A Robust Canada in Uncertain Times


Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney spoke at the UN Association of Canada’s 2019 Global Citizen Award dinner honouring Walied Solomon on Nov. 21 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Brian Mulroney

History shows that the solitary pursuit of self-interest outside the framework of broader international co-operation is never the best means of safeguarding our freedom, ensuring our security or improving our standard of living.

It should never be forgotten that the conduct of foreign policy has important ramifications on the daily lives of Canadians, and it should be approached with that caution in mind. Foreign policy is both the spear to promote and the shield to defend Canada’s interests. 

Speaking in Tokyo in 1991, I said: “In the new age that is dawning, the well-being of each nation will depend on the cooperation of all nations to make global organizations and multilateral systems work.  No nation, like no man will forever be able to remain an island.”

Ambassador Paul Heinbecker, in an insightful Essay, accurately explained the rationale that underpinned the principle I expressed in Tokyo as well as the strategy that governed my conduct of Canadian foreign policy.  “Mulroney believed”, wrote Heinbecker, “that Canada’s vast, difficult-to-defend territory, comparatively modest sized population and dependence on international trade and investment meant that cooperation in creating and upholding international rules of the road, from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, were in Canada’s hard national interests.”

The world stage is the big leagues and if you want to play successfully there you have to conduct yourself that way. Given Canada’s middle power status we cannot afford to be an outlier if we wish to have influence abroad.  

At the turn of the last century, Canada was finishing up its 6th turn on the Security Council. After six consecutive victories only to be rejected for a seat on the UN Security Council by Portugal, is not, as this embarrassing rejection was characterized by the then government of Canada, “a badge of honour.” 

The world had taken note.

Stridency, disruption, and bellicose, but ultimately meaningless, hollow threats are not synonymous with principle and never lead to successful outcomes. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, demonization is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.

And for all the self-congratulatory talk that “Canada is back”, the world has taken note that the rhetoric has not been matched by action.

If we want to dress the rhetorical “Canada is back” up in appropriate clothing, we must begin by gaining the respect of allies by paying our own way.

  1. In 2018, the OECD issued its report on foreign aid contributions by the wealthiest countries in the world.  They concluded by saying the rhetorical engagement “now needs to translate into concrete action.”  No wonder.  Mike Pearson set the target for industrialized nations to commit 0.7 per cent of GDP to foreign aid.  My government raised our contribution to 0.5 per cent en route to the objective.  Then for 25 years, it has been all downhill.  Today Canada is stuck at an anemic and embarrassing 0. 26 per cent of 1 per cent.  
  2. Action would also be living up to our commitments to NATO and meeting the agreed upon spending target of 2 per cent of GDP.  We are currently at 1.2 per cent and have not spent 2 per cent since my government averaged that amount over our almost nine years in office.  
  3. Action would also be once again taking a lead role in United Nations peacekeeping missions as my government did 16 times in nine  years. During that time, Canada was the only country to be a part of every UN peacekeeping operation.  Canada provided 80,000 peacekeepers, a full 10 percent of the UN total. This level of engagement gave us influence in the world and allowed us to shape the overall strategy and purpose of these missions.  In April 1993, a few months before I left office, there were 3336 Canadian peacekeepers.  As of July 31st 2019, there are 150 

As John Manley said: “When the bill arrives at an international meeting, Canada leaves for the washroom.” 

This has unfortunately over time become accurate but it is a pathetic manner for a great nation to seek or assert ambitions of international leadership.  It assumes that our allies and opponents cannot read or count – but believe me, they can do both. 

I would also encourage future Canadian governments to remember that if our foreign affairs policy is to be successful and is to advance Canadian interests it must be enveloped in a broader and more generous perspective, one that takes into account Canadian traditions and the sweep of Canadian history.  Minister Freeland was always conscious of this and performed well on the international stage.

That was the route my government followed and as a result we operated with a degree of success internationally and could leave behind something enduring to mark our passage. 

Does this mean that we were a perfect government?  Of course not.  It simply means that in complex areas of international relations, my government quickly learned how to operate in order to produce strong beneficial results for Canada. 

With France, we led the effort to create the Sommet de la Francophonie and according to Chancelor Kohl, played a significant role in the reunification of Germany. 

We changed existing Canadian foreign policy by advocating the use of force in addressing humanitarian abuses, a principle subsequently adopted by the United Nations as part of its ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Doctrine. 

