It’s Official : Canada No Longer Counts

18 octobre 2010, Americas Quarterly


The withdrawal of Canada’s candidacy to the UN Security Council on October 12 is an earthquake in the history of Canadian diplomacy. Who would have thought this possible ? Is Portugal, the country who will take the seat in Canada’s place, really a more influential country ? This would not have happened if it hadn’t been for Canada’s leadership, which has left the country’s previously enviable international reputation in tatters.


A Turning Point : Copenhagen


Tremors generally precede an earthquake. In Canada’s case, the rumblings began in 2008 when the British Foreign Office put together a list of the most important G20 countries. Canada did not make the cut.


This foreboding became a reality in December 2009 in Copenhagen when the Danish government brought together the 27 countries that have the clout to negotiate global agreements. No seat was reserved for Canada. Better yet, Canada did not complain about not being there. Canada no longer counts, and does not really care to be counted.


Is there a scenario when this voluntary global withdrawal would effectively remove Canada from multilateral institutions such as the G30 ? There is one. And if it were to happen, we would have to go back to Copenhagen to find the time and the place where the conditions that facilitated this downgrade materialized.


Canada clearly showed its futility at Copenhagen. It did not help its G8 counterparts to reach an agreement nor did it help any of the new G20 powers—Brazil, India, China, and South Africa—that were trying to gain more financial leverage from the North in order to go green. Canada was in that restrained group of countries who didn’t want anything.


Canada, a Result of G7


First, some history. When the first group of leaders was convened by French President Giscard d’Estaing in 1975, Canada was not among them. Giscard D’Estaing had no respect for Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and thought that the U.S. amply represented North America. It was U.S. Gerald Ford who, in 1976, made Canada the smallest member country of the G8 in terms of both population and economy.


In spite of Canada’s size, its prime ministers have since been able to justify the country’s seat at the table. Pierre Trudeau and Jimmy Carter agreed on all the major international issues. And Brian Mulroney was an important intermediary between Ronald Reagan and François Mitterand, as well as a strong voice on the then-thorny issue that was South Africa. Jean Chrétien got along with Bill Clinton—but, above all, his minister of foreign affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, drove an activist international agenda : anti-personnel mines, the International Criminal Court, the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, and so on. Canada’s participation in the intervention in Afghanistan, initiated by Paul Martin, was disproportionate to its real weight in the world and has helped maintain a high profile for a medium-sized country.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves much to be desired in regard to his ability to navigate international policy circles. When Canadian troops leave Afghanistan, Canada’s international voice will be the weakest it has ever been. However, this will not be enough to change the G20 inclusion rules so that Canada is excluded. A much larger dynamic will have to be in place for that.


The G20 Composition


Another force challenging the composition of the G20 was present in Copenhagen. The Group of 77, which unites the poorest countries in the world, has reason to claim that its representation among the deciders is weak. And they are furious. They have the support of a committee of experts, chaired by Joseph Stiglitz, who presented the committee’s report to the president of the UN General Assembly in 2009.


G20 constitutes an historic step forward, effectively grouping together 65 percent of humanity and 90 percent of its economy. But 172 countries have no official way of making their voices heard, while one region is outrageously over-represented : North America. Three of its countries are members : Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.


For over a year, a group of academics has been circulating an intellectually grand recommendation that would solve these problems. They are proposing that members should be every country that represents 2 percent of the world’s population or that comprise at least 2 percent of the world’s GDP.


This first triage would comprise 15 countries—all the important G20 players today—that also represent 60 percent of the population. Five slots would remain to be distributed. The authors suggest dividing the world in five regions, the members of which would decide, by election or by rotation, who would be seated at the G20 for how long and, if they so wish, with which type of negotiating mandate. This way membership criteria would be clear, equitable and predictable for the permanent members (chosen for their demographic and economic importance) as well as for the other members and would guarantee global representation.


Let’s come back to Canada. In 2008, its economy represented 2.4 percent of the world’s GDP and would therefore be among the invited countries. But, according to the authors of the study, as of 2016, Canada would fall below the 2 percent share because the rest of the world’s growth is expected to be more significant. Canada would thus be relegated to the second category, having to be elected or wait its turn among the other countries in the Americas, except Brazil and the United States.


It is far from certain that these reforms will ever see the light of day. Nothing is more difficult than getting a country to abandon its membership in a decision-making group. Hence, the enormous difficulty of reforming the UN Security Council, where those who have veto powers (U.S., Russia, France, Great Britain, and China) refuse to give up the privileges received after World War II.


However, if powerful actors (China, Brazil and certain European countries) began to recognize the need for more adequate representation of poor countries, the dethroning of Canada will not be a major point of contention. And we would remember Copenhagen.