Listening to Jean Chretien’s recent partisan swipe to the effect that Canada has lost influence in the world, you might think the country is headed towards skid row. That’s some gratitude, after the Harper government gave Mr. Chretien a lift on a Challenger jet so that he could attend the funeral of his buddy Hugo Chavez.

The claim that Canada is losing its place in the world is an old one. We periodically go through bouts of hand-wringing and self-flagellation about it. It is unbecoming of a nation that still has so much going for it.

Ironically, Mr. Chretien’s own Liberal government was the target of a similar attack when Andrew Cohen published his book While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World. Cohen held up the Pearsonian era of the 1950s as the veritable gold standard of Canadian foreign policy, arguing that since those glory days, which were sealed with a Nobel Peace Prize, our power and influence in the world had eroded — including during the 1990s when Mr. Chretien was in charge.

Cohen also criticized Chretien for allowing our military and foreign policy instruments to fall into disrepair.

Prime Minister Harper deserves credit for rebuilding Canada’s military and replenishing our global stock by staying the course in Afghanistan for the better part of 10 years. We also played a key leadership role in the NATO mission in Libya when a Canadian general, Charles Bouchard, was put in charge.

However, the true measure for the conduct of Canadian foreign policy is the manner in which we manage relations with the U.S. On that benchmark, Chretien barely merits a passing grade. Predictable home town applause for tweaking the eagle’s feathers — but no bilateral achievement left in the window. The current government resolved the softwood lumber dispute (left behind by the Liberals) and launched the Beyond the Border initiative. Progress has been slow on the latter but definitely more substantive than the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) press releases from the previous decade.

Like Cohen, Mr. Chretien has an exaggerated reading of Canada’s influence in the past, and a misplaced belief that by reaffirming our faith in liberal internationalism and the UN we can regain some of our former glory.

Although we should not belittle the achievements of Lester B. Pearson, we also should not exaggerate Canada’s global influence in the 1950s and 1960s or the importance of the UN.

During the Cold War, international diplomacy was dominated by the two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union. Aside from the Suez crisis of 1956, Canada’s influence was marginal in Berlin, Cuba and the other major crisis points of the Cold War. Our constant nagging also did little to divert the United States from its misadventures in Vietnam, Africa and the Americas.

Nor should we should put much stock in Mr. Chretien’s assertion that Canada has turned its back on the UN after the members of the General Assembly rebuffed our 2010 bid for a seat on the Security Council. We are still one of the major financial contributors to the UN and the work of its affiliated agencies.

But the truth of the matter, like it or not, is that the UN is not a major player in global security in the 21st century. And that has little to do with us or our role in that body. The problem is that the world’s most powerful nations find it increasingly hard to agree on what the UN’s role should be after the very brief post-Cold War honeymoon the organization enjoyed in the early 1990s.

UN Security Council resolutions — once seen as the necessary go-ahead for collective international action — are now sometimes sought before an engagement (Libya) and sometimes after an intervention in order to provide ex post-facto justification (Kosovo). Sometimes an intervention occurs after its sponsors, recognizing the likelihood of vetoes, opt not to seek explicit authorization from the Security Council — as happened with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

As for the posturing after the fact on Iraq, are we to conclude that situation in Syria — a tragedy fueled by a neutered UN which has seen a loss of civilian life similar to that in Iraq — is somehow better? Or that Canada’s membership on the Security Council would have made a difference? Really? Foreign policy is more about doing than saying. Those who did little should say even less.

The bigger problem today is that we are living in a world of fractured governance and diffuse political authority, as Moses Naim argues in his recent book The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be. New powers like Brazil, Turkey, India and China are also now flexing their muscles on the world stage.

Being in charge isn’t what it used to be — and that applies just as much to the United States and the UN as is does to so-called “middle powers” like Canada.

We’re just going to have to look forward with a realistic sense of what we can do — and stop imagining a golden past that never was.

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