We hosted the first ever international climate change summit in 1988.  We played a leadership role in the success of the 1992 United Nations Rio Summit and were the first industrialized nation to sign both the Biodiversity Treaty as well as the Climate Change Convention.  

Canada was not only a signatory to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, but Canadian legal experts chaired the group that drafted the text of the Protocol. 

We led the worldwide effort to feed the starving of Ethiopia and played a major role in the liberation of Nelson Mandela, and working in the G7, the Francophonie, the Commonwealth and in the United Nations we saw the end of the reprehensible system of Apartheid.   

We argued successfully for a multilateral response to the 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait which resulted in a unanimous UN Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force, the first and only time since the Korean War in the early 1950s that such a resolution was approved.  It happened that a Canadian, L. Yves Fortier, was President of the Security Council. 

We now live in a world where the events of the moment signal unrelenting pressures of instability, where the U.S. inclination and capacity to assert global leadership is on the wane and where the principles of multilateralism so helpful for the last half of the last century are now under assault. It is easy to be pessimistic, easier still to want to turn inwards.  It is a world, as Ian Bremmer describes, that will be increasingly “every nation for itself”.  

National interests have become paramount at the precise moment when the effects of climate change, the ongoing threat posed by international terrorism, the upheaval created by failed states, the danger posed by failing states with nuclear weapons capability, and an evolving global power structure require greater international cooperation. 

We have a number of tools at our disposal in which we can advance our country’s interests.  But of all those tools, only one, the United Nations, has come under persistent, systematic ad hominem attacks and given that tonight’s event is being hosted by the United Nations Association of Canada, I would like to say a few words in its defence.

These attacks on the UN are not a new phenomenon and also occurred when I was prime minister.  Beginning in early 1980s the United States adopted the position that it would pay its dues to the United Nations at the end of each fiscal year and was almost $1 billion in arrears to the U.N..  This was not an accounting measure.  It caused other member nations to call into question the U.S. commitment to the principles of the Charter and its commitments to live up to its obligations.

In response, my government instituted the “First to Pay” Doctrine. That Doctrine held that Canada would be prepaying our dues on January 1st each year.  This also was not an accounting measure.  As the U.N’s 6th largest donor, it was a concrete demonstration of Canada’s commitment to the principles of the Charter and a signal to laggards like the United States.  

We cannot blame the United Nations for having been unable to put an end to the vicious cycle of force and fear, injustice and violence.  We cannot blame the United Nations for problems that have been caused essentially by self-centered nationalism and our own failures.  We must not make the United Nations a scapegoat when it is our inability to recognize and accept diversity in the world.  We must not blame the United Nation for weaknesses that result from it being a mere human creation.  In the final analysis, while the United Nations may seem powerless in the face of the problems that confront it, it is all that we have. 

The men and women who created the United Nations in 1945 hungered for peace and justice and were guided by high principle.  They sought to create a global forum where they could voice their hopes and fears, their dreams and regrets. 

An Organization in which nations would have the opportunity to bring reason to their relations, to break the chain of violence, to defuse the lust for revenge, to voice their needs, to affirm their dignity and, in the end, to realize the extent to which we are all members of the same species.

The United Nations was created by man and is therefore fragile. For this reason, we must celebrate its existence every day, for it is threatened every day, and it must be protected every day.

Canada has always esteemed the United Nations, its record and its potential.  Our commitment to the principles of the Charter and to international co-operation is no fashionable pose.  For seven decades, under successive Canadian governments of different political stripes, it has been a motive force of our foreign policy.  Time and again, on critical occasions, Canada has responded to appeals from the UN in difficult circumstances.  

Canadians are united in one simple conviction: to better the human condition and to achieve international peace and security; nations acting together can always do more and do it better than nations acting apart.

 We recognize the imperfections and limitations of the United Nations. We know that the Organization is not perfect.  But, when all is said and done, we must surely agree that where the United Nations is weak it is always due to a failure of political will by member states.  That kind of failure is not easily reformed.  It will change only when sovereign States realize that the principles of the Charter are the signposts that lead us all towards mutual respect, collective security and lasting peace. 

In the end, we must all come back to humanism. Humanism generates and shapes international consciousness, cultural progress, economic development, and respect for those values that form the basis for our perception of the world.  

Living by these principles offers, in my judgement, the best hope for us all.