Canada and United Nations

Canada and the United Nations: A New Foreign Policy of Disengagement?


United Nations, IGO, Organization, Multilateral, co-operation, Political Globalization, World Peace, Disengagement, Canada, Canadian Foreign PolicySince the creation of the United Nations (UN), Canada has generally been an enthusiastic supporter of multilateral institutions, recognizing the potential they have to give them a voice on the world stage. This is evident in the fact that Canada had an integral role in the development of the UN and has since then used its underlying principles as a foreign policy guidance for more than six decades.

Recently, many observers have claimed a more withdrawn attitude under the Stephen Harper government regarding engagement with the UN and its principles. They argue that this disengagement is the reprioritizing of security interests at home and abroad along with an incompatibility of values.

Regardless, multilateralist forums such as the UN have allowed Canada’s policymakers to advance Canadian national interests and values, to constrain imperial pressures of its great power allies, and to promote international order.[1] Canada’s participation in multilateral organizations is what many have argued allowed them to ‘punch above its weight’ in the international arena. 

This makes the claim that Canada is distancing and disengaging itself from the UN alarming and in need of a closer examination. This paper will examine Canada’s relationship with the UN. It finds that recently Canada has been disengaging from the UN. However, there is not ample evidence that this disengagement has affected Canada’s influence on the world stage.


Brief History of Relations Between Canada and the United Nations

The UN was created on October 24th, 1945. Canada was one of the original 50 countries that founded the UN which was created at the San Francisco Conference between April 25th and to June 25th, 1945. The UN’s primary objective was to maintain international peace and security, to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights.[2] In spite of Prime Minister Mackenzie Kings doubts about the effectiveness of the new world organization, the delegation that was sent was both non-partisan and well versed in the challenges of global affairs.[3] Canada, often seen as a middle power, realized the potential that existed within multilateral forums and became known for its non-partisan diplomatic stance. This helped Canada develop the identity of a model UN country.

From 1950 to 1970 Canada fully supported humanitarian programs and was involved in multiple peacekeeping missions. In 1955 Canada and the Soviet Union broke the deadlock regarding the membership of new states within the UN resulting in the admission of 16 new states.[4] In 1956 Lester Pearson helped create the first UN peacekeeping force to resolve the Suez Crisis.   By the 1970s Canada and their major allies motives became more self-serving and humanitarian concerns became second to Canada’s desire for trade opportunities lasting until 1993.[5]

During the 1980s the UN went through an internal crisis losing mass support from its members, and the UN found itself lacking in both commitment and resources.[6] However, Canada remained a key figure and continued supplying the UN with money and support during peace endeavors. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau believed that Canada placed too much focus and resources on humanitarian needs and that Canada should move away from being peacekeepers. However, Trudeau’s policy did not extend into Canadian foreign policy and Canada remained an active member of the UN. Canada’s underlying support was the result of the UN giving Canada a role within international decision making. The support of the multilateralism can often demonstrate the weakness of the state position as it is forced to rely on the support of greater powers (United States).[7] Canada’s ability to act as “middle player” within the UN guaranteed Canada’s voice was heard on an international level. This gave Canada capacity to exert a degree of strength and influence.[8]

Starting in the early 1980’s Canada began to take a functionalist approach reflecting self-interest. They used this method on numerous occasions to argue for special concessions to enhance Canada’s influence and status in the multilateral forums.[9] Canada believed that a country should only contribute what the state had to offer.

Canada was not a major military power during the Cold War resulting in the pursuit of niche diplomacies, such as peacekeeping and foreign aid.[10] However, by the late 1990s Canadian Prime Ministers began to turn away from the UN. During this time Canada still had some notable achievements at the UN with Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy spearheading the convention against land mines.

Stephan Harper, Public Policy, Harm Reduction, Government Strategy, Foreign Policy, United Nations, NATO, Disengagement, CanadaHowever, by the 21st century, Stephan Harper drastically changed Canada’s involvement by dismissing the UN for its ‘moral relativity’ and declaring that Canada ‘will no longer go along to get along.’[11] This position has represented a definitive break from the past in how Canada has dealt with the UN.



An Analysis of Canada’s Recent Disengagement from the United NAtions

            In recent years Canada has been disengaging itself from the UN. On several occasions, Canada has stated that it would no longer seek to ‘‘go along to get along’’ with the ‘‘moral relativist crowd.’’[12]. This signals a departure in Canada’s attitude towards the UN unprecedented in history. As Roland Paris points out, “these remarks conveyed a degree of disregard for the organization that contrasted sharply with the pronouncements of previous Canadian governments, which had sometimes criticized the world body, but rarely derided it.”[13] Many Canadian governments have been skeptical and voiced their concerns regarding the UN. However, the same individuals have attempted to reform it from the inside rather that stand and criticize it from the sidelines. Canada has had a reputation for the preference of multilateral diplomacy and for the desire to enhance the normative framework within which international organizations operate, not to disregard it. This disengagement from the UN because of its perceived effectiveness has only been further reinforced through many of Canada’s decisions in recent years.

