TORONTO, ONT – Justin Trudeau arrived on the world stage with rock star popularity in 2015. He declared “Canada is back” and made winning a seat on the powerful U.N. Security Council a top foreign policy priority.
But Canada lost out to Norway and Ireland this week in a three-way race for two seats. It was Canada’s second consecutive defeat in a bid for a seat and an especially big blow to Trudeau.
“There is no doubt that this is not the result I was hoping for,” the prime minister said a day after Wednesday's vote.
Trudeau blamed the loss on Canada’s late start in campaigning for the seats. Norway and Ireland had declared their candidacies for the seats well before Trudeau was elected in 2015, after which he announced Canada’s intention to run.
“The reality was, coming in five years later than them gave us a delay that we unfortunately weren’t able to overcome,” Trudeau said. He gave no other reasons why Canada lost.
The loss was especially embarrassing because of Canada's stature as an economic powerhouse, part of the G7 and a member of NATO.
Some U.N. diplomats say Canada ran a good campaign, maybe even the best campaign, but added that when it comes to voting at the United Nations, especially by a secret ballot, governments have many other considerations.
As part of North America, some experts say Canada suffers because of its geographic association with the United States, even though Trudeau and President Donald Trump often don’t see eye-to-eye on issues like free trade and climate change.
It also had supported Israel over the Palestinians in the General Assembly, a stance that did not go unnoticed by the Arab League and the larger 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, although there was a sudden shift in November when Canada backed Palestinian rights to self-determination.
Canada also has had brushes with China and Japan.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said the failure to win a Security Council seat was "a big blow to Trudeau, although the result was not surprising.”
“Trudeau may be popular with women when he travels abroad, but that doesn’t cut it in U.N. politics,” Wiseman said. “Canada is back, as Trudeau says, but at the end of the line.”
Because of the Security Council’s mandate to ensure international peace and security, winning a seat is considered a pinnacle of achievement for many countries. It gives them a strong voice on crucial issues such as sanctions, as well as war and peace ranging from conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Africa and Ukraine to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and Iran, and attacks by extremist groups.
Trudeau tried to sell Canada’s bid by noting that the multilateral system is challenged by large countries withdrawing their support for engagement on the world stage. He said world needs medium-sized countries like Canada to step up and defend it.
“We will remain committed to multilateralism," he said. "It also matters to many, many countries around the world that Canada continues to be present in defending multilateralism.”
Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, said the loss was "a blow to Trudeau because he set it up to be one.”
Canada lost for a number of reasons, he said, including the fact that its neighbor is the United States and it has not had much success at “establishing linkages” with other countries. He also said European countries usually support others in Europe and Arab countries tend to vote in terms of Israel.
It’s not known how Japan voted, but Bothwell said Trudeau likely angered Tokyo when he delayed signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
China-Canada relations also are at a low. Chinese prosecutors charged two detained Canadians with spying Friday in an apparent bid to pressure Canada to drop a U.S. extradition request for an executive of China's technology giant Huawei who is under house arrest in Vancouver.
Bothwell also said Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, took no interest in the U.N. during her tenure as foreign minister.
Canada’s loss came in the first round of voting in the U.N. General Assembly, where 192 of the 193 U.N. member nations cast secret ballots for five new Security Council members.
Canada needed 128 votes — two-thirds of the voting members of the assembly. Norway passed the threshold with 130 votes and Ireland got 128 votes. Canada fell short with 108 votes.
Trudeau actually finished with fewer votes than Canada’s previous prime minister, Conservative Stephen Harper, received in 2010. Trudeau’s Liberals, who were in opposition at the time, blamed Conservative foreign policy for the previous failure.
Norway and Ireland will start two-year terms on the council on Jan. 1 along with India and Mexico, who won uncontested seats, and Kenya, which defeated Djibouti in a second round of voting Thursday.
Respected columnist Paul Wells wrote a stinging rebuke of the current government in Maclean’s magazine.
“Believing it would fall from the heavens on Trudeau because he wasn’t Harper was an expression of the narcissism and shallowness that have characterized this government during much of its time in office,” Wells wrote.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.