Image credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan
By Bojan Ramadanovic and Srdjan Vucetic
Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly is about to take another stab at advancing one of Canada’s top foreign policy priorities, promoting democracy and human rights. The occasion will take place this week at US President Biden’s first Summit for Democracy, where the invited delegations from 110 countries – some more controversial than others – will talk about “defending democracy” and the need for allies to stick together and listen to each other.
It is doubtful that Biden’s summits – the second one will take place next year, in person – will achieve much more than talk. But the gathering does present us with an opportunity to take stock of Canadian foreign policy relative to other democracies. One way to do so is by analyzing United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) roll call voting data to measure “interest similarity.” International Relations specialists and other scholars have done so for decades, in turn developing ever-more sophisticated measures of shared interests and state preferences. In addition to observing broad patterns of agreement on UN resolutions, this scholarship has provided valuable new insights into everything from the emergence and dissolution of voting blocs to the practice of buying votes with foreign aid and other goods.
In an article published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, we analyzed Canada’s voting behaviour in the world’s largest deliberative body “from Trudeau to Trudeau,” that is, from the second Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1980-1984) to the Liberal government of Pierre’s son, Justin, who came to power in 2015. We used two measures. One, in use since the 1960s, is simple dyadic similarity – two countries voting with either yes, no or abstain. The other, principal component analysis (or PCA) is new. As shown below, the latter technique allowed us to produce two-dimensional “voting maps” across successive UNGA sessions under study.
Our main findings are as follows. Canada’s overall voting record tends to align closely with that of Western European democracies. This holds true both for the “major powers” such as Germany, the UK and France – in that order of agreement – as well as for Canada’s European “middle power peers,” such as the Netherlands or Sweden. In the Indo-Pacific, Canada’s voting record tends towards Japan and Australia. As for the Canada-US dyad, we observe both ups and downs, and mostly downs, mainly because since the 1990s the US went out of sync with most of its allies. We find no evidence that Canada’s voting aligns more with the US when the Liberals are in power in Ottawa or when Democrats are in power in Washington (under either a Democratic presidency or a Democratic Congress).
Canada’s voting patterns under the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006–2015) was different, however. Harper’s pro-US turn in the UNGA was sharp, lasting and entirely in line with other foreign policy “Harperisms”: the decision to cut aid to Hamas in 2006, the withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 and the refusal to sign the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013, to name but three. Alignment with Israel was to a large extent part of the same package. Although a pro-Israel voting turn began already under the Liberal government of Paul Martin (2003-2006), Harper took this to another level by systematically refusing to criticize Israel.
The Harper-era voting outlasted Harper’s premiership. In the 2010s, Al Jazeera data journalists note, “Canada voted ‘no’ three times more than ‘yes’ on Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolutions.” We see this as well in Figures 1 and 2, which are our PCA maps for the 69th (2014-2015) and 72nd (2017-2018) sessions of the UNGA, respectively. Representing the last Harper year, Figure 1 shows Canada in the right lower quadrant, positioned closer to the US, Israel, Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia than to the left lower quadrant, the home of “the West” or “the global North.”
Figure 1: UN Session 69 under PM Stephen Harper
Figure 2 visualizes Canada’s voting patterns two years later, meaning during the second regular session of the UNGA after Trudeau became prime minister. What it shows is Trudeau’s Liberals essentially following Harper’s Conservatives, both under Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion and under Chrystia Freeland who succeeded Dion in January 2017.
Figure 2: UN Session 72 during Justin Trudeau’s early years
During Freeland’s tenure as foreign minister, Canadian foreign policy was severely tested, courtesy of the increasingly erratic, radical US presidency of Donald Trump and two major diplomatic confrontations with authoritarian states, Saudi Arabia and China. It was also towards the end of her mandate that Canada’s voting began to shift to what we might call the traditional pattern.
Figures 3 and 4: UN Sessions 74 and 75 after Chrystia Freeland’s tenure as foreign minister
In Figures 3 and 4, which are PCAs of the 74th (2019-2020) and 75th (2020-2021) sessions, respectively, we see Canada gradually moving away from the US and its three UNGA amigos, Israel, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. This would suggest that Freeland’s two successors, François-Philippe Champagne and Marc Garneau, followed the trend. Neither man kept the Global Affairs ministerial portfolio for very long, however: Champagne ran the department for 14 months before being replaced with Garneau, who lasted 9 months. Note as well that in mid-2020 Bob Rae succeeded Marc-André Blanchard as Canada’s top diplomat in the UN.
A look at dyadic similarity figures – whether with Canada’s Five Eyes partners, select European NATO and “NATO lite” allies, or with Israel and Japan – confirms the contours of this small pivot. Tongue halfway in cheek, we might therefore say that Canada is finally back – back to voting in line with most democracies, that is.
Will this new old voting pattern persist? The pivot is recent and the data we analyzed take us only to March 3, 2021, so the correct answer is that it too early to tell. Prime Minister Harper did not change Canada’s voting the moment he took power in 2006, but years later, namely during his second minority government and especially after he won a majority government in 2011.
The rhetoric coming from the offices of Prime Minister Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Joly suggests that Ottawa is very interested in working together with like-minded democracies for, as the team behind Biden’s Summit for Democracy put it, “global democratic renewal.” Committing to strengthening democracy at home is the logical first step for all participants. This, as the summit agenda explains, entails promoting human rights and good governance, which in turn means reducing socioeconomic inequalities and corruption. Also logical for the Trudeau government would be a proper effort to provide a coherent national security strategy and identify Canada’s foreign policy priorities for the tumultuous next decade. Putting those priorities into practice will necessarily go through debating and passing UN resolutions, in turn giving us an opportunity to study Canada’s voting behaviour some more.
About the authors
Srdjan Vucetic: Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. He is also Co-Director (Security) in the Canadian Defence and Security Network (CDSN-RCDS). He received his PhD from Ohio State University.