Canada’s Trudeau campaigns for rotating chair on U.N. Security Council

Justin Trudeau walks from Parliament in Ottawa on Oct. 20, 2015.
(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)

Don’t look for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau around here. He’s on the campaign trail.

Not in Alberta and Saskatchewan, two western provinces that have resisted his appeal and that are in rebellion against his Liberal government over its energy policies and global warming initiatives. Nor in Quebec, where Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet has told Trudeau that he cannot count on that party’s support to shore up his minority government and avoid a new election.

For the record:

9:45 a.m. Feb. 7, 2020An earlier version of this article identified Sahle-Work Zewde as the first female president of Senegal. Shis is the first female president of Ethiopia.

Instead, Trudeau is barnstorming in Africa, with stops in Ethiopia and Senegal, in pursuit of one of the 10 rotating two-year chairs in the United Nations Security Council. Canada hasn’t held one in two decades, and withdrew from consideration in 2010 when it became apparent that Portugal had outflanked it for a position.

Africa’s 54 votes in the election give it the same sort of power of California in the electoral college, and the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, late this week is a kind of nonbinding Super Tuesday in the campaign for the Security Council seat, which Norway and Ireland are also vying for. At the summit, Trudeau is sure to spread the Canadian gospel of inclusion, diversity and tolerance.


For the last several years the phrase “The World Needs More Canada” has appeared on book covers, store walls, tea towels and coffee mugs. Barack Obama even employed the phrase. It serves as a brisk summary of the message Trudeau intends to take to leaders including Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Sahle-Work Zewde, the first female president of Ethiopia, and with leaders in Senegal, which like Canada counts French as an official language.

Indeed, Trudeau’s office made special efforts to indicate that his visit to Senegal was intended “to further our two countries’ already strong ties through La Francophonie.”

The impetus behind this unlikely global campaign is in large measure a quest for global prestige. But there is a substantive reason for it beyond Trudeau’s yearning for an international profile to match that of his late father, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Canada is committed to revisions in world protocols it won two decades ago to protect civilians in combat areas.

In Africa, increased ties to Canada may be welcomed by many with open arms. And in his 2015 campaign for a second term, Trudeau promised to sketch a bigger foreign role for Canada — “Canada is back,” he insisted — and, in a statement last week, he said, “In a rapidly changing world, Canada needs to be a leader on the international stage.”

Over time, Canada has had a tradition of selfless international involvement, especially peacekeeping; long before he became Canada’s prime minister, Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize as “the man who contributed more than anyone else to save the world” during the 1956 Suez Crisis by sending peacekeepers to the Middle East. On 9/11 for example, when U.S.-bound airliners were rerouted to Newfoundland, the inspiration for the celebrated Broadway show “Come From Away” — Canada stepped up.

But when it comes to the Security Council seat, Norway and Ireland are also viewed sympathetically.


Though Canada has delivered $1.2 billion in aid since 2000, Norway has a contribution rate to international development assistance that is nearly four times as great as Canada’s. Ireland, a symbol of economic growth, plays a more substantial part in international peacekeeping efforts, a role created and once dominated by Canada.

As well, neither Norway nor Ireland has a long border and such direct ties with the United States, which has emerged as no friend of the United Nations and which has a president who has upended the international order.

“This whole thing will be difficult if Canada gets on the council,” said Jennifer Welsh, who holds a research chair in global governance and security at Montreal’s McGill University. “It will have to take public positions against both the United States and China at a time when it would like to keep its head down toward both of them.”

Canada did break with the United States — and with its own tradition, going back 14 consecutive votes in more than a dozen years on the same issue — by supporting a U.N. resolution in November supporting Palestinians’ right to self-determination. It resulted in friction with Washington, but a vote in defiance of American interests in the General Assembly, where there are 193 nations, is far less obvious and significant than one in the Security Council, where there are 15 members.

Some inside Trudeau’s government believe the campaign is not worth the cost in effort and expense and is more likely to result in embarrassment than in triumph. Critics of the prime minister, meanwhile, believe his appeal to other nations is unseemly, offers little real payback and underscores Trudeau’s lack of diplomatic sophistication and his ignorance of how the world works.

So why does Trudeau want this so much that Canada has been willing to pour $1.5 million into a campaign in which it is an underdog?


Trudeau surely wants it to differentiate himself from former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was skeptical of Canada’s peacekeeping tradition and generally more concerned with domestic politics than with international politics.

But Canada also wants to pursue initiatives for private financing for development and to work toward further strengthening protections of civilians in armed conflicts.

“Our traditional role is that of the helpful fixer, and it is necessary,” said Colin Robertson, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “A seat will... give us ongoing access to the Chinese and Russians, which can help defrost these relationships.”

There remains another element to this campaign, which is whether the effort itself is un-Canadian.

“There was a time when we Canadians thought boasting about your country was something Americans did,” the Financial Times columnist William Watson wrote three years ago. “In the 50 years since [the centennial of Canadian confederation in] 1967, we’ve learned to do it, too, even to the extent of boasting about our modesty. In terms of brand promotion, it seems, we are all Trumps now.”

Shribman is a special correspondent.