On April 25, 1945, the delegations of 50 states gath- ered at San Francisco to attend the ”œUnited Nations Conference on International Organization.” The 282 official delegates ”” 7 of them Canadians ”” were accompanied by 1,444 advisers and sup- port staff. Collectively, they were served by an internation- al secretariat of 1,058. On average they generated documents totalling a half-million pages per day. From the sidelines, their politics were interpreted by a swarm of 2,636 radio and newspaper reporters. And their primary mission was to agree on a constitution ”” a charter ”” for a new organization to succeed the ill-fated League of Nations, which had been established for collective security purposes, albeit with little effect, in the wake of World War One.
The draft with which the delegates had to work had been agreed upon by four great powers ”” the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China ”” in a meeting at Dumbarton Oaks (a private estate in Washington) in August 1944. In its original form, it had emanated largely from the State Department, although the ensuing four- power negotiations had resulted in a number of changes, many of them on the vigorous insistence of the USSR. Not surprisingly, given its authors, the final version of the great- power draft gave pride of place in the new organization to the most powerful states, and it was therefore received by those of more modest capacity with something less than total enthusiasm. By the time the San Francisco conference ended on June 26, roughly 1,200 amendments to the Dumbarton Oaks proposal had been advanced for discussion. More than a few of them had originated with Canadians, or were strongly supported by them.
Canada’s diplomatic interests, needless to say, were reflected in its constitutional preferences, as well as in the arguments that were used to defend them. Constitutions amount, after all, to sets of rules for the making of decisions, and in politics ”” nation- al and international alike ”” the stakes, as much for the long term as the short, can be very high. It follows that constituent assemblies are serious business, and the San Francisco con- ference was a constituent assembly. Hence, the Canadian response to it can tell us a great deal about the underlying foundations of Canada’s post-war foreign policy.
Perhaps that is why the story has been told so often. But the recent rhet- oric of Canadian policy-makers, with its frequent emphasis on ”œvalues” as the most important driver of Canada’s behaviour abroad, suggests that we need to be reminded, yet again, of the fundamental premises of Canadian behaviour.
In the Department of External Affairs, planning for the post-war international order began as early as 1943. A few in the department ”” Escott Reid notably ”” thought that Canada might usefully propose a grand design of its own, but those of a more hard-headed disposition, typi- fied best by Hume Wrong, knew from the beginning that this would be a futile undertaking. The grand designs would be concocted by the great pow- ers. The smaller powers would have to content themselves with wary vigi- lance and forceful reaction. In a for- eign service schooled in the traditional style and the humanities disciplines (especially history, philosophy, litera- ture, and the classics), a conception of international politics as the ”œart of the possible” was the dominant view. It encouraged a focus on cultivating room for manoeuvre within the con- straints imposed by the prevailing dis- tribution of international power and by the political realities that flowed from it. What objectives were reason- able? What could Canada hope to get away with? These were the operational questions. In probing for the answers, there was a need, certainly, to push, to pull, and to stretch, but in the end there would be no point in allowing the reach to exceed the grasp.
In reflecting on their mandate, the planners in Ottawa had immediately before them a clear example of what they wanted most to avoid. World War Two was still in train. But it was being run on the allied side by the ”œBig Three” ”” the United States, the United Kingdom, and the USSR. The assess- ment of the prime minister, Mackenzie King, was that this was the way it had to be. The big decisions would be made by the big battalions. His judg- ment may have been fortified by a sense of relief. He had no hope of influencing outcomes in any case, and keeping clear of the top-level policy- making meant he could avoid being blamed if things went badly wrong. But relieved or not, he was happy enough at wartime conferences in Quebec City and elsewhere to make no demand for a personal seat at the table. Away from it, he would settle instead for some politically convenient ”œphoto-ops.”
If the dominance of the great powers was tolerable in a time of glob- al war, however, it would hardly do in a time of peace, when a more inclusive politics would be much better suited to the needs of the lesser states. In the Canadian view, neither the Big Three, nor the Big Four, nor even the Big Five (with a liberated France added to the list) should be allowed to assume that they were free to run the post-war order as they wished. This was the 20th century, not the 19th.
