(This column originally appeared in the National Poston May 18th, 2017)
Foreign travel. Embassies. Contributions to international organizations. Few people would claimthat international diplomacy is going to be cheap. But with recent news that Canada is gearing up for apotentially expensive campaignto secure a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2021, it’s fair for Canadians to ask: just how much is this special effort going to cost, and what precisely does Canada gain if it wins?
As its name implies, the Security Council is tasked with maintaining international peace and security. With five veto-wielding permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) and 10 rotating members who serve two-year terms, it’s often thought of as the UN’s most exclusive club-within-a-club.
The last time Canada embarked on such a campaign in 2010 (unsuccessfully as it turned out)it cost taxpayers about $1 million—and that was by a government that didn’t seem terribly concerned about winning it. Fast forward to today, and at least $500,000 has already been spent—and that’s not counting the 10 full-time government employees working on the bid (at anestimated total cost of $1 million per year). How high could it go? A lot higher. Australia, a similarly-sized middle-power country,spent $25 millionto win its seat in 2012.
What is the money spent on? The good news is there’s no need for tacky campaign literature to persuade UN delegates of the principled policy reasons Canada deserves their vote. The bad news is that showering delegates with free gifts and travel isn’t cheap.
Giveaways aren’t the only way to sway votes, of course. There’s also the possibly of vote trading (Canadareportedly secured Guyana’s voteby promising to support the appointment of a Guyanese judge to the International Criminal Court in 2010) or good old-fashioned bribery (Turkey dropped acool $85 million in aid and loan commitmentsto win a seat in 2008.)
Many will recall the corruption scandals that befell both theInternational Olympic Committeeover the 2002 Winter Olympics, and soccer’s world governing body,FIFA, over the forthcoming 2022 World Cup. The scandals led to major shakeups at both organizations. It’s hard to think of another context when this kind of seedy vote-buying wouldn’t be considered outrageous. So why do we accept it as business as usual when it comes to the United Nations?
Moreover, even if we can win (buy?) a seat, what precisely is it good for? Canada would not have veto power. Add in the fact that the Security Council’s track record in tackling major global crises is, to put it charitably,rather bleak, and the council sounds a lot more important on paper than it ever has been in practice.
By far the most common justification put forward for Canada seeking a council seat is “prestige”—although conveniently this tends to come from people whose day jobs are in some way connected to studying, working with or writing about the United Nations.
Security Council membership may very well be impressive in elite circles, but how many people are even aware which countries are on it at any given time? Would anyone seriously make the claim that Canadians think more highly of Uruguay or Bolivia—both current members—simply because they sit on the Security Council?
With the Trudeau government running big deficits for the foreseeable future, many Canadians are questioning just how much we can afford to spend on foreign aid. Those truly concerned about maximizing the positive impact of Canada’s foreign-aid contributions should recognize that campaigns of dubious value, like chasing a Security Council seat, can also hurt the case for foreign aid generally. Tell Canadians that their tax dollars are being spent feeding hungry children and they’re unlikely to call it a waste. But tell them it’s being used to wine and dine diplomats just for bragging rights, and you’re likely to get a very different reaction
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