The Harper government is turning its back on the UN. The Prime Minister’s UN bypass last week seemed snubby and small, but the message was clear — the UN is far removed from Canada’s international affections.

Harper’s acceptance speech for the World Statesman Award could easily have been recycled for a UN General Assembly audience, and probably should have been. It delivered a stark portrait of a dangerous and uncertain world while offering the clearest statement yet of the guiding principles behind the government’s foreign policy.

Foreign Minister John Baird will pick up some of the slack today when he delivers Canada’s address to the General Assembly in what will surely be a no-holds-barred speech akin to the one he gave last year that castigates dictators and despots, sounds the tocsin on Iran’s nuclear quest, slams the murderous regime in Syria, and champions Canada’s commitment to human rights, religious freedom, and democracy.

The government has good reason to be frustrated with the UN. Its governance is totally out of whack with the new realities of world politics. France, Britain and the “new” Russia have permanent vetoes as well as permanent seats on the Security Council whereas Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan and Brazil have neither. Major donors to the organization, like Japan, its second biggest contributor, and Canada, the 7th largest, have little say in how the body operates.

As we discovered to our chagrin when we took at a run at one of the non-permanent seats on the Security Council in 2010, there is no guarantee that others want Canada in. It was a stinging rebuke to a country that has long done yeoman’s service in defense of freedom and the maintenance of international peace and security.

And then there is the Responsibility to Protect (RTP) doctrine, which was zealously promoted by Canada, but which now seems laughable in the face of recent events in Syria. To be sure, RTP rose like a phoenix from the ashes in Libya as some members of the world community, ourselves included, suddenly realized that Gaddafi was about to slaughter thousands who were in revolt against his regime.

But as Libya descends into a new quagmire of violence, and civil war burns uncontrollably in Syria, RTP’s “noble” intent clashes with the chasm of difference about values in the world. We now know that “our” values are not only different but cannot be exported by the erratic force of arms to Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan. That is why the world will continue to wring its hands feebly but essentially ignore the deepening travesty in Syria.

The UN is hobbled by an out-of-date structure, ineffective governance and misplaced value and ideals. Its affiliated institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO are also showing signs of age. The Emerging Markets now in the ascendancy were not involved in the design of the Bretton Woods cluster and do not have an appropriate say on their governance.

As U.S. global leadership ebbs, no alternative is anywhere apparent. We face increasingly turbulent times and, while wholesale institutional reform is badly needed, only a major shock may provide the catalyst for change. However, the problem is not the institutions themselves but rather the will and determination of their constituent members. Both are severely lacking today.

Second rate efforts and commitments generate second rate results. That is the real root of the UN’s problems.

The government has good reason to be frustrated with the UN. Its governance is totally out of whack with the new realities of world politics.
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