Stephen Harper was in New York when the 67th annual General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGA) opened, but did not see fit to attend. Indeed, he made a point of not attending.  

Under Harper, Canadian foreign policy features over 40 secret bilateral negotiations of trade and investment agreements, conducted in consultation with business leaders. 

For those interested in knowing the definition of Canadian national security see … “American Republican.” Canada is undertaking a major military build-up, and downgrading diplomatic missions. The government explains the latter as cost-saving, and offers no coherent account of the money wasting involved in the former. 

Every September world leaders gather to address what the current UNGA president, Vuk Jeremić, the 37-year-old Serbian foreign minister, and a Cambridge physics graduate called “the greatest of parliaments.” 

Monday Foreign Minister Baird, not Harper, spoke condemning Russian and China for not authorizing UN military intervention in Syria, and making threats against Iran. It is no trivial matter that Stephen Harper prefers to conduct foreign policy behind closed doors, rather than address the world public directly.

The carnage of the First World War led to the creation of the League of Nations. It was to be based on “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at,” as stated in the Fourteen Points of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. At the Paris Peace conference of 1919, it was understood that secret diplomacy had led to horrible misunderstandings between nations. Subsequent miscalculations allowed war parties to form, and veer out of control. The 8.5 million dead soldiers and the 37.5 million wounded paid the price for the failure of foreign policies.

The League was unable to prevent World War Two (the U.S. never joined), but the ideal of open diplomacy was resurrected, and implanted in the UN charter adopted at San Francisco in 1945.    

Swedish foreign minister Carl Blidt referred to the UN on Twitter as “the most important rostrum in the world” and, in a special issue of the UN Chronicle on peacekeeping, as the cornerstone of Swedish foreign policy.

Canada was a UN founding member. And, once, the UN was the corner stone of Canadian foreign policy as well. In Foreign Policy for Canadians, the new Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, elected in 1968, announced that promoting Canadian economic development was the new priority. Downgrading the role of “helpful fixer” at the UN did not please his predecessor Lester B. Pearson, who never tired of what Dag Hammarskjöld called the “adventure of building a world organization.” 

Today cynicism about what the UN has accomplished, and about its inadequacies in dealing with issues such as civil wars in Syria, Libya, or Sudan (to mention only recent examples) is widespread among government officials, media, and, especially, the American foreign policy establishment, and their friends around the world.

Civil society organizations have their own reasons to find fault with the UN: principally because they find fault with its member governments.

Defenders of the UN ask us to compare the second half of the 20th century with the first half, and suggest the evidence is overwhelming that the UN has made a positive contribution to preserving peace and security.

In his Introduction to the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Secretary-General (1960-61), Hammarskjöld laid out two competing conceptions of the organization. The UN could be seen as an elaborate conference machinery that allowed various interests and ideologies of world politics to be worked out so as to avoid general wars, and prevent local conflicts from escalating into international incidents. In this view the UN secretariat reflected the interests of the nations that made up the organization, and it was natural for UN officials to represent the interests of their nations in the daily affairs of the organization.

In another view, the UN is a coherent international organization with a mandate to promote its charter, and live up to the expectations of its founders that what unites the people’s of the world is greater than what divides them. This second conception of an activist UN was what motivated Lester Pearson, Dag Hammarskjöld, and generations of idealists who believed that many issues do not bear passports, and that the world needs action from a world scale organization on issues as diverse as AIDS, social statistics, child nutrition, tourism, arms control, control of nuclear energy, and protection of heritage sites. 

In its preamble, the UN charter defines its first purpose as “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which … has brought untold sorrow to mankind.”

Serious differences loom between those like the Harper government who believe political problems can be dealt with by military action, and those who are convinced that means exist to resolve the most serious differences without resort to violence.

Those in the second camp still support the UN despite its own participation in wars because, as the Swedish ambassador to Norway said in accepting the posthumous award of the Nobel Peace Prize to  Dag Hammarskjöld, quoting  Hammarskjöld’ss last article: “… set-backs in efforts to implement an ideal do not prove that the ideal is wrong.”   

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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