UN defeat reflects uneasiness about Canada's shifting role

After its humiliating rejection at the UN last week, the Harper government wasted no time in signalling it didn't plan to pay the slightest attention to the judgment of the world's nations.

Perhaps it is too much to expect some humility -- or even a moment of reflection -- in Ottawa after the international community declined for the first time ever to grant Canada's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Like a kid who can't get along with the other kids in the sandbox, our prime minister promptly implied he never wanted to play with them anyway, that he wasn't interested in winning "based on popularity." Meanwhile, Conservative commentators suggested Canada's rejection by the world's nations amounted to a "moral victory."

This graceless display of sour grapes did little to conceal the fact that this defeat is a problem for Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Redesigning Canada's role in the world has been one of the key changes attempted by the Conservatives. They've spent years trying to sell Canadians on a new narrative -- about Canada as a nation that keenly shoulders heavy burdens in real wars, having shaken off that girlie peacekeeping stuff. Harper-era TV ads for the Canadian Forces have shunned peacekeeping images and instead urged young Canadians to "fight chaos; fight terror; fight with the Canadian Forces."

But this attempt to repackage us as a warrior nation has always been a top-down effort, orchestrated by Conservatives and our military establishment, not a grassroots yearning among Canadians for a more muscular role in the world. Indeed, exactly the opposite has been the case.

In polling done last year for the Department of National Defence, Ipsos Reid found Canadians not only strongly attached to peacekeeping, but becoming increasingly so.

Based on in-depth interviews with focus groups, the March 2009 survey found Canadians to be keenly supportive of Canada's role as peacekeepers and deliverers of humanitarian assistance, but having growing reservations about our soldiers engaging in actual warfare. The survey found that fully 50 per cent of Canadians -- up from 46 per cent the year before -- supported a "peacekeeping only" role for Canada.

Ipsos Reid concludes that while Canadians sense a shift is underway, they "seem to be experiencing nostalgia" for Canada's traditional role.

The shift away from peacekeeping is part of the Harper government's overall coolness toward the UN. Purged from Canadian policy today is any meaningful support for a UN-oriented "human security agenda," including efforts aimed at prevention of armed conflict, protection of civilians, peace-building, disarmament and international humanitarian law.

Indeed, breaking with the Canadian tradition of making the UN the cornerstone of our foreign policy, the Harper government has pushed a narrow set of obstructionist policies which it defines as being in Canada's interests.

Harper may try to wear this UN defeat as a badge of honour, but the rejection actually stings because it mirrors and reinforces an uneasiness felt by Canadians. It reminds us that others around the world are also experiencing nostalgia for the other Canada.

What the world liked was the Canada that helped find collective solutions, that promoted peace and respected -- even advanced -- international law.

It also reminds us that if we want to continue to feel welcome and appreciated as we travel the world, we might consider getting some Portuguese flags for our luggage.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. This article was originally published in The Toronto Star.

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