Living in Glass Houses

Don’t fault the UN for international dysfunction – we’re all partially to blame says John Hancock.

By: /
5 October, 2012
By: John Hancock
Senior Counsellor at the World Trade Organization

Minister Baird, the Don Cherry of foreign policy, likes to shoot from the hip. His target this week was the feeble and feckless United Nations, which – he sternly lectured the General Assembly – “must spend less time looking at itself and more time focused on the problems that demand its attention.”

Fair point. But whose fault is that? It’s a convenient fiction that the UN somehow chooses to be ineffective – that it’s a kind of spoiled and bloated world government that refuses to act decisively on genocide, poverty, growth, and the many other pressing global problems demanding solutions. The reality, of course, is that the UN is neither more nor less than its member governments. If it has failed to deliver sufficient “results” – as Baird argues – then the responsibility lies squarely with national governments and their paralyzing inability to get along.


A more honest speech would have decried the unraveling of global cooperation – on security, on finance, on trade, on the environment, you name it – and the dangerous signs that nations are turning ever-more inward and intolerant.

But, unfortunately, Canada is no longer in a strong position to deliver that message. This is the government that abandoned the Kyoto Accord because its international treaty commitments and the need for global environmental cooperation clashed inconveniently with its “Energy Superpower” ambitions and its failure to even try to reduce carbon emissions. This same government has offered little to break the negotiating deadlock in current global trade talks but has instead further fragmented the system by rushing into exclusionary bilateral deals and regional blocs.

As for investing ideas, energy, and political capital into helping the UN deliver the results that Baird demands, the prime minister chose to boycott the General Assembly yet again, instead using his New York visit to accept a humanitarian award from that great humanitarian, Henry Kissinger.

You have to admire the government’s audacity: slamming the UN for its ineffectiveness when its own actions, intentionally or not, serve to undermine it. But Canada is not alone. Sadly, it’s easier – and more politically rewarding – for most countries nowadays to blame the UN for the international system’s failings, rather than to take the hard decisions – and accept the tough compromises – needed to make the system work.

Still, if you are intent on living in a glass house, it’s probably wise not to throw too many stones.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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