Canada at the United Nations 1945-1989

By Riddell-Dixon, Elizabeth | International Journal, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Canada at the United Nations 1945-1989


Riddell-Dixon, Elizabeth, International Journal


For the past 60 years, Canada has remained a stalwart supporter of the United Nations (UN). Canada's performance at the UN today is predicated on its long history of participation in that body, and knowledge of this history is essential to a thorough understanding of current developments. This article draws lessons from Canada's involvement with the UN, beginning in the early 1940s when plans for the UN were first being discussed and ending in the late 1980s as the Cold War era was drawing to a close. These lessons have policy relevance today.

Multilateralism has been a defining characteristic of Canadian foreign policy for the past six decades. The most important factor differentiating today's world from the period on which the paper focuses is the absence of the Cold War. The latter's influence was ubiquitous during virtually all of the UN's first 45 years, when east-west tensions pervaded all areas of endeavour. Although the permanent members of the security council continue to disagree on many issues, the council's functioning has progressed a long way from the Cold War days in which it was frequently stalemated as the great powers regularly used their vetoes in their pursuit of geopolitical, military, and ideological dominance.

In today's international structure, the US is the world's only remaining superpower and it dominates on a wide spectrum of political and economic issues. The 1990s marked a period of economic expansion that consolidated US economic hegemony. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed the US's view of its place in the world and it has become more deliberatively assertive of its positions, as exemplified by its attacks on regimes it opposed in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars have had and continue to have dire consequences for the United Nations. The transformations of the past decade have altered the environment for all, but for none more than Canada, which is more closely tied economically to the one remaining superpower than ever before.

In today's unilateral world, the UN is, for Canada, the major counter-weight to US power. The UN is the only international organization with virtually universal membership and a mandate to address almost any multilateral problem. It plays an important role in the promotion of international peace, security, justice, and sustainable development. Many issues on the UN agenda are of great importance to Canada. Canada's macro-level priority relating to the UN is to ensure that the organization functions effectively, with the US as a cooperative participant. While today's context differs markedly from that of either the Second World War or the Cold War, the lessons learned from the previous periods have currency in the new millennium, as is seen below.

LESSONS

The great powers exercised predominant influence and they had to be accommodated

Plans for the UN-its structure, objectives, principles, and decision-making procedures-were developed by the great powers at a series of private conferences. These meetings culminated in the autumn of 1944, when the major allied powers of the Second World War-the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, United States and China-met at Dunbarton Oaks, near Washington, DC, to develop a draft UN charter. After agreeing on the essential principles, objectives, and structure of the proposed organization among themselves, these major allied powers presented their draft proposals to their other wartime allies and a few neutral states at the 1945 UN conference on the international organization, which was held in San Francisco.

From the Dunbarton Oaks proposals, it was dear that the drafting powers expected to retain firm control over the new organization. In keeping with their interests and priorities, the new organization's primary objective was the maintenance of international peace and security. Each of the great powers was to have a permanent seat on the security council-the executive organ for ensuring international peace and security. …

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