Canada needs a grand strategy for the United Nations

If Canada wants a future seat on the UN Security Council, it has to make sure the international institution survives. 

By: /
14 December, 2016
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (back L) and President of the UN General Assembly Peter Thomson (back C) watch as Secretary-General-designate Mr. Antonio Guterres of Portugal speaks after being sworn in at UN headquarters in New York, U.S., December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
By: Alexandra Buskie

Board member, United Nations Association of Canada

The Syrian government’s bloody push into Aleppo this week should remind us that the United Nations, created to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” is only as strong as its member states are united.

The sickening continuation of the Syrian conflict is another stain on member states’ troubling record on international diplomacy and action. They seem neither able to respond to conflict, nor deal with the consequences in terms of the massive displacement of people. The international system was already under a huge amount of strain before this rough year even began. With the current navel gazing in Europe and America likely to last for the foreseeable future, 2017 does not look like it will be much better.

Canada has shown integrity in the face of some of the challenges, particularly with regards to refugees and the attempt last week to show unity in the General Assembly on Syria. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signalled his openness to the world and to supporting international institutions, like the United Nations, by announcing his desire for Canada to stand for a Security Council seat in 2021 and to provide more personnel to UN peace operations.

These are sound foreign policy ideas. But good publicity for a Security Council seat in five years’ time is not enough. Canada needs bigger ideas and a wider strategy for its support of the UN in the short and long term. The UN system is working only by the skin of its teeth. It needs real, hard, political effort to survive.

Politically, the UN’s executive arm, the Security Council, has lost the trust of member states. Bureaucratically, the organization’s activities more broadly are over-stretched, underfunded and need structural reform. Administratively, its human resources are hitting a watershed: around 20 percent of its staff will meet mandatory retirement age over the next five years, including almost half of staff in the most senior positions.

The UN system is working only by the skin of its teeth. It needs real, hard, political effort to survive.

When faced with such challenges and distrust, is it so inconceivable today that member states might look elsewhere to do business? The current trends point to a future in which international institutions are undermined, even abandoned, not strengthened. Just ask the European Union. Those states that feel sidelined in decision-making could stop supporting the UN’s operations. Meanwhile, those less interested in a proactive UN (hello, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin) could reach bilateral agreements that bypass the UN altogether. We are sleep-walking into a mess of international proportions.

The UN is crucially important to international relations. It is the world’s only universal political platform. It holds a unique legitimacy, is an engine for collective action, a forum for debate, and the source of rules governing international politics. No other international institution can match its inclusiveness, versatility or range. But it would be hubris to assume that it could not have the same fate as the League of Nations.

We cannot take this institution for granted any longer. Parts of the UN system are going to see a vacuum of interest in the coming years: the U.S. is likely to disengage from development agencies and the Human Rights Council; the EU has its own difficulties to straighten out. Trudeau should capitalize on Canada’s reputation and his own positive international image to re-invigorate international support for the UN. The time for real influence may be short and Canada should be ready.

This week, Antonio Guterres, former head of the UN’s refugee agency, was sworn in as the new Secretary-General of the UN. He will officially take charge on Jan. 1. He was selected by the Security Council in an improved recruitment process that engaged the whole UN membership. This transparency bolstered his legitimacy amongst member states in the General Assembly, as well as with global civil society. Even so, the new UN leader will have only a short period open to him to haul some of the aging UN machinery into the present day, before his honeymoon is over.

Canada has the expertise, reputation and capacity to support — or even lead — potential reforms of the UN’s peace operation architecture and its humanitarian system. But on a grander scale, Canada has the credibility to advocate for other states to renew their commitment to the UN: to remind them that it needs real effort and action, rather than just words. A Canadian strategy towards the UN should include an overarching commitment to encourage others to support the institution and its renewal in every transaction we have. This should be a core national interest for Canada, before there is no Security Council seat to sit on. 

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