What does it mean that Canada failed in its bid for a seat on the UN security council?

For the world, perhaps not much. The countries that prevailed, Ireland and Norway, will likely push the body in the direction Canada would have — toward a more generous, progressive, rules-based internationalism. For many Canadians, too, the defeat will seem remote, of little consequence particularly amid a pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused.

But the result raises important questions about Canada’s role in the world, and the fallout tells us something about the high risks of symbolic politics in an age of distrust.

The Liberals have been defensive in the days since the decision, and not without reason. They and their defenders point out that Canada started campaigning much more recently than its rivals and that our inclusion in the western European voting bracket puts us at a disadvantage. Still, by the traditional measures of a country’s positive foreign influence — aid, peacekeeping, consistent moral leadership — Canada was outclassed by its opponents.

It would be a shame if the government’s defensiveness got in the way of needed reflection: Is reclaiming our once-vaunted international soft power still a priority? If no, so be it, but then we shouldn’t be wasting time and resources trying to win a seat on the council. If yes, how do we intend to do that? Canada invented the goal of spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid. We’re nowhere close to that today. We invented peacekeeping. We hardly do it anymore. We are often neither here nor there on the defining issues of foreign policy leadership. What distinguishes us?

For Trudeau, the decision was no doubt a political blow. Voters rarely make decisions based on foreign affairs, but the security council miss raises old questions about one of Trudeau’s defining frailties: the gap between symbol and substance. The PM claimed on election night in 2015 that Canada was “back,” by which he meant back as a bulwark of democracy and a force on the international stage after the retrenchment of the Harper years. But of course, it takes more than an election victory to realize those aspirations.

The Harper government cut back on international development and aid, withdrew from peacekeeping and was a laggard on the environment. The Liberals have put more focus on some of these areas, but nearly a year into the government’s second term, we are still far from a world leader in any.

It’s little wonder Trudeau’s critics have found such schadenfreude in the PM’s defeat. In 2010, the Liberals, then in opposition, gleefully made hay of Stephen Harper’s failed attempt to secure the seat, repeatedly pointing out that Harper’s was the first such failure in Canadian history. In retrospect, those attacks seem a bit rich. Some Liberals have chastised critics for bucking convention and taking shots at the government for Canada’s embarrassment at the UN. But it’s nothing they didn’t do first. Trudeau’s glib “Canada is back,” and the sanctimony underlying it, became a punchline this week.

These are the high risks of the politics of symbolism. To say we’re back when we’re not yet back. To take a knee at an ant-racism rally, as Trudeau did, but delay on the file such that half of your own cabinet signs a letter calling for urgent intervention. To position your government as a champion of the Paris climate accord while failing to move the country significantly toward those very commitments. The shallow pool of precious public trust gets shallower still every time a symbol isn’t matched with substance, every time a beacon of hope suddenly looks like hypocrisy. For many, fairly or not, that’s what the failure at the UN will mean.

By Jordan Himelfarb in The Star