Familiar stories came out of New York over the past two weeks as the global community assembled for the annual UN General Assembly debates. John Baird’s speech on September 30, while appalling in style and policy content, was free of the gratuitous anti-UN rhetoric of previous efforts. It followed a quick visit to the city by the Prime Minister, with meetings on September 25 which focused on his maternal health initiative. The government’s communications materials, downplaying the UN aspects, lent the impression that he had snubbed the organization while choosing to meet with the rich and famous in another part of town. Commentators therefore drew the appropriate conclusions, both for and against the government, while focusing on Harper’s dislike of the UN and multilateralism in general.

Beneath this pile of old news is a real issue which merits more than cursory exploration. It starts by looking at the few international ideas which the Harper government has supported over the past six years and more: promotion of democracy, religious freedom, gay rights and a ‘dignity agenda’, now being cobbled together under the responsibility of John Baird; and the Prime Minister’s own initiative to promote maternal health, launched at the Canadian G8 in Huntsville in 2010.

 

Simply put, in the small Canada which Harper is offering Canadians, foreign policy is strictly a communications issue.

Those are useful ideas, albeit under-publicized for unexplained reasons, possibly because they are perfectly consistent with Liberal speeches on the same themes and with the internationalist views of Brian Mulroney’s Tories. This package of initiatives falls clearly within the ‘liberal internationalist’ school of thought which had been the dominant vein of Canadian foreign policy thinking since the Second World War, by both governing parties, prior to the election of a Harper majority.

If Canada were to articulate a strategy for implementing these goals, it would need to be anchored in one basic reality: multilateral cooperation. The reason is simple: no major global objective, like securing greater respect for human rights or improving maternal health care, can be achieved by one country alone, not even by a small coalition of powerful states like the G7, which has no institutional base. The drive to multilateral cooperation, in turn, leads inevitably to the United Nations system, as well as to a host of smaller regional organizations.

No serious state goes down the UN route without reservations. The organization has strengths but suffers from serious deficiencies. Parts of the UN system don’t work because the major powers want it that way. The Secretary General has no power of initiative, even in crisis situations, and the Security Council is hobbled by a veto owned by the Permanent Five. Far from being a bloated organization, it’s smaller in numbers and budget than the New York police force, and is challenged on all sides by major powers who don’t want to pay the bills for global governance. As for the General Assembly, where every member state has a vote, it has the nasty habit of passing resolutions the Harper government doesn’t like.

But international cooperation is absolutely essential in doing the heavy lifting on a range of global initiatives. Therefore, like it or not, on many issues all roads lead to New York, Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi or other UN centres, where global and regional institutions are housed. Those international institutions, with their bevy of acronyms—UNDP, WHO, FAO, WFP, UNHCR etc.—have three competitive advantages over any single state: the legitimacy of the global community; power to mobilize donor contributions; and huge program delivery capabilities, mainly through a vast network of non-governmental implementing agencies. UN field offices in precisely those locations where programs need to be delivered are major points of contact for many Canadian diplomats.

Given the centrality of multilateral cooperation in strategic terms, it’s worth asking why the Harper government dumps on the United Nations with regularity and ignores most requests for cooperation.  There are possibly three reasons.  First, the government has no strategy for achieving most of its own initiatives. It has opinions and views, many based on outdated ideas or conspiracy theories, rooted in Harper’s ‘small Canada’ approach to governance. But it lacks a coherent strategy to work towards these international goals, and it resists the logic of arguments which might drag it in directions it intuitively despises.

Second, the Harper government has never recognized that ‘playing the multilateral game’ (by helping others with their problems while soliciting assistance for Canadian initiatives) is the way the world works. Thus, Harper trashes the UN while talking up his maternal health initiative with the UN Secretary General and his operational partner, the head of the World Health Organization—seemingly unaware that others can appreciate the irony. Is it any wonder that Canada’s initiatives receive such faint praise and desultory support?

But the third reason is perhaps the most compelling.  While Harper finds some aspects of governing Canada worthy of effort—like cutting the federal budget or building a pipeline for Alberta oil—foreign policy is not one of them. Thus, over time, and in the absence of real thought, Canadian foreign policy has become a sad pastiche of U.S. positions on Syria or Israeli positions on Iran, combined with using the Canadian Forces abroad when it yields good headlines for short periods of time. Our recent record on aid and peace building has left us global bystanders, offering all assistance short of real help. And we’ve become isolated on many issues in New York, to the perplexity of traditional friends.

Simply put, in the small Canada which Harper is offering Canadians, foreign policy is strictly a communications issue. It’s not sufficiently important to try to get the substance right.

Unfortunately, Baird’s UN speech exposed the weaknesses of Harper’s foreign policy. It was the annual opportunity to showcase Canadian priorities and the occasion to invite the cooperation of others. Instead, it was rhetoric without strategy, sound bites without substance. And it left most of its audience wondering when the real Canada will return to its rightful place in the world.

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