Canada’s failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council has triggered a predictable debate – with a surprising twist. Predictably, most have seen the move as a rejection of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s muscular, pro-western, pro-Israel, anti-terrorism foreign policy.
But the columnist David Frum has injected a fascinating perspective. After actually doing some research, Frum suggested that the vote had more to do with European power dynamics, western rivalries, and the peculiarities of the UN regional voting bloc system. Outsiders will have a hard time figuring out who is correct. Hopefully, historians in the future will be able to sort it out. Still, the debate about the failure illustrates some enduring anomalies regarding how we discuss foreign policy, Israel and the United Nations itself.
For starters, the central assumption guiding the partisans in the debate is depressing. The most passionate talk has focused on whether Canada was being punished for supporting Israel. We are at a dangerous moment here. We are starting to take Israel’s toxicity for granted. Why should support for Israel bear such a price? Israel’s enemies have been so successful in maligning Israel and elevating Israel into such a powerful symbol that where a country stands on Israel risks defining its entire foreign policy.
As we approach the 35th anniversary of the General Assembly’s despicable “Zionism is racism” resolution, Israel’s adversaries are poised to enjoy a double victory. The anti-Israel package they sell involves both demonizing Israeli actions and exaggerating Israel’s centrality in the Middle East, and world politics. The Palestinians’ ultimate conceit traditionally has been to make everything about Israel be about them, pushing a perspective suggesting that no conversation about the Jewish state should be about anything but the Palestinian issue. Now, the Palestinian conceit – fed by the UN – is even more grandiose, suggesting that the Palestinians’ problems are not just the most significant in the world today but the key to world peace. It is extraordinary how many foolish diplomats, politicians, academics, students and activists.
Amid all the hysteria, Frum’s alternative perspective noting that Canada was boxed out because the European bloc secured seats for Germany and Portugal was doubly welcome. First, both pro-Israel and anti-Israel partisans need to remember that not everything is about the Palestinians and the Jews. At the end of the day, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a minor regional conflict. Even if some peace agreement could be signed, Iran would still be trying to go nuclear, North Korea would remain a bad citizen of the world, Islamist terrorists would still target westerners – and their own people – the economy would waver, the environment would be at risk, etc. Pro-Israel forces also have to be careful not to see everything through the Palestinian-Israel prism. We should remember that it is not helpful to jump at every attack on Israel.
Frum’s perspective also reminds us how complex, political, and bureaucratic the UN has become. The high hopes of the 1940s continue to mislead most of us when we talk about the UN. Even after decades of watching it degenerate into the Third World dictators’ debating society, we still want to see it as the biggest do-good organization in world history. Even when the UN is not being corrupt, or not being obsessive about Israel, politics rules. Regional rivalries are only one of the many distracting side shows that stop the UN from fulfilling its main mission to advance the causes of peace and justice throughout the world.
Getting a seat on the Security Council is not an award for doing good – or much of anything else. It is one of many privileges and responsibilities constantly doled out, periodically in play, in the world organization. Of course, it was delusional to expect that the UN would be politics-free. But rather than having Canada’s loss trigger yet another round of pro-Israel versus pro-Palestinian fireworks, perhaps it is time for all of us to start learning about how the UN functions, what is does right, where it goes wrong, and how it can improve.