Every year at the United Nations, member states vote on which countries will take over as part-time members of the Security Council. There are ten such members, each serving a two-year term with five countries replaced each year. Canada has served once every decade since the United Nations began in 1946 and it has never lost a bid in that time until this past Tuesday. Reasons abound for why Canada lost: partisanship, a late and poorly run bid and the notorious unpredictable nature of the election process. One of these factors is out of Canada's control but it is a shame that the other two played a role as well.
The Security Council serves, much like the rest of the UN, as a forum for discussion in hopes of dissolving hostilities between member states. Five countries (America, the United Kingdom, China, France and Russia) have veto power and are permanent members but the other ten serve to represent their regions and may vote on Security Council resolutions.
Despite many criticisms, the Council remains an important tool in international relations -- being elected by other member states shows that the country in question has respected policies and has contributed monetarily or in other ways such as peacekeeping. To lose the vote is a sign of diminished reputation among the international community. Because of requirements for certain regions to be represented (such as Africa or Latin America), Canada's primary challenger was Portugal, who ended up winning for the "Western European and Others" group. Portugal has played a smaller role in terms of funding peacekeeping (relative to GDP) and supplying peacekeepers than Canada has, so their success is a particular blow. Peacekeeping is an important rubric that UN member countries use to judge the contributions of other states. In part this is because it is easy to measure peacekeeper commitment. But it is also used as a way to gauge how much the country in question is devoted to the UN, which doesn't have its own standing military and so completely relies on members to contribute troops.
Peacekeeping has been an important part of Canadian identity since the term was conceived in 1956. Lester B. Pearson, then Canada's Minister for External Affairs, proposed the idea when Israel, France and Britain tried to stop Egypt from taking control of the Suez Canal in 1956, an act which later earned Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize. Until that point, the UN had mainly been involved in unarmed supervision. For over 30 years Canada was ranked among the highest contributors to peacekeeping operations in the world. Now, Canada is ranked 55 out of 108 countries. The reputation Canada built after the Second World War hasn't lasted.
If Canada desires to have influence internationally, it won't do to survive off the work of past generations. It is unnecessary to wait for a major crisis to contribute to international peace -- it is better to consistently prevent small crises and enforce lasting peace. Far from local questions such as arctic sovereignty, Canada has a role to play around the world improving the lives of others by lowering poverty, encouraging development and ensuring peace. Canadians ought to reaffirm these responsibilities, not because it will get Canada elected to the Security Council, but because it is a duty every peaceful affluent nation owes to the rest of the world.
There is no doubt that months of partisanship will follow from this event, as every party tries to place the blame on the other parties. The Conservative party has accused Liberal Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff of derailing Canada's bid by criticizing Canada in front of the international community. They claim that, while other countries had a united bid, Canada looked divided. No doubt a majority government could have made a more unified bid, but it is highly unlikely that the opposition leader -- even one with the international renown of Michael Ignatieff -- caused so many countries to vote for other countries. Prime Minister Stephen Harper knew the difficulties of getting Canada elected and still chose to make Security Council membership a major foreign policy goal. Harper ran a poor campaign at the UN and a worse one at home, convincing the Canadian public that Canada was a shoe-in.
Canada is having a foreign policy identity crisis. It needs to reconsider the role that the country ought to play and should reaffirm its commitment to overseas aid. International aid is one possibility but so is a recommitment to peacekeeping operations. Getting elected to the Security Council should be seen as the means to accomplish good in the world. As it stands, Canada wants all the benefits without enough work.
. . the Gauntlet Editorial Board