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John Ibbitson weighs the consequences of Canada's UN rejection

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and junior minister Peter Kent react after Canada was forced into a run-off vote against Portugal at United Nations headquarters in New York on Oct. 12, 2010.

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Canada failed in its bid to win a seat at the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, losing out to Germany and Portugal. In the second round of voting, Portugal was so far ahead that Canada withdrew in the face of certain defeat.

As The Globe's John Ibbitson and Joanna Slater write in Wednesday's paper, this "presents Stephen Harper with a choice: acknowledge this rebuke from the global community and rethink how his government presents Canada to the world, or ignore it and accept an outsider status unique in this country's history."

Observers chalk up Canada's loss to a several host of things, Mr. Ibbitson and Ms. Slater write, including the Conservative government's unflinching support for Israel, perceived indifference to Southeast Asia, reduction in the number of African nations receiving aid, foot-dragging in creating a carbon market and a diminished role within the UN.

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Globe parliamentary bureau chief John Ibbitson took your questions earlier.

Jill Mahoney: Hello, everyone. I'm Jill Mahoney, a reporter at The Globe. We'll get under way shortly.

In the meantime, please start submitting your questions.

Jill Mahoney: Thanks for joining us today, John. Let me start by asking for your thoughts on why Canada failed yesterday in its efforts to win a seat at the United Nations Security Council.

Jill Mahoney: Click here to read a piece by John and Joanna Slater on the vote.

John Ibbitson: We failed because of profile and values. Our profile diminished in the years of minority government, as domestic priorities came to the fore, and the Harper government's four-square support for Israel cost us among Muslim states.

Jill Mahoney: What do you make of the Conservatives placing the blame on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff for killing Canada's chances?

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Jill Mahoney: Click here to read a Globe editorial on the blame game.

John Ibbitson: Blaming Michael Ignatieff was foolish. It made the government look petulant, and it was clear it didn't contribute to Canada's rejection. That said, Mr. Ignatieff's comments were ill-advised. Partisanship should end at the border. Canada's foreign policy is to all intents and purposes bilateral. After all, what do the Conservatives and Liberals actually disagree about, when it comes to the country's role in the world?

Sophie: What will be the political fall out, if any, of loss of seat, as well as blame being put on Mr. Ignatieff?

John Ibbitson: Both Australia and India were rejected in votes in the 1990s, and they survived the pain. Canada will, too. But it means we won't be at the table during the debates over the future of Afghanistan and how to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions, both of which are very large issues in which Canada has strong interests.

Tulsi Regmi: What are your thoughts on how this seemingly humiliating defeat for the government will impact on voting intentions amongst the electorate?

John Ibbitson: I doubt it will have any real impact on the next vote. The people who already oppose this government are those most affronted by this affront. Mr. Harper lost their votes long ago. Think of it this way: if you wouldn't vote for Stephen Harper because he failed to land a seat for Canada at the security council, then he probably already lost your vote over the census controversy, or prorogation, or whatever. As for the base, they're probably cheering. They don't think much of the UN anyway.

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Shades of Grey: Mr. Ibbitson, I enjoy your informative columns. Has Mr. Harper spoken in public since withdrawing from the vote. Would it not have been appropriate and gracious to congratulate Portugal on winning the seat?

John Ibbitson: That's very good of you, Mr. or Ms. Grey. Mr Harper is making remarks at 4 p.m. on the 40th anniversary of Canada's recognition of China. We are hoping to ask him questions at that time. Doubtless, the security council vote will be at the top of reporters' minds.

Todd: Steven Harper spoke twice to campaign for votes. That Canada still lost should be viewed then as a personal failure for Harper. How will this play out?

John Ibbitson: Certainly the failure to land the seat despite a strong campaign will damage the Conservative brand, as it were. That said, this is not the sort of ongoing controversy that corrodes support for a government. I suspect that most readers and voters will take note of this embarrassment and move on. But then, I though it was "devilishly clever" of Mr. Harper to prorogue Parliament last December, as Liberals continually like to remind me.

