Security Council seat comes with 'symbolic' power
Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada addresses the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010. (AP / Henny Ray Abrams
Geoff Nixon, CTV.ca News
Published Saturday, October 9, 2010 10:34PM EDT
A successful bid to join the United Nations Security Council could be a feather in Canada's cap, though it would not give Ottawa greater influence on the world stage, experts say.
Stewart Patrick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., said taking a seat on the Security Council gives a country a voice in the group that works to maintain peace and security around the globe.
But he said the power that comes with the position is more "symbolic than substantive."
As Canada pursues a non-permanent Security Council seat, it finds itself vying for a temporary, two-year position that will hold less power than the five permanent members: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States.
In a recent telephone interview with CTV.ca, Patrick said that these five permanent members do much of the heavy lifting on the council that has only 15 members in total. It is expected that Canada will follow the lead of its Western allies on most issues.
For Canada, the real opportunity would come when it would hold the presidency -- a job that rotates through Security Council members on a monthly basis. That's when Ottawa would have an opportunity to "set the agenda," said Patrick, and to highlight an initiative or area of concern.
A vote on October 12 will determine if Canada can land one of the two spots up for grabs. Germany and Portugal are campaigning for the same opportunity, but the sense is that Canada is likely to be sitting on the Security Council when the voting is done.
A pitch for Canadian leadership
With the wind of the Winter Olympics and the G8 and G20 summits in its sails, there is an air of confidence in the ongoing sales pitch from the Canadian government.
Canada has pointed to its work in Afghanistan and its resilient economy as proof of its leadership abilities, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said his country is "ready to serve."
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has since told a group of diplomats that "Canada will continue to shine" even if it fails to land the spot it covets.
But Roland Paris, the University of Ottawa's research chair in international security and governance, says the Harper government will not be satisfied if it fails in its ambition to join the Security Council.
"If Canada fails to win the seat, it will be perceived as a failure of Canadian leadership," Paris said in a recent telephone interview from Ottawa.
An unexpected push from the PM
It comes as no surprise that Canada is seeking a seat on the Security Council, as it has served in that role on six previous occasions, generally once every decade or so.
But Paris said the fact that the Harper government is pursuing a Security Council seat is a significant change in its modus operandi. Because traditionally, the prime minister has "been quite skeptical of the UN and other multilateral organizations," he said.
But during the prime minister's pitch to the UN last month, Harper said that the recent global recession had demonstrated that "in this shrinking world, we travel together in one boat, not as solo-voyagers. And how we travel together matters."
This type of language suggests that more than four years into the job as prime minister, Harper appears to have become "a born-again multilateralist," Paris said.
So far, the Harper government has yet to state what issues it intends to press while serving on the Security Council, which has left some observers wondering if there is a plan in place that has yet to be revealed.
"I think there that their first priority is to secure the set and then they'll decide what to do with it," said Paris.
Erika Simpson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario, said she is concerned "the opportunity could be wasted" if Canada fails to spearhead any initiatives while on the Security Council.
And if there are a lack of ideas on the horizon, Simpson suggests it could be best for Canada to take a pass.
"If I was at the UN, I would give the seat to someone else," Simpson said in a recent telephone interview.
But Paris said the Harper government may have its reasons for holding back on its intentions as it considers "the cold calculus of campaigning for a Security Council seat."
The government could hold back on announcing initiatives that could offend the UN member states taking part in Tuesday's vote that would otherwise vote for Canada, he said.
With files from The Canadian Press