It wasn't supposed to end like this.
Canada, our right-minded, unabashedly internationalist northern neighbor, had won every race for a seat on the U.N. Security Council since the international body's founding in 1945 -- and for good reason. Canadian diplomats practically invented U.N. peacekeeping (the Canadian currency features a picture of U.N. peacekeepers), and smart sanctions are a decidedly the county's creation as well. Most recently, five civilians and two Canadian Mounties, including the top U.N. police commissioner, lost their lives while staffing the U.N. mission during the January earthquake in Haiti.
Despite all this, Canada got whooped in its latest bid for a seat on the 15-state council, beaten not only by a formidable European power like Germany but also by a tiny European country, Portugal. If Canada is the United Nations' greatest advocate, Portugal has at least one strike against it: Lisbon was an enthusiastic backer of the single most unpopular act in the U.N.'s modern history: the Iraq War. What makes the loss even more grating is that the election places four European countries (five if you count Russia) on the 15-nation council, a stark regional imbalance that should have given any non-European contender a boost in an organization where the former colonial powers are viewed with suspicion.
So what gives?
Put simply, Canada offended a lot of people. It lost African votes by redirecting foreign aid to Latin America; it annoyed China by criticizing the country's human rights record and delaying a high-level visit to Beijing for more than four years; and it irritated Middle Eastern governments by backing Israel more fervently and scaling back aid to Palestinian refugees. And on top of it all, Canada has scaled down its peacekeeping commitment in recent years.
In other words, not everyone thinks that Canada is the model U.N. citizen it once was.
Take peacekeeping, an idea that was once the defining feature of Canadian leadership at the United Nation. Canada served in every single U.N. peacekeeping operation during the Cold War. But in recent years, the numbers have dwindled. Today, only 200 Canadian peacekepeers, mostly police officers and a handful of military observers, serve in U.N. missions. The country's military hasn't played a central role in a major operation since the beginning of the decade, when Canadian forces served in the U.N. missions in Ethiopia and Eritrea and in the Central African Republic.
Canada turned away from the United Nations following the Rwandan genocide, when the organization's leadership denied a request by the Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire to expand the size of the U.N. mission and use force in order to halt the coming bloodbath. In the years since, Canada grew increasingly hesitant to take on new peacekeeping challenges, turning down a request in 1996 from the former Egyptian U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali to lead a multinational force in eastern Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic, for example.
Rather than the blue helmets, Canada has reserved its military personnel for the U.S. led military operation in Afghanistan. With the country scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2011, the United Nations offered Canada command of the U.N. mission in Congo if it agreed to send a significant contingent of Canadian blue helmets. The offer was aimed at restoring Canada's historic role in peacekeeping. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper turned it down.
That move contributed to the view that Canada didn't really want the seat badly enough. Canada got a slow start in its campaign for a Security Council seat, providing its chief rival, Portugal -- which entered the race more than a year earlier -- with an opportunity to line up supporters, particularly in Latin America, once a Canadian stronghold.
But Canada's problems at the U.N. ran deeper than a tactical disadvantage. Under Harper's government, Canada's relations with key voting blocs, particularly among African and Arabs dignitaries, have deteriorated. Last year, 19 African ambassadors paid a visit to Canada's parliament to express concern over Canada's decision to cut back aid to some eight African countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, and Rwanda, part of a realignment of Canada's priorities in favor of Latin America and the Caribbean. Canada also downsized its diplomatic presence in Africa, for example shutting down its embassy in Malawi.
Canada's Prime Minister has also aligned his government more closely with Israel, voting against key U.N. resolutions in the General Assembly that criticize Israel. The shift put off key voting blocs from the Islamic world, including countries in the Middle East. At the same time, Canada cut back aid to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees, from more than $34 million in 2007 to just $15 million, and it has cut off its contribution to the agency's regular budget entirely. "Canada has not contributed anything to our general fund in 2009 and 2010, though it has contributed to our emergency appeals," said Andrew Whitley, the director of UNRWA's New York office. "We hope for a restoration of funding and we are in discussions with the Canadians about it."
Nor did Canada's leadership get the boost of support they might have expected from traditional allies, for example in the European Union, which had two of its own contenders in the race. The United States, which has zigged the political left while Canada has zagged right, has had cordial, but hardly enthusiastic relations, with Canada in recent months. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton has voiced frustration at Harper's skepticism toward reproductive health services in the developing world, and its reluctance to commit to keep Canadian military trainers in Afghanistan after Canada ends its combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2011.
To be sure, back in Canada, the blame game is well underway. Canada's Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon immediately pointed the finger at opposition leader Michael Ignatieff, blaming him for turning the U.N. mood against Canada. In September, Ignatieff, the son of a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, had publicly questioned conservative Harper's commitment to the Security Council. "This is a government that for four years has basically ignored the United Nations," he said last month. Some back home blamed the U.N. secret voting system; others faulted Canada's decision to announce a trade deal with Israel on the eve of the vote, triggering a wave of opposition from Islamic countries. One American conservative also tried to lay the blame at Susan Rice's feet, arguing that the U.S. envoy to the United Nations had not mounted a vigorous enough campaign to ensure America's military ally won a seat.
Washington challenged suggestions that it had not backed its military ally at the United Nations. Responding to unsubstantiated rumors that the United States may have voted against Canada, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley demurred, noting that such votes are held in secret. But he assured Canada that the United States remains fond of its northern neighbor, despite a humbling loss by the American hockey team to the Canadians in the Vancouver Olympics.
"We love Canada. We support Canada-except in the Gold Medal Game," Crowley said. "I'm still remembering the Sidney Crosby goal. I am not going to get over that for a while."
"So that's why you voted against them?" a reported asked.
"Again, all I can tell you is that, you know...we did vote, but I'm not going to go any further," Crowley said. "We have the opportunity to work with Canada in many contexts-bilaterally, multilaterally. We love Canada. We support Canada. And we do great and productive work with Canada."
"Let the record reflect that you are blushing," the reporter noted.
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EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.