RISING BY NECESSITY from the ash of its discredited predecessor, the United Nations on the 24th of January 1946 adopted its first resolution — a call for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, particularly of the atomic kind, and thereby for the exclusive, peaceful use of atomic energy.
Canada arrived to that date both a moral and military victor in the war against the totalitarian proposition. The country was also an eminent producer of uranium, as it was of many other primary resources. The geopolitical rearrangements forged by the war left Canada in an ambiguous position. A leading force both at the UN as well as NATO, and a resource rich geographical behemoth, Canada was nonetheless a second-tier nation, punching above its weight.
For those who seek the symmetry of past and present conditions, I’ll observe both this geopolitical big-small-player ambiguity and the deep skepticism of William Lyon Mackenzie King, who attended the UN’s Westminster inauguration but looked doubtfully on its prospects. The failures of the League fresh in memory, King — as did successive Canadian governments — embraced the lofty goals of internationalism but focused on the practical means of advancing economic prosperity and security, always mindful of Canada’s diplomatic and military limits. To the grand declarations of the UN, Louis St. Laurent applied cautionary circumspection, in his 1947 Gray lecture: “There is little point in a country of our stature recommending international action, if those who must carry the burden of whatever action is taken are not in sympathy.”
Laurent’s practical, basic principles of “Canadian external policy” differ only superficially from John Baird’s North Star of fixed principles and immutable goals, presented to the UN in the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ recent speech. Laurent’s principles include national unity, political liberty and the rule of law, the values of a Christian civilization, and the acceptance of international responsibility in keeping with Canada’s conception of its role in world affairs. The innovation of Harper’s Conservative government, relative to the UN, is tactical and not ideological. Here I refer to the good cop/bad cop arrangement which this past week had Mr. Baird politely admonishing the General Assembly as Mr. Harper was elsewhere — including just down the road, where he received a World Statesman of the Year award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.
The claim I mean to advance is that this government’s UN-related positions are less erratic than one might suppose. (The issue of continuity is underscored by the fact that Harper’s world statesman award was previously given to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.) The indictment of Iran and the criticism of Russian and Chinese complicity with the murderous al-Assad regime are instances both of moral clarity and liberty and rule of law orthodoxy, much to be preferred to the discouraging UN displays of past decades and especially since Durban I. The Canadian government’s Iran speeches this past week have focused on principles, “not to counsel any particular action, not to wish any additional hardship on the long-suffering Iranian people and certainly not to advocate war, but rather so that we not shrink from recognizing evil in the world for what it is” and simply to contend “that the international community must do more, must do all it can, to further pressure and isolate this regime.”
The likelihood of military violence now seems elevated, and if the United Nations can not reduce it then the skepticism which connects our era to Mackenzie King’s is rational and well placed and even necessary. The only false note this week was Harper’s shrugging off of his UN non-attendance, which he denied was calculated. Given the UN’s irresolute character, and its ongoing appointments of the Islamic Republic of Iran to international bodies such as the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, it may have been just the sort of calculation required.