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When reality interferes with your self image

Portugal beat Canada in the biennial election for a seat on the United Nations Security Council Tuesday. This was a shocker - at least in Canada - since we tend to think of ourselves as pillars of the international community.

Portugal beat Canada in the biennial election for a seat on the United Nations Security Council Tuesday. This was a shocker - at least in Canada - since we tend to think of ourselves as pillars of the international community. After all, Canada put its name forward six times before and had never lost a vote. Canada invented peacekeeping, is in the G7 and G20, and has lots of international pals in the Commonwealth and Francophonie.

But like many ugly electoral surprises, the numbers weren’t even close. In the round before Canada withdrew from voting, we lost 113-78 to the Portuguese juggernaut.

Voting can be an ugly moment of truth, especially for candidates who have somehow lost touch with what the voters think of them. The history books are full of people who were convinced they were going to win, usually surrounded by hangers-on saying they were a sure thing.

Canada thought it would win this time. Diplomats at Foreign Affairs must have given some confident briefings to the prime minister, or he never would have made such a big deal of being on the Security Council. The vote is particularly humiliating after Stephen Harper invested his own prestige in visits to New York and sending ministers and ambassadors to campaign before the vote.

When Yukonomist was in the foreign service, he worked on the (admittedly less prestigious) Canadian campaign to get former Liberal cabinet minister Don Johnston elected as head of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. These campaigns are a big deal, and often consume an absurd amount of oxygen in the bureaucracy. Just think of how many meetings had to be held to come up with our Security Council plan, which apparently included details such as deploying a bright young foreign service officer to put a bottle of maple syrup on each desk just before the vote.

Like many things at the United Nations, voting for the Security Council is both complicated and opaque. Canada is in the “Western Europe and Others Group,” or WEOG in UN jargon, which gets two seats, one of which is reserved for a European country. The voting, however, is done by all UN members on a secret ballot basis.

We don’t know who promised to vote for Canada and then double-crossed us. But it appears several dozen countries did so. After a similar thing happened to Australia a few years ago, one of their diplomats called this the “rotten lying bastards” factor. Vote-swapping is a fetish at the United Nations, and tales of electoral hijinx abound that would shock an Afghan warlord.

So what explains the loss? Did our ministers and foreign service simply bungle the campaign? Did the Portuguese offer things that a jaded third world ambassador might find more interesting than maple syrup? Or did other countries decide that they preferred having a country on the Security Council with a Portuguese foreign policy instead of a Canadian one?

We will never know.

Some have blamed the current government’s foreign policy. Its pro-Israel stance likely alienated a dozen or two Arab and Islamic countries. Refocusing of Canada’s aid budget on Latin America instead of Africa couldn’t have helped on that continent. And almost gleeful obstructionism on the global climate change file must have caused second thoughts in any number of foreign ministries around the world.

One wonders if our commitment of blood and money in Afghanistan earned us more support. Indeed, one wonders how the Afghan ambassador voted.

However, even critics of Stephen Harper should consider whether the prime minister deserves all the blame. Despite Canada’s robust self-image as a leader among the community of nations, an objective review of our international contribution in the last 20 years suggests a different answer.

Peacekeeping is an example. While we pioneered the concept, and our history books and television schedules are full of self-congratulatory bumf on the topic, as of August 31, 2010 we ranked #49 among nations in terms of number of police and military personnel on peacekeeping missions. Even if our non-peacekeeping force in Afghanistan was considered, we wouldn’t be near the top of the list.

In terms of foreign aid, it was Lester Pearson in 1969 who came up with the target of 0.7 per cent of GNP for rich countries. Canada’s figure for 2008, according to the latest figures from the OECD, was 0.32 per cent. This was 15th out of the club of 22 rich OECD members of the Development Assistance Committee, and barely a third of what countries like Sweden and Norway give.

On the trade front, Canada has portrayed itself as a free-trader but has fought hard to block foreign access to politically sensitive sectors such as telecom, publishing, banking, government procurement, dairy and agriculture. We have tariffs, believe it or not, over 200 per cent on cheese, yogurt, chicken and similar products. Not only do these measures raise prices for low-income Canadians, they also annoy friendly countries such as Australia and New Zealand. These two, for example, recently made sure Canada was excluded from the Melbourne negotiations on Asia-Pacific free trade earlier this year.

It’s worth noting that the Canadian government has strong popular support for all the policies described above. No political party is clamouring to send lots more peacekeeping troops overseas. It has proven popular for years to keep a lid on the aid budget and spend more on domestic government programs. It is hard - impossible perhaps - to find an MP of any party in Ottawa in favour (publicly) of dismantling the marketing boards.

So maybe it wasn’t the maple syrup. Or even the Harper government’s bungling of the election campaign. Maybe the hard truth is that 113 countries looked at the comfortable, self-serving foreign policy Canadians have built for themselves ... and decided to vote for Portugal.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the

Yukon series of historical children’s

adventure novels.