At stake was two years of unparalleled diplomatic influence and exclusive access to top powers. But poor political judgment clouded our campaign.

Canada’s quest for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council has ended with a thud.

The Security Council sits at the centre of the global governance system that has been tasked with coordinating and managing state behaviour since the Second World War. It is the only UN body whose rulings can empower the collective use of force to prevent international aggression. Five permanent members – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia – hold a veto power over all council decisions, but their ability to prevent the organization from functioning effectively has not deterred the rest of the international community from trying to join them.

Competition to serve a two-year term on the council as one of its 10 non-permanent members can be fierce. Prospective candidates (the remaining 188 members of the UN) are divided into five electoral cohorts. Canada is one of 28 countries in the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). WEOG is allocated two council seats that are contested together on a biennial basis.

Since the 1970s, members have habitually announced their Security Council candidacies as much as a decade in advance to scare off competition. Contested elections are avoided because they are both unpredictable and diplomatically costly. States vote via secret ballot, and many are known to promise their vote to one candidate in exchange for a diplomatic concession (for example, an increase in international assistance) and then betray them at the ballot box. Others simply pledge support to all three candidates and rely on the personal preferences of their UN ambassador to make the final decision.

When the election begins, each state is allotted two votes. To be elected, countries must obtain support from two-thirds of the UN membership (this year, that meant 128 votes). If only one country receives two-thirds support in the first round, subsequent rounds are held to select a second representative from the remaining competitors.

On Wednesday, Canada competed against two perennial UN favourites. Norway is one of the world’s most generous contributors to international assistance. Ireland is one of the West’s most active peacekeepers.

The first round of balloting saw Norway receive 130 votes, Ireland 128, and Canada just 108.

Critics are already using the defeat to depict Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 claim that Canada “is back” on the world stage as an empty slogan. Shortly before the ballot results were known, perhaps in anticipation of such criticism should Canada’s bid be unsuccessful, Trudeau issued a pre-emptive response: a seat on the council was never meant to be an end unto itself; rather, it is merely another international venue through which to make Canada’s voice heard.

Neither claim is entirely convincing.

The results of the election are therefore neither a wholesale condemnation of the current Canadian approach to foreign policy nor something that should easily be brushed off. The most plausible explanation for Canada’s loss has little to do with foreign policy; rather, Ottawa entered an incredibly competitive election far too late.

Ireland announced its bid in 2005. Norway put its name forward two years later. Immediately, both countries began negotiating a series of vote swaps to secure the support of as many of the remaining 191 members of the international community as they could and warn off any potential competition. By the time Trudeau announced Canada’s bid in 2016, a number of countries had already promised their votes elsewhere.

Consider New Zealand, for example.

Traditionally, New Zealand has not only voted for Canada in Security Council elections, but as a member of the Canada-Australia-New Zealand electoral sub-group, it has also withheld its second vote (what experts call “voting short”), thereby making it more difficult for Canadian opponents to reach the two-thirds threshold.

The “others” among the Western European and Others Group stick together.

This time, however, Wellington had already promised one of its two votes to Ireland. (Without that vote, Ireland would not have reached the threshold, and we would have seen a second round of balloting.)

The Canadian government’s decision to enter this election in 2016 ran counter to the advice of Global Affairs Canada. The department recognized the quality of its potential opponents and was concerned about the low likelihood of winning a campaign that began so late. But Ottawa wanted a victory while the Liberals are still in power, and bidding for the next uncontested WEOG seat would mean waiting until the election of 2028.

Moreover, the Canadian campaign was sidetracked for over two years by the government’s all-out effort to preserve NAFTA. Because Canada’s then-foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, was (justifiably) preoccupied with managing relations with Washington, she couldn’t provide the campaign team with the political leadership that might have bolstered its chances.

Trudeau was similarly less available than officials from Global Affairs Canada might have hoped for.

As a result, the campaign also lacked a clear narrative until recently: after the 2019 election and the appointment of a new foreign minister, and in response to the global pandemic, the campaign team embraced an identity as a global convener.

Given how relatively little the Trudeau government has invested in international policy, it is hard to say that Ottawa has rediscovered its value proposition.

At a time when the Great Powers failed repeatedly to coordinate a global response to a disintegrating world order, Ottawa leveraged Canada’s membership in just about every international organization of importance to mobilize large groups of like-minded countries in pursuit of objectives that are all consistent with the national interest: economic security, a multilateral response to COVID-19, and a revitalization of the World Trade Organization.

Given how relatively little the Trudeau government has invested in international policy, it is hard to say that Ottawa has rediscovered its value proposition: that Canada is a country just large enough to effect change in the world order so long as it mobilizes support behind its initiatives or builds upon the leadership of others. Nonetheless, if you look carefully, you might begin to recognize the pattern of behaviour that made the governments of Louis St-Laurent (1948-1957) and Brian Mulroney (1984-1993) so highly regarded abroad.

It is therefore disappointing that in the press conference after Canada’s defeat, François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Foreign Affairs, echoed Trudeau’s stance that a seat on the council is just one of many venues that might enable the government to advance Canadian interests.

Security Council membership is much more than that.

It provides unlimited access to senior representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia for two uninterrupted years, enabling the development of potentially critical interpersonal relationships.

Whether Ottawa might have translated such access into leverage to secure the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from China is unclear, but we can be certain that it would have been easier to arrange a meeting with the relevant Chinese officials as a Security Council member than it will be from the outside.

With such access comes relevance. The 10 elected council members can open diplomatic doors that 178 other UN member-states cannot. As a result, for two years, elected members have typically found themselves among the most popular countries in the world. Savvy ones have leveraged that popularity to advance their own interests.

In sum, Canada’s electoral defeat reflects a failure of political judgment more than it does a failure of foreign policy.

There is a reason that no previous Canadian government has ever announced Ottawa’s candidature in an already contested Security Council election. Such competitions empower countries from outside of the electoral group with interests inimical to Canada to play Western states off one another in exchange for their unverifiable promises of support.

The ultimate solution is for WEOG to establish an evolving slate of Security Council candidates based on, in the words of the UN Charter, “the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization.”

Germany should serve regularly; the micro-republic of San Marino not so often. Such an approach is hardly revolutionary – indeed, it is used by some of the other groups already and was nearly adopted by WEOG a decade ago.

Regrettably, Canada’s recent defeat would make advocacy of WEOG reform look like sour grapes.

For now, then, Ottawa should eat some humble pie, position itself for a bid for one of the next uncontested seats (in the early 2030s), and aim to build cross-partisan consensus on a realistic way ahead for Canada in the world.

Photo: A United Nations Security Council meeting in New York in April 2019. Shutterstock.com, by lev radin