Harper has only reinforced the message of a disengaging Canada. Many of his actions such as the decisions to not address the UN general assembly in its annual sessions for three consecutive years indicate that Canada has turned it back to the UN. He only showed up to the assembly three times in his nine years in office. Furthermore, the message of a reclusive Canada was further reinforced when in 2012, Foreign Minister John Baird went further, announcing that Canadian diplomats would no longer involve themselves in discussions of the UN’s internal workings.[14] This shows how Canada sees the UN as being dysfunctional and that resources are best spent in other places such as NATO. Canada hasn’t only disengaged politically; it has also disengaged itself militarily.

Since Stephen Harper came to power in 2006 Canada’s personal contribution to the United Nations, have been at historical lows (Graph B). From the most current number available (2014), Canada only commits 115 personal (88 are assigned to the police force), a subtle reflection of Canada’s ongoing commitment to security over development.[15] This number barely ranks up against top contributors such as Bangladesh (8420 total), Ethiopia (8307 total), and India (7793 total).[16] There were times in Canadian history where Canada had over 3000 personal dedicated to UN operations, a force which has now been reduced to a ‘bus load of people.’ However, where Canada has realigned its commitment is even more interesting. The decline in the diplomatic grounds of the United Nations has been correlated with an inclined dedication to the battleground of NATO. From Harper’s commitment to Afghanistan, Libya, the Baltics, and Syria; Canada has been showing dedication to NATO and its objective rather than the UN not only politically but also militarily.


Graph A

Canada's Decreasing Contribution to United Nations
Canada’s Decreasing Contribution To United Nation

Graph B

Canada's Personnel Contributions to United Nations
Canada’s Personnel Contribution To United Nations

Source- Peacekeeping, Peacebuilding, and Religious Leader Engagement – [17]

As graph A shows Canada had already been declining in its commitment to the United Nations, however, following 2006 there was a severe decline in Canada’s rank regarding contributions to the UN that has yet to be reinvigorated. This decrease was reinforced and has been over the years by Canada’s commitment of resources to other organizations and places such as Afghanistan, Libya, the Baltics, and Syria. This commitment to prioritizing NATO over the UN was evident when the UN requested for Canada to participate in the peacekeeping mission in Congo. The UN offered Canada a lead role in the mission in exchange for more than the handful of forces that they wanted to offer. After becoming heavily politicized Foreign Minister Catherine Loubier stepped in stating, “We’re fully engaged in Afghanistan until 2011, and that’s what we’re concentrating on for now.”[18] Canada never participated in the mission in Congo, however, dedicated over 2800 troops to Afghanistan. It is evident Canada’s priorities have changed; Canada has shifted focus from the political arm of the UN towards the military portion of NATO which represents a break from the past with relations to the UN and helps support the argument that Canadas’ disengagement is a reprioritizing of security interests at home and abroad. Canada has turned down many peacekeeping requests by the UN, however, under Harper Canada has participated in every NATO mission.

Canada has an extensive history of UN peacekeeping. This means that disengaging from peacekeeping to that of a peacemaking role through NATO operations in places such as Afghanistan is a leap from the past. Although it is a worthy cause fighting ISIS and other Islamic extremists in the Middle East, it is hard to justify when there are many other places such as Darfur, Congo, and Haiti which are just as desperately in need of assistance. Canada forgoing its role as a mediator has put it at odds with the UN by sacrificing its leadership role on many key issues. This, however, is a clear reflection of how Canada has made a point of investing into organizations it seems to be more useful and valuable that other ineffective ones, along with a reorientation of priorities. Canada, however, has not only withdrawn itself politically and militarily. It has also disengaged itself economically from the UN, shifting its priorities elsewhere.

Further proof of Canada’s disengagement from the UN comes from Matlas Margullsm. He argues that the government has engaged in a forum-shifting strategy. Within his paper, he shows how the current government has shifted resources to increase its reputation among a small group of peer states at the G8 at the expense of a diminished relationship and influence at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security. (UNCFS)[19] (9) He concludes that Canada’s marginal influence and peripheral status at this body undermines the government’s claims of global leadership. Canada’s disengagement seems to align with a reprioritising of Canada’s agenda.