Elgoog: Is it your understanding that the diplomats and govenment representatives thought that they had enough support going into the voting? Or are they really surprised?

John Ibbitson: There was real surprise. They thought they had the votes, though they knew it would be close. The government fell prey to a "Flora factor," named after Flora MacDonald, who got fewer votes in the 1976 Conservative leadership convention than there were people pledged to vote for her. Than and now, some pledged votes switched, especially on the second ballot. That happens when it's a secret ballot.

W.E.D.: I understand Canada's stance on foreign aid and support of Israel and America in their Middle East policy has upset a lot of folks, but do you see the vote for Portugal as an undeniable protest against Canada, or do we just have a high opinion of ourselves?

John Ibbitson: I don't see it so much as a protest against Canada as a signal that, at least at the UN, our country no longer has the profile it did. Partly that's because the Conservatives don't invest as much in the UN, partly it's because minority governments tend to concentrate on domestic policy. The sense of drift in Canada's role in the UN actually began under Paul Martin's minority government.

Colin: You make a strong argument that this will have little or no long-term impact on domestic politics. I'm curious to know whether you think there will be an impact on how the Conservative Government conducts its politics on the international stage. Thoughts?

John Ibbitson: Well it certainly won't encourage the federal government to expand its peacekeeping role. I suspect that our engagement in other forums, such as APEC and the G20, will continue to be robust, but that Ottawa will pay the UN even less attention as a result of this vote. The technical geopolitical term for this is picking up your ball and going home.

Fresh22: Canada seemed to feel it was entitled to the seat. Given its lukewarm treatment of the UN recently it seemed to only be really nice when it needed something - a seat at the SC. Do you think Canada's attitude had anything to do with the vote? In the end its a give-and-take diplomatic schmooze-fest so I don't believe foreign policy itself is the answer.

John Ibbitson: Maybe there was a feeling of entitlement, but consider: Canada was among the first nations to come to Haiti's rescue. Where was Portugal? We spilled blood and spent treasure year after year in Afghanistan. Where was Portugal? Sure we got our butts kicked by a country that out-campaigned us, and sure our stance on Israel hurt. But we also had a strong claim. Canadians have a right to feel a bit miffed by the vote.

CHenderson: Does the failure not show that Reform/Conservative values do not resonate internationally as well?I do not recognize our country any more. We used to stand for something now we reject most values which I thought we stood for as a country ie the Environment Peace Keeping, Brokerage for other nations. Poor old Lester Pearson must be turning in his grave.

John Ibbitson: And yet Canada negotiated a maternal health initiative embraced by other G8 nations. Our campaign to end stimulus and reduce deficits was accepted by the G20. Up until yesterday, the Conservatives were actually having a good year on the foreign policy front. As I said before, what aspect of Canada's foreign policy is not bipartisan?

Jill Mahoney: Here are two related questions about comments by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, which the Conservatives say helped torpedo Canada's bid:

hamlet2b: Why is the media actually analyzing the possibility of Ignatieff's comments having an effect, rather than calling a spade a spade? It lends credence to the Conservative's spin, which is patently ridiculous.

Jon Wang: Can you explain the possible damage by the comments from the Federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff when he says Canada doesn't deserve a seat? It looks to me that we have contributed so much to the international community and we certainly deserve a seat.

Jill Mahoney: Click here to read a piece by The Globe's Jane Taber on political spin.

John Ibbitson: No one at the Globe has been able to find an ambassador at the UN or a political analyst anywhere who thinks Mr. Ignatieff's comments had an impact. From what I have read and heard from other media outlets, the same applies. Most Liberals quietly agree that the Liberal Leader's comments were unhelpful. But they are not why Canada lost.

Jill Mahoney: I'll take this opportunity to post a few of your comments, before getting back to questions.

C Crawley: It was a vote for Portugal, not a protest or rebuke. The country more valued for its membership in the Security Council was chosen by the UN. Canada, for its choices over the past several years, no longer has the opportunity and respect it used to have.