As the Dumbarton Oaks draft was later to indi- cate, however, the ”œconcert system” approach to the management of world affairs appeared to be very much a part of what the great powers had in mind. After all, they had control of the most substan- tial agglomerations of the resources of statecraft. It followed that they would carry most of the peace and security burden. They were entitled in conse- quence to have the most say over what the institutions of the post-war order would do ”” or, and often more impor- tantly, would not do. They would, for example, have permanent seats on the Security Council. Others would come and go. And they would each have a veto over the council’s decisions. Others would not.
To this evolution in great-power thinking, about which the Canadians were kept particularly well-informed by the British, there was at the con- ceptual level ”” the level of principle ”” an ingenious Ottawa response. The Canadians bought easily enough into the great power notion that the new collective security organization and its more prosaic off-shoots (the Specialized Agencies, including the World Health Organization [WHO], the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], the International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO], the International Labour Organization [ILO], and a small but growing battery of others) ought to have institutions that would allocate decision-making responsibility in accordance with the real distribution of power. If they did otherwise, they would not be viable. For starters, the great powers might then pick up their marbles and go home ”” in which case the entire collective security enterprise would have been lost. Given the complexities of interna- tional politics, the new United Nations would have little enough chance of succeeding as it was, with- out its being further crippled by so fundamental a structural flaw.
The Canadians did try hard, how- ever, to modify the way in which the great power notion would be applied. The conceptual apparatus upon which they founded their effort was composed of two principal ingredi- ents. The first and most fundamental was embodied in the so-called ”œfunc- tional principle.” It held, in effect, that the role assigned to any given state in the making of decisions ought to reflect the degree and intensity of its interest in the matters at issue, on the one hand, and the significance of the assets it could bring to bear in responding to them, on the other. The ingenuity of the argument lay in its implication that the hierarchy of power, and hence the entitlement to institutional positions of influence, might vary from one issue-area to the next. However Canada’s place in the international system might be ranked by reference to the classical measure of military capacity, by other measures it could eas- ily be regarded as a great power in its own right. This was clear- ly the case in the production of food, for example, or in the development of civil aviation, or in medical research and the delivery of sophisticated health care services, or in the cultivation of atomic energy. Bread baskets ought to be espe- cially prominent in the FAO. The headquarters of ICAO might reasonably be located in Montreal.
The ”œfunctional principle” was complemented by the second conceptual ingredient of the Canadian position ”” namely the concept of the ”œmiddle power.” This was espe- cially relevant to the exercise of the UN’s primary role as an instrument for the mainte- nance of international peace and security. The challenge posed by the functional principle to the basic premise of the argument for great power supremacy lay in its asser- tion that the ingredients of power itself varied with the issue in play. The challenge posed by the notion of the middle power came from its insistence that the international community was composed, not of two classes of states (great powers and all the rest), but three (great powers, middle powers, and all the rest). The middle power category might be a trifle fuzzy at the edges, and there could easily be quarrels over who was in and who was out. But it was hard to deny ”” even by reference to the classical test of military might ”” that there was a discernible gap between the capabilities of countries like Canada on the one hand, and countries like Haiti or Iceland on the other. With the Axis defeated and the Europeans broadly, if temporarily, incapacitated by the devastations of war, some observers in 1945 ranked Canada fourth in the international hierarchy. It might be true that the great powers would end up carrying most of the security freight, but pow- ers on the next rung down might have to move a lot of it, too. And on that next rung down, Canada was a leading player. Its extraordinary contribution to the conduct of the war ”” as much economic as military ”” was proof of the strength of its currency. The con- clusion was obvious: if the extraordi- nary capacities of the great powers entitled them to extraordinary privi- leges in the new institutional apparatus, the not insubstantial capacities of the middle powers warranted their having a few special privileges, too. The principle was the same. Only the application was different.