Causes of Canadian Disengagement From The United Nations

The reasons for the deterioration of Canada-UN relations can be traced to many of Canada’s recent foreign policy decisions under the so-called ‘conservative revolution.’[20] Since Stephen Harper took power, it is generally agreed that there has been a ‘big break’ in Canadian foreign policy.[21] Within this Stephen Harper has attempted to reshape the Canadian image while disregarding many (if not all) of the principles of liberal internationalism which have been a guiding force

in Canadian Foreign Policy. This transformation, however, does not fit the global image Canada has retained as a model UN country nor the image Canadian citizens maintained. This incompatibility between values created a friction that has not existed before between Canada and the UN. As a result, there has been an erosion of Canada’s legitimacy at the UN which has isolated Canada, further reinforcing Canada’s disengagement. In this view then, the UN function is not the cause for Canada’s withdrawal. Instead, the cause is the leadership in Canada and what that leadership values.

Under Stephen Harper’s policies, Canada has had credibility issues which have consistently put them at odds with the UN and reinforced Canada’s withdrawal from the multilateral organization. Canada is now viewed by many in the health and environmental communities as a rogue nation which is regularly given awards by international civil society organizations for playing a particularly destructive role in obstructing international negotiations on significant global health, human rights, and environmental challenges.[22] Consistently Canada is the ‘odd man out’ on many issues. In 2013 Canada withdrew from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) becoming the only country in the UN to withdraw.[23] Canada was only one of three countries to not sign the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights. Recently the UN slammed Canada in a human rights report regarding treatment of aboriginals and has advocated concerns against Harpers Bill C-51. Drug policy groups now say Canada has joined ranks with China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia in aggressively opposing European endorsements of health policies aimed at reducing harms, such as HIV transmission, among drug users.[24] Canada has consistently vetoed resolutions against Israel taking an uncompromising stance towards the conflict. These are all reasons that “Canadian values” do not align with UN under Stephen Harper, which has created a rift between Canada and the institution whom now regularly condemns them.


Consequences of Canada’s Disengagement From the United Nations

A historical moment in defining how far UN relations disintegrated under Harper was in 2010 when Canada failed to capture one of two temporary seats on the United Nations Security Council. Canada competes for a position roughly once every decade and has always succeeded.[25] However, in an apparent blatant rejection of Canada’s new direction under Stephen Harper, Canada lost to Germany and Portugal. That aside, the chill in the relationship could still be felt over the issue when in 2014 Foreign Minister John Baird revealed that Canada would focus on other priorities rather than mount a fresh campaign for a spot on the United Nations Security Council.[26] Feedback from U.N. diplomats confirmed that Canada’s defeat was in large part due to Ottawa’s recent unqualified support for Israel policies and actions.[27] The loss also highlighted an even greater problem for Canada with the UN; it questioned Canada’s legitimacy and credibility in the international arena, and its relevance to the world stage. It is evident to see that in recent times Canada’s relationship with the UN has been eroding, but even more, it is a clear sign the world no longer sees Canada as the model citizen it once was. However, besides the loss the UN Security Council seat, which many marked as a humiliating defeat for Canada, there is not much evidence that supports this disengagement from the United Nations has hurt Canada. Canada’s reputation at the UN may have dimmed. However, it hasn’t affected Canada in the international arena. Harper still managed to secure numerous FTA as well as bolster a new Canadian reputation in NATO. It is still business as usual for the Harper government, and it appears Canada just traded their most tangible currency ‘soft power’ for some hard power.


Canada has a history of embracing multilateral institutions to increase its power on the world stage. Recently many have noticed a more withdrawn tone in Canada’s attitude towards the UN. This retracted position is caused by a reprioritising of Canadian security both at home and abroad, as well as a clashing of principles. This has led Canada to dismiss the UN as dysfunctional and reallocate their resources to other places it sees as more effective such as NATO. This disengagement by Canada is alarming ; however, there is not concrete evidence to prove this has hurt Canada in the international arena. Overall, this paper investigates the claim that Canada has been disengaging from the UN. It finds that recently Canada has begun to disengage itself from the UN politically, militarily, and economically. However, it is uncertain what effects this has had on Canada. Besides the loss of the UN Security Council seat, there is not ample evidence that this new approach affected Canada in any other way that its credibility on the world stage.



[1] Cristina Badescu, “Canada’s Continuing Engagement with United Nations Peace Operations,” Canadian Foreign Policy 16 (2010): 45-60.

[2] “Canada and the United Nations,” Government of Canada

[3] Adam Chapnick, “A great small country on the international scene,” International Journal 67.4 (2012): 1063- 1072. 

[4] Chadwick F, Alger ed., Gene M. Lyons ed., and John E. Trent., United Nations System: The Policies of member states (United States: United Nations University Press, 1995)

[5] Adam Chadwick, The Middle Power Project Canada and the Founding of the United Nations (Canada: UBC Press, 2005)

[6] Ibid

[7] Adam Chadwick, The Middle Power Project Canada and the Founding of the United Nations (Canada: UBC Press, 2005)

[8] G. Det. Glazebrook, “The Middle Powers in the United Nations System,” International Organization 2, (1947): 307-315. 