Bingo: It would be interesting to discuss the impact if Canada merely ignored the corrept and inefficient UN - and indeed stoped making any payments to this body as irellevant and just gave it minimum attention

Gareth: Harper failed to get 2/3rds of the world to vote for him just the same as he failed to get 2/3rds of Canadians to vote for him. Is this really such a surprise? The man is a man of the minority at home and abroad, always was, always will be.

Guest: Why should we care about the security council? It failed to protect civilians in Rwanda, didn't stop a useless war in Iraq, and had no teeth when Israel attacked Lebanon, not to mention the nonsense that has become of Somalia and the Caucuses. Why do we want to be a part of it?

John Ibbitson: For better or worse--and it is often for worst--the Security Council still matters. Whether it is able to forge a united front on Iran, for example, could determine whether that country succeeds in its nuclear weapons program. If things collapse in North Korea, the Security Council will play a role. Yes, it is often ineffective, but it is better to be on it than not to be on it.

Zorn: Hello Mr. Ibbitson. Really liked your "Open & Shut..." book. Even in the reduced role Canada does far more at the world stage then Portugal. So it seems to me that the decision to block Canada is just politics as usual - third world countries using their collective voting power to influence the foreign policy of a G8 nation in their favour. Do you see public opinion in Canada turning against UN as a consequence of this rejection, or perhaps turning against our own foreign policy?

John Ibbitson: Public opinion is more likely to turn against the government than against the UN, to the extent public opinion is influenced at all. Of course, Europe was also instrumental in getting Portugal a seat on the council. Thanks for the kind words, Zorn. May I point out that Open and Shut makes a lovely Christmas gift?

Jill Mahoney: Here are two related questions:

Jay: I wonder if the perception of the Canadian People and perception of the Canadian Government are synonymous. Does a failure to get a seat mean that the world views Canadians any less favorably? Or just our current government?

Liz Jefferson: This government is an embarrassment at home and abroad. Is there a way to communicate to other countries some desperate message such as "I'm *not* with stupid."???

John Ibbitson: It is probably fair to say that conservative governments are viewed less favourably among United Nations members, especially in the Third World, than are liberal governments, regardless of the country. Conservative governments are viewed as more hawkish, stingier with foreign aid, apt to go on about human rights. That cost us, as it cost the Americans under the Bush regime and will cost the Brits as long as David Cameron is PM.

Guest: many have mentioned Canada's policy towards Israel as one area of concern to others. Can you explain this position?

John Ibbitson: Under Liberal governments, Canada pursued a balanced approach of supporting Israel while also advocating a two-state solution and providing aid to Palestinians and identifying with their plight. Paul Martin actually started the migration toward a more overtly pro-Israel position, cutting aid to the Palestinians on the grounds that Hamas and Hezbollah were deemed to be terrorist organizations. That has cost us support in the Middle East and the larger Muslim world.

Elgoog: What kind of link, if any, would you draw between the rejection at the UN and the diplomatic squabble with the UAE

John Ibbitson: I should qualify: Paul Martin started the shift, but the Conservatives have been much more emphatic about it.

John Ibbitson: There are unconfirmed rumours that the UAE, annoyed at Canada's refulsal to grant more landing rights for their airlines at Canadian airports, not only ordered Camp Mirage closed, but lobbied against Canada's getting a seat on the Security Council. But that is unconfirmed.

Guest: I'm disappointed to see so many comments taking this opportunity to bash the PM. Rather the question should be, what does Canada need to do to gain that seat? We already do so much, is it a realistic and attainable goal for us to have a seat?

Jill Mahoney: Click here to read about the UAE controversy.

John Ibbitson: It certainly was deemed a realistic and attainable goal. It just wasn't attained. Because other countries are lining up to make their own bids for future seats, it will be at least a decade before Canada can make another play for a Security Council seat.

