OTTAWA — Canada was humbled on the world stage Wednesday when it failed to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council, losing to Norway and Ireland on the first ballot.
The loss was Canada's second consecutive defeat in a bid for a seat on the world's most powerful body, and stood as a stark reminder of the country's diminishing influence. The defeat of the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau followed the loss by the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper in 2010.
Prior to that, Canada had won six times in a row, roughly each decade since the creation of the UN, although it lost its first bid in 1946 just months after it contributed to the construction of the organization out of the ashes of the Second World War.
"This must act as a wake-up call to the Liberal government and a message to Canadians: Canada is not doing enough," said Jack Harris, the NDP's foreign affairs critic.
"Prime Minister Trudeau announced in 2015 that 'Canada is back!' but there is little to show for it."
Harris cited low spending on international development assistance and the decline of Canadian contributions to UN peacekeeping missions to historic lows — two criteria that were widely seen as essential in winning a seat on the council.
Canada's latest loss came in the first round of voting Wednesday in a secret ballot of 192 member states of the United Nations General Assembly for two available seats on the council for a two-year term starting next year.
Canada needed 128 votes — or two-thirds of the voting members of the assembly. Norway passed the threshold with 130 and Ireland garnered 128 votes.
Canada fell short with 108 votes.
Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said even if Canada lost, it would continue its international efforts to fight against climate change, economic inequity and preserving the world's increasingly fragile institutions.
Norway and Ireland had an advance start in campaigning because Trudeau only announced Canada's intention to seek a seat in 2015 after the Liberals were elected.
Trudeau dismissed suggestions that a loss for Canada would be a political failure for him personally, given the capital he has invested in the bid — starting with his "Canada is back" declaration the day after he won the October 2015 federal election.
Adam Chapnick, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and author of a recent book on the Security Council, said Norway and Ireland had massive head starts on Canada. Both "are legitimate opponents with good records who took the campaign seriously from the beginning and likely had concluded enough vote trades before we even began to campaign, to make a Canadian victory highly unlikely from the beginning," he said.
"The fact that our campaign was taken off track by the 2016 U.S. election and the threat to NAFTA didn't help, either. I think the campaign team did a very good job over the last six months but that wasn't enough."
Bessma Momani, an international affairs expert at the University of Waterloo, said it is not fair to see the loss as an indictment of Trudeau's global popularity,
But it "should be seen as an indictment on our lack of spending, attention, and engagement with the world," she said.
"That said, this will be used by Trudeau's detractors at home to remind him that the world certainly doesn't think 'Canada is back' and that 'the world needs more Canada'"
So it was.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called the loss "another foreign affairs failure" for Trudeau. His deputy leader, Leona Alleslev, launched her own attack in the House of Commons, reiterating her party's criticism of what is sees as failed policies towards China and India and in its trade relationship with the United States.
"He sold out Canada's principles for a personal vanity project and still lost," Scheer said in a statement.
Trudeau said his government has been engaged in a wide range of international activities and groups because he said that is in the interest of all Canadians, who need global trade and economic success everywhere so they can succeed at home.
"These are the things that we will continue to do into the future, regardless of what happens this week. But it certainly would be nice to have that extra lever of a seat on the Security Council," Trudeau said.
Canada's campaign for the council focused heavily on what it has been doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That has included convening like-minded nations to ensure food security in developing countries, keeping vital supply chains open across the globe, and working on new financing models to help struggling countries whose economies have been decimated by the pandemic.
European countries were expected to unite around Canada's two competitors, which forced the Trudeau government to focus on Africa, Latin America, and Arab nations, as well as the small island states of the South Pacific that face potential extinction one day from rising sea levels caused by climate change.
Trudeau levelled veiled criticism at the UN's geographical organization that has placed Canada in a grouping against European countries, which can never agree on two candidates for the temporary seats on the council.
"I have nothing but respect for our two competitors, Ireland and Norway, that have demonstrated an engagement in the world," he said. "It is unfortunate that we're in a situation of having to compete against friends for this."
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Canada faced a tough fight in the UN's Western European and Others Group, and victory was never guaranteed because it is one of the most competitive of its geographical blocs.
"I think Canada is going to be reflecting at the type of reforms we need at the UN," he said. "We need to think about a lot of things over the next few months" including, "where Canada best belongs in terms of these groupings."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2020.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press