Why Canada failed to secure a rotating seat on the Security Council?

Diplomacy & international actors

Canada recently failed to win a temporary seat on the Security Council. What overall diplomatic and policy lessons can be learned from this defeat, notably in the light of the Swiss candidacy for the UN Security Council for the period from 2023 to 2024?

Shortly after he came to power in 2015, Justin Trudeau made a priority of Canada’s return to the Security Council, five years after the country had lost the race for the first time in 70 years. The Trudeau government was convinced that winning back this seat would represent the ultimate accolade of its foreign policy. Canada’s unsuccessful attempt at winning a rotating seat on the Council on June 17th, after more than four years of intense campaigning both behind the scenes and on the public front lines, sounded the death knell of these hopes. 

The Liberals, Trudeau’s party, have always nurtured their internationalist legacy, hence the importance placed on re-entering the Security Council. Under their leadership, and as a key founding member of NATO, the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions, Canada played a major role in building the post-war international architecture. By sending troops to Suez in 1957 in order to keep the fragile peace between Egypt and Israel, Canada also became the poster child of peacekeeping missions. 

Yet, for all the talk on the importance of the UN and the Security Council for Canada’s standing in the world, Trudeau ominously failed to gain back a seat at the table, finishing a distant third behind Ireland and Norway. The most straightforward way for Canada to gain back its tarnished reputation, based on its own historical record, was to prioritise the deployment of more peacekeeping troops where needed, and to boost its foreign aid budget. A new reality nonetheless rapidly caught up with the Canadian government; peacekeeping operations are no longer what they were during the Cold War, essentially a matter of preserving a ceasefire line agreed upon by States Parties. Today’s missions are increasingly a question of peace-making, with the inherent dangers this new reality implies.

With regard to peacekeeping, there was no shortage of opportunities. As early of 2014, Canada was called upon by the French to intervene in Mali, where Ottawa was in charge of many airlifted operations to support French troops. It finally agreed to send 25 peacekeepers in 2018, to this day, the whole of its foreign contingent. Yet, as early as 2016, Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s Minister of Defence, toured Africa, where he identified a series of potential countries in which to intervene, notably Congo, Tanzania and Uganda. After years of reflection, Ottawa nonetheless decided that deploying troops would carry too great of a risk, all the more so that the Canadian public has a low tolerance threshold for military losses. Losing this Security Council race served as a bumpy return to earth; the international community punished Canada for acting as a dilettante in foreign affairs, unlike Ireland and Norway, which both have boots on the ground in dangerous theatres, where human losses are a constant possibility.

Canada was also punished for its anaemic foreign aid budget, which, at 0.27% of GDP, falls way short of the UN’s stated objective of 0.7%. It is also to contrast with Norway’s 1% and Ireland’s 0.7%. Furthermore, Canada’s largely uncritical stance on Israel’s annexation of West Bank territories, also played into this diplomatic defeat. There was yet a time, mostly under Trudeau’s own father, when Ottawa was perceived, by most Parties, as an honest broker in the Middle East. Finally, Ottawa’s relation with Beijing reached an all-time low since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1970, after the Canadian authorities arrested Huawei’s CFO in Vancouver in 2018, on suspicion of violating US sanctions against Iran. China has ever since retaliated. Given Beijing’s clout in the Global South, it is not unlikely that this thwarted Canada’s ambitions. If anything, this diplomatic imbroglio with China and reputational loss in the Middle East illustrate how difficult it has become for Canada to fundamentally distance itself from the US, a country that is growing more unpopular by the day.

In the end, Canada should engage in soul searching. For the Laurentian elite, the defeat ten years ago was easy to explain; a retrograde government, inimical towards the Global South and too close to Israel had been rejected by the international community. It therefore sufficed to present a more open attitude to the world for Canada to gain back its full-fledged place in the community of nations. The defeat, last week, was as a cold shower. Canada is now embodied by a much friendlier face, it positively contrasts with its southern neighbour, and has embraced a progressive discourse. Yet, this was not enough to convince others that it can still play a meaningful role on the international scene. Its lack of material commitment to peace and stability, as well as its thorny relations with many countries outside of Europe, have undermined its diplomatic efforts to win back the hearts and minds.


Image free of rights, retrieved from: https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/news-releases/2016/03/16/prime-minister-announces-canadas-bid-non-permanent-seat-united