Diplomatic Drought

Steve Saideman on what possible reason the Harper government could have for pulling out of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

By: /
1 April, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

What is up with the Harper government pulling Canada out of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification?  Is he that vexed by climate change politics?  Oh, no, it is just poorly spent money. Given that every country in the United Nations (even the U.S.) supports this effort except Canada now, why take the step of putting Canada into the “pro-desertification” camp?

Sure, that is unfair, but much of Harper’s politics is ‘us or them’, ‘with us or against us’.  Anyone remember his party’s take on those opposed to his party’s take on internet regulation?  They called opponents of the effort supporters of child porn.  And, as Thomas Homer-Dixon notes, those opposed to Keystone are environmental extremists.  So, if you are against the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, does that not make you pro-desert?  Just asking.

This reminds me of the penny-wise, pound-foolish effort by Donald Rumsfeld to pull the U.S. out of every overseas obligation it had made back when he was Secretary of Defense.  Repeatedly in 2001-2002, during my year on the Joint Staff, I had to respond to a “snowflake” memo from Rumsfeld, with the basic proposition of ending all multilateral efforts around the world.  The memo contained a list of most American military deployments and asked which ones should be kept, ignoring the realities that most of these deployments had maximal political payoffs for minimal investments, such as four or so officers participating in the East Timeor effort. The U.S. military, through my memo and paperwork, pushed back, not once or twice but three times.    

Is this because of climate change? That’s one hypothesis making the rounds:

The government’s decision to pull Canada out of the convention came just one month before a major scientific gathering to be hosted by the Bonn-based secretariat of the UN convention.

The meeting would have forced Canada to confront scientific analysis on the effects of climate change, droughts and encroaching deserts. The Harper government has been vilified an as outlier on climate change policy in past international meetings.

Maybe, but that is still damned silly.  Canada is going to face criticism on climate change whether it belongs to this organization or not.  Actually more so now.   Now Canada will be attracting much attention because it does stand out so, the only country in the world no longer in the anti-desertification fight.  Still, it may be the case that there is a sincere effort here to avoid supporting international organizations that are lending legitimacy to the idea that there is climate change going on, and that countries should be cooperating to address it.

Perhaps the government is either still feeling hurt because Canada did not get into last round of the UN Security Council.  But that would mean that the Harper government is spiteful, right?

This could also be part of a larger, equally sincere effort to spurn multilateralism, a very Liberal value.  Given that the Harper government has spent far, far more on memorializing the War of 1812 than it costs to belong to this convention on desertification, maybe this is just one more way they are trying to alter Canadian nationalism and identity.

One can go through the list of Canadian efforts under Liberal governments to build a more cooperative world, from Pearsonian peacekeeping to the fight to ban landmines.  These helped not only define the Liberals as a party supportive of international cooperation, but also helped to define Canada’s place in the world as a builder of multilateralism.  Given that the Conservatives have sought to erase Liberal legacies everywhere else in the Canadian political system, including putting ‘Royal’ back into the names of the navy and air force, it makes sense that they do so here as well.

The truly strange thing in all of this is that Canada must be a multilateral country: it is just not big enough to get what it wants on its own.  Bilateralism often puts the weaker country at a disadvantage.  Only countries like the U.S. or China can go it alone in the world, and even there, Bush’s unilateralism did not work out so well.

The money involved might seem like a lot, as long as you don’t compare it to anything else. But compared to the political capital now burned by being the only country to pull out, this is just heaps of dumb.  Even if you want to protect miners, the oil industry and whatnot, there are better ways than this.  But calculating the diplomatic costs of this would require consulting someone… like the folks at Foreign Affairs.  And that is just not the way this government operates.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us