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The world is about to learn if Canada is truly back on the international stage, just as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared it was after leading the Liberals to victory five years ago.
Canada is vying Wednesday for one of two nonpermanent U.N. Security Council seats reserved for Western European and “other” nations — a privilege the country hasn't held in two decades. It lost its last race in 2010, a defeat interpreted as a rebuke of then Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's foreign policy and his general attitude toward the UN.
Trudeau could be facing an embarrassing defeat against much smaller but still formidable opponents in Norway, which many regard as a shoo-in, and Ireland. Both countries have been campaigning for spots since the mid-2000s.
A victory would give Canada, with fewer residents than the state of California, instant global cachet — providing it direct access to representatives for the most powerful nations on the planet and heightened relevance among the rest of the international community.
In domestic terms, a loss, while mostly symbolic, could deliver a blow to Trudeau’s standing, putting a black mark on his efforts to grow Canada’s reach.
“The prime minister will be forced to wear that loss personally," said Adam Chapnick, the author of a book about Canada’s history on the Security Council and a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.
Canada hasn’t held a Security Council seat since 2000. Until then, it had been present on the council in every decade since the United Nations' inception.
Voting begins Wednesday but is expected to extend into Thursday given social distancing guidelines that will govern the process at U.N. headquarters. In that scenario, Ottawa may not know until Thursday if it has bested one of its rivals — or if it faces another long wait before it returns to the vaunted panel.
“Being in the tent, at the council table, gives an opportunity for a country like Canada, a middle power, to solidify the role of the premier multilateral institution in the world,” said Yves Fortier, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.N. who served on the council from 1989 until 1990.
And Canada has something to give, according to Marc-André Blanchard, Canada's ambassador to the U.N. The country's convening power — its ability to convince other countries to come together to tackle global issues — and its focus on economic security among developing nations have been on display during the novel coronavirus pandemic, he said.
“We were able to show the world that we are big enough that we can convene but we are small enough to understand that we cannot do it alone and that we need to work together," Blanchard told POLITICO.
The five pillars of Canada's platform — sustaining peace, fighting climate change, promoting economic security, elevating the rights of women and girls and crafting an inclusive multilateral system — “all of these issues are coming out now when you look at the pandemic as essential issues to be dealt with for the future," Blanchard said.
Indeed, Canada kicked its Covid-19 diplomacy into high gear as worldwide lockdowns dragged on.
Trudeau co-hosted a U.N. summit with Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness in May focused on how to finance international development as the world recovers from the pandemic's economic fallout. Blanchard said the event was organized in less than 10 days. A week later, Trudeau spoke to members of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States — regions his government has targeted for support — and then pledged $850 million to a global vaccine research initiative. That's in addition to a slew of phone calls to world leaders, many of whom hail from Africa and the Caribbean, plus other small nations.
And the Trudeau government announced Monday that the Canadian military would offer airlift support to move medical and humanitarian supplies throughout Africa, Europe and the Middle East, fulfilling a U.N. request.
“This puts Canada in the mind of the other countries — the leadership of Prime Minister Trudeau with respect to this initiative and others, that’s extremely important," Fortier said. "That says, 'We are here.'"
Before the pandemic enveloped North America, Trudeau traveled to Africa on a trip widely interpreted as a campaign stop for the seat. He had to cancel an appearance at a Caribbean summit weeks later due to domestic protests over Indigenous land rights and energy development that had snarled rail traffic.
In addition to personal visits to those countries, Trudeau dispatched former Prime Minister Joe Clark and former Quebec Premier Jean Charest as envoys to promote Canada's candidacy for the Security Council.
Still, Chapnick and former Canadian envoys to Turtle Bay pointed out several issues that could trip up Ottawa’s bid.
A major one is the four-year time frame in which Trudeau has campaigned for a seat — Canada jumped into the race in 2016, while Ireland and Norway declared their candidacies in 2005 and 2007, respectively.
While it’s important for Canada to have regular representation on the council, Chapnick said, the political calculation to run this cycle “was a very bad one,” given the truncated campaign time and the fact Ottawa forced a contest.
Stephen Lewis, who served as Canada’s ambassador to the U.N. from 1984 until 1988, said Canada has two big deficiencies competing against Norway and Ireland — its level of official development assistance and its peacekeeping presence worldwide.
Norway regularly gives the U.N. target of 0.7 percent of gross national income in development aid, while Canada’s comes in at 0.27 percent. Meanwhile, Ireland has 474 peacekeepers deployed on U.N. missions and has prioritized peacekeeping in its platform, whereas Canada contributes 35 such personnel.
Canada promised more peacekeepers than it ultimately deployed to Mali in 2018. The fact it ended the mission early after a year “is probably not a good sign, or a good signal to the world generally,” Lewis said, noting the irony that a Canadian prime minister, Lester B. Pearson, is credited with founding modern-day peacekeeping.
Trudeau also has been distracted by political upheaval at home during the course of the campaign. While he made the bid a priority early in his first government, Chapnick said, President Donald Trump deciding NAFTA should be renegotiated “changed everything for Canada,” as then-Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland took the reins on the country’s relationship with the U.S.
“It’s really hard to run a campaign from behind when you don’t have support from the center,” he said.
Blanchard said Canada's development assistance is "very substantial in absolute terms," and is focused on aiding woman and girls and on providing innovative financing that can ensure money moves quickly to where it's needed. More than 125,000 Canadian peacekeepers have served in the past 60 years, he said, and Canada has focused its peacekeeping efforts of late on where it can make the most impact.
"The engagement of Canada is bigger than any of these countries in many ways," Blanchard said.
Trudeau’s politically tumultuous 2019 — an ethics scandal followed by an election campaign that uncovered past photos of the Liberal leader in blackface and racist garb — also may have affected member countries’ confidence that he’d remain in power for the seat’s 2021-2022 term.
But now, Ireland is in a similar position to Canada eight months ago. Irish voters sent the ruling government packing in February, and it's unclear how member nations will evaluate the prospect of the forthcoming coalition government this week.
Blanchard has spent the past three months meeting virtually with his U.N. colleagues, a development he acknowledges is far from ideal, even though the pandemic has compelled countries to discuss "substantial" issues.
“What's missing is the softer side of diplomacy," he said, like bumping into other ambassadors in the hallways of headquarters, or chatting with them over meals.
In the final days of the campaign, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne joined Blanchard in New York to help work the phones and to make some socially distanced visits to other diplomats. Trudeau will make his final campaign push to U.N. member states Tuesday night.
Regardless of the vote outcome, “we will continue to be more involved on the world stage," Trudeau said Tuesday.
Trudeau's pursuit isn't without its critics. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer blasted the prime minister Tuesday for cozying up to world leaders he called "dictators and human rights violators" as part of "a personal vanity project at the U.N."
A loss this week may not seriously threaten Trudeau's political future in Canada, especially since the Conservatives presided over the country's loss the last time it vied for a seat. But it likely would be an embarrassing setback for a prime minister who's made global engagement with multilateral institutions a chief focus of his leadership.
Chapnick said he thinks Canada has done everything it needed to do during the past few months to secure a win this week.
“The question is: Is it too late?” he said.
Maura Forrest contributed to this report.