Stephen Bailey: Claiming conservative preoccupation with minority governing as the cause of the seat loss seems easy. Do you think a liberal or NDP minority would have failed as well in securing the necessary votes?

John Ibbitson: It's a fair question. I can only say this: It was during Paul Martin's time as Liberal PM that the question "Where is Canada" first began to surface in international forums. I remember vividly the day when Pierre Pettigrew, as foreign minister, had to wait for PMO approval before he could fly to the Middle East. They were worried they might need him for a vote.

Cprender: Ok, it is a done deal. Whatever the reason or reasons, we did not get the seat. How should Canada respond? How can we improve our profile and electability (is that a word?) for the future. Or shoudl we?

John Ibbitson: Well as I said, it will be a decade before we get another chance. Increasing our role in UN missions abroad after we leave Afghanistan would be one good way to increase our profile at the UN, if that is indeed what we want to do.

Andrew D: Outside of direct influence on the Security Council, would that seat have helped Canada in other foreign initiatives, given them leverage or made other countries more likely to work with Canada, be it the UAE, or even the EU on things like trade agreements? Or is it a very detached position?

John Ibbitson: I don't think we want to blow this out of proportion. Having a seat on the security council would be a bonus, especially during that month when Canada would assume the rotating presidency of the council. But there are no real linkages with other forums, to the best of my knowledge.

Guest-N: Glad you are doing this forum. What levers does Canada have to exercise power internationally? We have some previous success and a reputation for being nice, but in terms of real power plays, do we really have anything to use?

John Ibbitson: Boots on the ground and money in the bank are the real levers. Canada earned valuable capital among our NATO allies for going into Kandahar. And our strong support for Haiti after the earthquake are much appreciated. You could argue that these matter more than a security council seat. Ironically, being in Afghanistan might actually have hurt us, among the many countries who see it as a foreing invasion of a sovereign country.

Alan: Should we not consider whether the UN is dysfunctional or not? It appears to me to be.

John Ibbitson: All international organizations exist within some degree of dysfunction. It's the price of international cooperation. But as Churchill said, it's better to jaw, jaw than to war, war.

Murray: The Security Council just approved extending ISAF's mission till Oct. 2011. Given that Harper is adamant about Canada leaving Afghanistan, it would have looked odd for us to be part of the Council recommending ISAF stay. Do you think that might be why our efforts to get a seat were a bit half-hearted?

John Ibbitson: Interesting perspective, but I don't think our efforts were half-hearted, though the Consevatives were late getting started. Mr. Harper addressed the Security Council twice, and a gaggle of ministers flew in out of New York, twisting arms. Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon worked particularly hard, if to no avail.

Jill Mahoney: John, before you go, is there anything you'd like to leave us with on this issue?

John Ibbitson: Pierre Trudeau liked to say that the universe is unfolding as it should. This is a setback for Canada, but all Canadians should still be proud of the example Canada sets for the world, and the contribution we make too it. A bit of flag-waving, I know, but there you are. Thanks, everyone.

Jill Mahoney: I'll post a few comments before we sign off.

BJB: NATO has acted militarily without UN authorization, and the UNSC seat did not have a veto anyways. Taken together, Canada's presence or abscence will have exactly zero net effect on our ability to conduct our foreign policy as we see fit.

Guest: It sounds like that in order to get a seat we need to: drop our support for Israel; give the UAE landing rights, give more money to African aide, join the EU; give the voting delegates vacation and then viola a security council seat.

Patrick: I agree with you Liz. @ Jon Wang. It has nothing to do with Michael, it has everything to do with Harper and his condescending ways. We do not like him in Canada. Do you think the world likes him... Instead of saying Michael said this and that. And that it's always a Liberal problem. This government needs to stand up and take responsibility for its actions. The blame game is getting very old now. Time for Harper to step aside and let someone else govern this great country. We need leadership, Harper is not the man or the party to bring it here.

Jill Mahoney: Thanks for participating, everyone! Sorry we couldn't get to more of your questions.

Keep following this and other developing political stories on our politics page.

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