[9] Elizabeth Riddell- Dixon, “Canada at the United Nations 1945-1989,” International Journal 1 (2006/2007): 145-160.  153

[10] Ibid, 150

[11] Ronald Paris, “Are Canadians still liberal internationalists? Foreign Policy and public opinion in the Harper era,” International Journal 3 (2014): 274-307. UOTTAWA

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] John Libbitson, “Canada Gives Cold Shoulder to the UN,” Globe and Mail, October 1st, 2012 

[15] “Troops and Police Contributes,” United Nations Peacekeeping, 

[16] Ibid

[17] Michael Byers, “After Afghanistan: Canada’s Return to UN Peacekeeping,” National Defense and the Canadian Forces, 

[18] Ibid

[19] Matlas Margullsm “Canada at the G8 and UN Committee on World Food Security: forum-shifting in global food security governance,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 2 (2015): 164-178. Taylor Francis Online,

[20] Jordan Michael Smith, “Reinventing Canada,” World Affairs 6 (2012): 21-28. EBSCOHOST, 

[21] John Ibbitson, “The Big Break The Conservative Transformation of Canada’s Foreign Policy,” CIGI PAPERS 29 (2014): 1- 18.

[22] Timothy Gravelle and Thomas Scotto and Jason Reifler and Harold Clarke, “Foreign policy beliefs and support for Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 2 (2014): 111- 130. Taylor Francis Online, 

[23] Unknown, “Seven Days The News in Brief,” Nature International Weekly Journal of Science 496 (2013): 1- 11. Nature, 

[24] Paul Christopher, “Canada opposes harm reduction policies for drug users,” Canadian Medical Association 184.6 (2014): 256,

[25] David Ljunggren, “Canada frets about winning Security Council seat,” Reuters Canada, 

[26] Stephanie Levitz, “Canada won’t run for UN Security Council seat in 2014,” The Globe and Mail, May 1st, 2013, 

[27] Ian Williams, “Canada Loses Bid for Security Council Seat Due to Recent Unqualified Support of Israel,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 29.9 (2010): 30. Gale Databases, 


Alger Chadwick F, ed, and Gene M. Lyons ed, and John E. Trent. United Nations System: The Policies of member states. United States: United Nations University Press, 1995.

 Badescu, Cristina. “Canada’s Continuing Engagement with United Nations Peace Operations.”Canadian Foreign Policy 16 (2010): 45-60. 

Byers, Michael. “After Afghanistan: Canada’s Return to UN Peacekeeping.” National Defense and the Canadian Forces. 

“Canada and the United Nations.” Government of Canada. 

Chadwick, Adam. The Middle Power Project Canada and the Founding of the United Nations. Canada: UBC Press, 2005.

Chapnick, Adam. “A great small country on the international scene.” International Journal 67.4(2012): 1063- 1072. JSTOR. 

Christopher, Paul. “Canada opposes harm reduction policies for drug users,” Canadian Medical Association 184.6 (2014): 256. CMAJ .

Glazebrook, G. Det. “The Middle Powers in the United Nations System.” International Organization 2, (1947): 307-315.

Gravelle, Timothy and Thomas Scotto and Jason Reifler and Harold Clarke, “Foreign policy beliefs and support for Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 2 (2014): 111- 130. Taylor Francis Online, 

Ibbitson, John. “The Big Break The Conservative Transformation of Canada’s Foreign Policy.”CIGI PAPERS 29 (2014): 1- 18 

Levitz, Stephanie. “Canada won’t run for UN Security Council seat in 2014.” The Globe and Mail, May 1st, 2013. 

Libbitson, John. “Canada Gives Cold Shoulder to the UN.” Globe and Mail. October 1st, 2012. 

Ljunggren, David. “Canada frets about winning Security Council seat.” Reuters Canada. 

Paris, Ronald. “Are Canadians still liberal internationalists? Foreign Policy and public opinion in the Harper era.” International Journal 3 (2014): 274-307. UOTTAWA

Riddell- Dixon, Elizabeth. “Canada at the United Nations 1945-1989.” International Journal 1 (2006/2007): 145-160. 

Smith, Jordan Michael “Reinventing Canada.” World Affairs 6 (2012): 21-28

“Troops and Police Contributes.” United Nations Peacekeeping. 

Unknown. “Seven Days The News in Brief.” Nature International Weekly Journal of Science 496 (2013): 1- 11. Nature. 

Williams, Ian. “Canada loses Bid for Security Council Seat Due to Recent Unqualified Support of Israel.” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 29.9 (2010): 30. 

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