Our place in the world

(Published in the Waterloo Record on October 14, 2010)

Perhaps Canada’s failed bid for a 2011 seat on the United Nations Security Council comes with a silver lining – one that carries hope that this failure will catalyze some deep soul searching and dialogue about our role in the world.

It’s not hard to imagine why members of the United Nations might question Canada’s right to a place on the Security Council.

Over the past several years we’ve taken a back seat, or a highly controversial one, on every large global issue:

Climate Change and the Environment – the importance of energy and resources to our economy notwithstanding, Canada’s stance as a barrier to progress on multilateral emissions reductions targets has tarnished our image as the world’s social conscious. As environmentalist George Monbiot noted in late 2009, “The climate change performance index, which assesses the efforts of the world’s 60 richest nations ranks Saudi Arabia 60th. Canada came 59th.” Enough said.

Standing still while the world, especially the European and Asian worlds, move ahead to ensure their future economic and environmental sustainability, leaves Canada’s position vis-à-vis the environment destructive both domestically and internationally. It became clear at the Copenhagen Summit that Canada is happy to be a follower to US strategies regarding the environment, not a leader.

International development assistance – In 2009, Canadian taxpayers contributed approximately $5-billion towards international assistance programs, a generous sum. However in relative terms, Canada’s foreign-aid spending amounts to just 0.3 per cent of gross national income, placing it amongst the bottom half of OECD donors, behind thirteen more generous, though no more prosperous, European countries.

International peacekeeping – Our significant and brave contributions to the NATO mission in Afghanistan aside, we now contribute only 157 police officers and 64 military personnel to UN peacekeeping operations around the world (out of a total UN force of 100,000). While Canada has maintained a large financial contribution to the UN, funding the bureaucracy while avoiding the personnel risks of serving in the Congo, the Sudan or elsewhere defies our image as a protector of human rights.

And finally, and most controversially, Canada’s position on Israeli / Palestinian matters must find a balance between a desire to support a staunch ally and the security of its civilians with the need to protect the rights and sovereignty of Palestinians. This, as history attests, is evidently no easy task. The pro-Israel Harper government however has tried. In March 2010, it surprised many by chiding Israel for its continued construction of “illegal settlements” in the West Bank, a move welcomed as a much needed dose of realism. However, recent talks to expand Canada’s existing free-trade agreement with Israel despite the latter’s continued push for settlement expansion makes one question the depth of concern held by the Canadian Federal government towards a lasting resolution that guarantees peace, security and economic and social rights for citizens on both sides.

In short, Canada’s foreign policy, and the image held by others of Canada as the world’s social conscious, has lost its way amidst the opaque political machinery of Ottawa. And while there’s no doubt that the insecurity inherent in a minority government that incents short-term decisions is partially to blame, it’s not our job, as citizens, to sit back and acquiesce to a government that relegates “what’s right” to second place.

Thus while there’s likely truth to the belief that politics propelled Portugal into the Security Council, it speaks as much, if not more, to the damning foreign policy of our government and its retrenchment from the international scene before it. If we’re content to let global affairs be shaped by others, and our interests represented by our powerful neighbours to the South and over the pole, so be it. However, if we still believe in the ethos of Canada as a purveyor of influence, morals and global ethics then it’s about time we started to act like it again.