It is important to notice here that this had little to do in itself with poli- cy substance. It was a matter of posi- tional politics ”” of establishing an entitlement to greater opportunities for the exercise of influence. How the influence would actually be used was not addressed. It remained to be seen. In the meantime, what really mattered was the need on the one hand to trim the presumptions and the privi- leges of the great powers (even if the political realities meant that this could be done only at the margins), and on the other to head off the more legalistic organizational principle reflect- ed in the doctrine of state equality (which for obvious reasons enjoyed a certain popu- larity among some of the small- er players).
There is neither the need nor the space here to address in great detail the specific measures that the Canadians were led ”” by their assessment of the possible and their analy- sis of their own interest in the face of it ”” to advocate. A few illustrations will suffice to establish the general pattern.
For this purpose, it is instructive to begin with the election of non-permanent mem- bers to the Security Council. During the San Francisco discussions, various attacks were made on the notion that the great powers alone should have permanent seats. The Netherlands, for example, thought that the middle powers should have permanent seats, too. India ”” not surprisingly ”” made the argument that in the election of non-permanent members, special attention should be paid to a combi- nation of population and economic capacity. Some of the Latin Americans, supported by Egypt and the Philippines, argued for a principle of regional distribution. The Canadian position, however ”” sup- ported by Australia, and with backing from France, among others ”” was that preference should be given to countries with a demonstrated will- ingness and capacity to contribute to the fulfillment of the UN’s purposes. The upshot was a compromise amendment (suggested by the British) that accommodated both the Canadian and regional criteria. Incorporated in article 23 of the Charter, it provided that in the elec- tion (by the General Assembly) of non-permanent members, ”œdue regard” would be ”œspecially paid in the first instance to the contribution of members of the Organization toward the maintenance of interna- tional peace and security and toward the other purposes of the Organization, and also to equitable geographic distribution.” In practice, the insertion later of the geographical criterion had a more significant impact, but both the functional prin- ciple and the middle power aspiration are clearly evident in the first half of the amendment. If Canada had been more effective, it would have been on the Council more often.
Similar Canadian preoccupations ”” this time fortified by a domestic politics rooted in the unhappy experi- ence with conscription ”” centred on a provision that ultimately emerged in chapter VII of the Charter as article 44. Chapter VII contains the organization’s core ”œcollective security” pro- visions, and it effectively empowers the Security Council to call on the UN’s members to take various actions in response to aggression, including the mobilization of military force. The members are obligated to respond, in accordance with negotiat- ed agreements. With strong backing from the Netherlands and others, however, the Canadians were anxious to ensure that they would not be drawn into a collective security engagement without having an opportunity to participate in the making of the decisions that would lead to the active deployment of their forces. After a series of complex nego- tiations ”” and the inevitable compro- mises ”” their requirements were at least partly met by wording to the effect that before the Security Council called on ”œa Member not represented on it to provide armed forces,” it would provide the member with an opportunity ”œto participate in the decisions…concerning [their] employ- ment.” The provision ensured that potential contributors of military contingents ”” and the middle powers were likely to be prominent among them ”” would at least be consulted by the council before being called to active duty.
The thorny question of the veto granted in the Dumbarton Oaks proposals to each of the Security Council’s permanent members was not surprisingly the object of considerable sound and fury at the San Francisco meeting. It had been controversial enough even among the Big Four, with the Soviets and Americans insisting on the broadest application, and the British attitude being slightly more relaxed. In the San Francisco phase, some delegations thought the veto ought to be abandoned entirely, while others (like the ebullient Australians) advocated very aggressive restrictions on its use. The Canadians, concluding in their pragmatic style that the veto power was the sine qua non of great power participa- tion, decided instead to opt for minor revisions. Hence they lent their support in particular to a successful amendment providing that the veto could not apply to decisions on matters that were purely procedural (article 27). In practical terms, this meant among other things that no great power could veto a proposal to refer to the General Assembly a matter upon which the Security Council was deadlocked. The conces- sion was possible because the General Assembly, unlike the Security Council, cannot require members to take con- crete action. It can only make recom- mendations. The Canadian delegation also supported a provision of Australian origin to the effect that a great power could not veto a ”œpeaceful settlement” measure under chapter VI ”” that is, an attempt to resolve a dis- pute by means of negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement and the like ”” if the great power itself were a party to the dispute in question.
