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Who needs a seat on the Security Council?

By John Williamson
web posted June 2, 2008

UN Security CouncilOttawa's foreign-policy community has been in a tizzy ever since the Prime Minister said the federal government has not decided whether Canada will make a bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The previous Liberal government had announced the country would seek a spot on the UN's top governing body in 2010, and foreign affairs professionals want that decision to stick.

The choice about whether or not Canada should try to secure a seat shouldn't be a difficult one for the Conservatives. The protracted globetrotting campaign such a diplomatic effort would necessitate would be costly, and taxpayers would rightly grumble about the bill. Moreover, the logrolling needed to win enough votes in the UN General Assembly could result in votes that contradict principles enshrined in Canada's foreign and domestic policy.

And even if Canada were to win a coveted two-year term on the council -- something the country has previously done about every 10 years -- it will expand the international influence of an office that actively opposes the Prime Minister, specifically the department of foreign affairs.

A cocktails-and-canapés campaign for a Security Council seat would cost millions of tax dollars. When Canada last competed for a UN seat, foreign affairs spent $2-million. The Ottawa Citizen reported in 1998 that Ottawa sent academics and retired diplomats to nearly 100 countries to lobby foreign ministries and heads of government. And, according to the Toronto Star, it became a dirty affair. The competing Greeks sent undecided UN ambassadors and spouses on an all-expenses paid cruise in the Aegean Sea while the Dutch pulled together a concert of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and an evening cruise on New York's East River for UN pooh-bahs. Ottawa, for its part, handed out tickets for the Cirque du Soleil at Manhattan's Battery Park.

Such inducements are par for the UN course, and diplomats don't apologize for these tactics. Robert Fowler, who was Canada's longest-serving UN ambassador, takes credit for overseeing our last Security Council campaign. He explains the junket-for-your-vote strategy as routine. "You have to use different ways to get people's attention," he said in 1998. "There's a certain amount of razzle-dazzle and balloons and music, the same as any political campaign."

Really? If a political party or lobbyist engaged in this type of vote-winning tactics in Canada the RCMP would soon come knocking.

If the price tag alone isn't enough to halt Canada's campaign, the Conservative caucus should ask what promises academics and ex-diplomats might make to other governments to win their support. Mr. Fowler and Paul Heinbecker, another former UN ambassador, have argued that Ottawa's foreign policy must change if we are to win over enough members of the General Assembly. They point to the Conservatives' decision to target more foreign aid dollars to fewer countries -- rather than sending fewer dollars to more countries -- as a reason for those governments no longer receiving our tax dollars to reject Canada's bid. They also warn that our reasonable decision to protect jobs and the economy by ignoring Canada's Kyoto Protocol greenhouse-gas reduction targets might mean European nations voting against us, despite their own lackluster commitment to reduce carbon emissions. And lastly, we are told, to win the support of Muslim nations, our country's commitment to our democratic allies must be compromised at the UN -- specifically, by abandoning Israel.

The reward, of course, of such policy reversals and wasting buckets of tax dollars will be a seat at the UN's "high table." And for what? Representation on a council governed by the five permanent members and often stymied by China and Russia. Taxpayers say thanks, but no thanks.

Even if Mr. Harper decides to go for it and wins a seat, it will be a pyrrhic victory. This is because of all the bureaucracies in Ottawa none is as insubordinate to elected officials as the foreign affairs department. Officials in this department are, of course, happy to follow government direction when their wishes converge with those of the Conservatives. Yet, when there is a policy shift they disapprove of, or a disagreement with their political masters, the system quietly grinds to a halt.

The UN seat will hand officials at foreign affairs a bigger stick to beat the government by undermining its agenda or even contradicting its ministers. Mr. Fowler believes the reason why the Conservatives will not contest the seat is because "the government has no confidence in its own foreign policy." Actually, the Conservatives have lost confidence in its foreign affairs bureaucrats. Prime Minister Harper should announce Ottawa will not seek a Security Council seat. ESR

John Williamson is federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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