations to aggressive counterinsurgency in Afghanistan;
- the repudiation of the Kyoto accords and regression on climate change;
- the tilt towards Israel on issues of Middle East peace and security;
- the pull-back from Africa and reduction in the number of aid recipients;
- the inattention to the management of key bilateral relationships with China and India;
- and the disdain for the UN as an international organization.
International policy decisions do have consequences, and it may well be that such factors contributed to Canada’s inability to generate the necessary support. But there were undoubtedly other forces at work. Several commentators, for instance, have made reference to the government’s indecision on and late entry into the race. Others have focused on the way in which Security Council elections are conducted in the General Assembly and especially on the tendency towards bloc voting. These elements, too, may have played a role.
Of at least equal importance, however, must be current state of Canadian diplomacy. Diplomatic performance is in large part a function of, and is conditioned by, the investment of economic and political resources. In recent years, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) has faced a debilitating budgetary squeeze , and the department has been sidelined in the process of international policy decision-making. The practice of public diplomacy , which for a country like Canada is an ace in the hole vis-à-vis the competition, has been made all but impossible as a consequence of the unprecedented centralization of and control over communications. Absent sufficient resources and the fundamental prerequisites of confidence, trust, and respect, employee burnout and organizational rust-out become near inevitable.
It stands to reason that a foreign ministry whose influence has been marginalized and whose institutional capacity has been relentlessly run down is unlikely to be able to perform at, or even near, optimal effectiveness. When it comes to managing a complex and difficult task such as the campaign to secure election to the Security Council, this could really hurt.
I suspect that it did.
Policy? Capacity? Leadership? Any way you cut it, this is a signal moment for Canada, and a full assessment will take time and require concerted analytical attention. In that respect, it is unfortunate that the dramatic resolution of the Chilean mining disaster came on the same day as the UN elections. In Canada, that human interest mega-tale immediately bumped the Security Council story from top place in the news cycle on Oct. 12. As coverage this week of the rescue’s aftermath has continued to dominate the media, attention to the implications for Canada of its repudiated candidacy has waned. That’s too bad, because there remains much to consider and reflect upon.
It seems to me that a larger and longer-term consequence of the defeat may reside in the impact on Canada’s image and reputation, expressed in terms of both how others see us and how we see ourselves.
This country has been coasting for years on a set of internationalist credentials – generous aid donor, committed peacekeeper, helpful fixer, and honest broker – that date from Pearson’s day but that can no longer be sustained. However familiar and comfortable these attributes are, for over a decade it has been clear that they are now inaccurate. And the message from the floor of the General Assembly is that the world is no longer buying.
The emperor not only has no clothes, but he has also been undressed in public.
That humiliation, along with the exposure of a profound credibility gap, was perhaps as shocking as the loss itself.
At minimum, it will no longer be possible – and will certainly not be advisable – for Canada to fall back onto the old verities associated with Pearsonian internationalism. That tradition of engaged, enlightened self-interest was a significant part of the Canadian brand. Yet as we moved from the Cold War era into the globalization age, the internationalist brand did not evolve in tandem with our changing role and place in the world.
It is likely to take considerably more effort to address that disconnect than it will to get over the Security Council failure.