In like manner, the Canadians were also strongly involved in pro- moting what eventually became arti- cle 10, which essentially provides that the General Assembly, on its own ini- tiative, can recommend action to the members at large, or to the Security Council itself, in relation to any mat- ter falling within the scope of the Charter. It can even do this in refer- ence to security matters, in cases where the Security Council itself is not taking action. In essence, and with others, the Canadians were attempting to strengthen the role of the General Assembly (where num- bers count most), while making it possible in certain circumstances to circumvent the Security Council (where power counts most).
A little of this sort of textual analy- sis goes a very long way, and more of it is not required here. Suffice it to say that the Canadians were heavily involved in other areas as well, notably in strengthening the role of the Economic and Social Council and improving Canada’s own chances of being elected to it, and re-elected, too (the functional principle again). They were also active in advancing provisions that they hoped would improve on the calibre and political independence of the professional international staff of the Secretariat, and expand the secretary- general’s own power of initiative. They also worked hard to clarify the relationship between the UN and the Specialized Agencies. In all these cases, of course, they worked closely with other powers of like mind, some- times in a leading, and sometimes in a supporting role. In this they were acting at San Francisco much as they hoped they would be able to act in the UN itself once the organization was fully established and had become operational.
It is true, of course, that the Canadians were hoping that the new system would prove to be both reli- able and effective in maintaining international order and in promoting the public service purposes of the Specialized Agencies. It is also true that at least some of them hoped that the system as a whole would lead to the further institutionalization of the international environment over the long haul. To that extent, their reputation for being ”œliberal international- ists” is well-deserved. It was in the very nature of the beast they were helping to create, moreover, that it would be multilateral. With any luck, it would moderate the exercise in international affairs of raw power, replacing the Hobbesian version of the state of nature with something akin to a rule-ordered environment. It might help as well to create opportu- nities for constructive diplomatic manoeuvre ”” for the building, that is, of advantageous, if kaleidoscopic, diplomatic coalitions. These could not be expected to level the playing field completely, as the San Francisco conference itself had amply demon- strated, but they might nonetheless smooth over some of the sharper bumps in the terrain.
It needs to be recognized, however, that most other delegations at San Francisco ”” particularly on the ”˜west- ern’ side ”” had similar aspirations, and in that respect the Canadian posi- tion was hardly distinctive. The real substance of the negotiations, at least on the surface, had less to do, there- fore, with the UN’s underlying inter- nationalist purpose than with the institutional mechanisms through which that purpose would be pursued. Everyone at the conference, the Canadians included, wanted to emerge from the bargaining with the strongest hand they could get.
By the end of the proceedings, the optimism of most of the Canadians who had been actively involved had been pretty much reduced to a faint glimmer. In reference to security, after all, the system depended on the amicable co-opera- tion of what came later to be called the Security Council’s ”œPermanent Five,” and it was already becoming clear that getting the Soviet Union to co-operate in the pursuit of what were ultimately western preferences was going to be difficult. It would not be long before Canadian officials would be ruminating in public about the possibility of establishing a regional (specifically, a North Atlantic) collec- tive defence system as an alternative mechanism for securing the western world against the potential preda- tions of an increasingly polarized great power adversary.
But from the point of view of institutionalizing the world at large, the creation of the United Nations was at least a start, and the mecha- nism has accomplished much more over the years than those who focus only on the collective security com- ponent of its mandate are inclined to notice. It is obviously a work in progress, and no one should expect its performance to surpass what its own members ”” the most powerful of them particularly ”” are willing to make of it. But the project itself is well worth pursuing, even if the pace is sluggish. It is not surprising, there- fore, that Canada should still be so keen on the task of reform.