Canada and the United Nations

Address to "Prospects for the United Nations and Global Governance"
Roundtable sponsored by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation and the World Federalist Movement
Ottawa, May 29, 2003
By Senator Douglas Roche

The Iraq war and its aftermath have brought into sharp focus questions concerning the role of the United Nations in the continued development and application of international law. Put simply, will the U.N. be given the strength to actually become the guarantor of peace and security, or will the U.N. be confined to the role, however valuable, of an international welfare agency?

The recent report of the House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, as a contribution to the current foreign policy review, was inconclusive. Thus the Committee lost an opportunity to reaffirm, at this critical juncture, that Canada’s foreign policy must not only reflect the U.N. strategies for peace, disarmament, development and human rights but contribute actively to the advancement of those themes globally.

This hesitation should serve as a warning that Canada’s political establishment is reeling somewhat from the undermining of the U.N.’s central purpose – to protect the world from wars – that the Bush Administration has recklessly engaged in.

The hesitation is also reflected by Paul Martin, the leading Liberal contender for the office of Prime Minister. His important foreign policy speech, “Canada’s Role in a Complex World,” given April 30th, acknowledges that Canadians believe a world with a strong, effective and functional United Nations is much more desirable than one without. “However, the absence of consensus in the U.N. should not condemn it to inaction. … In appropriate circumstances, and when consistent with our values, we should be prepared to use the means necessary to achieve our international goals when full consensus on the right steps is not possible…”

What exactly does this mean? And what strength would be given the U.N. by a Martin government?

When the suggestion that Canada could go around a consensus-less U.N. is coupled with Mr. Martin’s desire to establish a permanent Cabinet Committee on Canada-U.S. Relations, chaired by the Prime Minister, new questions arise. To what extent will the U.S. views on war and peace become Canada’s in situations where the U.S. rejects the U.N., thus depriving it of consensus? Canada’s foreign policy has long been a delicate balancing act in which the continental and international interests of Canada are observed.

The handling of the Iraq war has clearly knocked Canada off balance in its longstanding juggling act trying to keep the U.S. and U.N. balls in the air at the same time. The internationalists and the continentalists are struggling anew for control of Canadian foreign policy. The U.N. route or the U.S. route? Which shall Canada follow? The question is not new, but the circumstances are, since U.S. dominance now threatens to weaken the U.N., which for Canada has always been a prime outlet for its foreign policy.

If the U.N. is challenged by U.S. policy, as is clearly happening in the reconstruction of Iraq, and the U.S. determination to proceed with a missile defence system that undercuts the U.N. disarmament agenda, where will Canada stand?

The U.S. administration made it very clear throughout the Cold War that it expected Canada’s support on security policies. Canada allowed cruise missile testing, softened its call for a nuclear test ban, and supported the U.S. invasion of Grenada and Panama not out of conviction but because of U.S. determination. Prime Minister Trudeau’s 1983 peace initiative was doomed from the start through the derision of U.S. officials. U.S. antipathy to new approaches to human security has continued to constrain what should otherwise be Canadian promotion of the kind of international security regime that Canadian values have long espoused.

Canada supported its neighbour in 1991, when the U.S. pushed the U.N. Security Council into authorizing military action against Iraq. When, without a mandate, the U.S.-led NATO bombed Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, Canada played the faithful ally. So Canada is not above sublimating its U.N. values. But when the second Iraq war loomed, ostensibly over the issue of inspections but in reality to depose Saddam Hussein, Canada balked. No specific U.N. mandate, no war for Canada.

The “balance” strategy, embedded in Canadian foreign policy, presupposes that the U.S. will at least stay on an even keel. But the Bush Administration has plunged the U.S. into a new era in which military supremacy is its clear goal. This domination is, of course, marketed as the route to peace for the world. The peace foreseen by the hard-right ideologues driving the Bush agenda is based on overwhelming military and economic power. This is the very kind of “Pax Americana” that President John F. Kennedy warned the American people against in 1963. But because the Bush Administration has been able to sell at least some of the world on the idea that the U.N. cannot keep the peace, the U.S. has presented itself as the new saviour.

Canadians must understand how deeply the terrorist attack of September 11 has affected the American psyche. It has produced a fortress mentality and a new conviction that only the U.S. can enforce international law and order. The right-wing core of the Bush Administration is using this fear of terrorism to undermine the U.N.; it wants to render it toothless, to reduce it to a global welfare agency. In the scenarios they foresee, the U.N. will carry out the orders of the U.S. This weakening of the U.N.’s prime role to maintain peace and security in the world will pose the gravest challenge to Canadian foreign policy in the history of Canada-U.S. relations. The struggle inside Ottawa – about which way to go, with the U.S. or the U.N. – will be fierce.

This will not be just a struggle for the Ottawa establishment to sort out. This struggle will be for the soul of Canada. It will play out directly in the steps Canada takes – or does not take – to build the conditions for enduring peace in the world. It will not be a struggle only about Canada-U.S. relations, but about world values for peace.

Canada must be careful not to abandon our long-held values to placate a current U.S. Administration that may change as the years go by. Canada must hold to the rule of law as the only way to provide true human security.

In the wake of September 11, more and more is asked of the U.N. But the paucity of funding for a global organization expressly designed to build the conditions of peace, which if implemented would save governments many times the amount they spend on warfare, is one of the great paradoxes of our time. This is not just a question of under-funding. Finances are a reflection of the prevailing problem of power structures, which are the very factors continuing to shore up the culture of war. Canadian foreign policy must give a priority to strengthening the U.N. as the surest way to lead the world from the scourge of war.