Adam Chapnick. The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005. 224 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7748-1247-4.
Reviewed by Andrew Thompson (Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and Program Officer at the Balsillie School of International Affairs)
Published on H-Canada (August, 2006)
Bit Players, Faulty Ideas, and the Origins of Sacred National Myths
Since its inception, the United Nations has occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of Canadians. It is this attraction to the organization that is the subject of a new book by historian Adam Chapnick, who has written on Canada's early engagement with the nascent organization in the early 1940s, and the influence that the organization has had on Canadian identity in the postwar era.
Chapnick's is a timely book, as the last few years have not been kind to the United Nations. Having recently celebrated its sixtieth birthday in 2005, the organization that was forged in the wake of the Second World War as an instrument for global peace and security is currently in the midst a crisis of legitimacy, prompted in part by both the divisions caused over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the slow-moving and cumbersome institutional reform process, which most observers agree has thus far been a major disappointment. Its structures still reflective of a time when the United States and Soviet Union had emerged as the world's undisputed powers, and Great Britain and France still clung to the last vestiges of their respective empires, the United Nations has struggled to adapt to the changing political, social and economic realities of the twenty-first century. This has prompted a number of scholars and practitioners (particularly the neo-conservatives in Washington, D.C.) to question its continued relevance to the international order. Thankfully, those who predicted the organization's demise did so prematurely; despite all of its failings, the United Nations remains an important bastion of hope for a better world.
It is the idealism of the United Nataions that has held a special attraction for Canadians. Perhaps more than any other people, Canadians have, by and large, come to embrace the spirit of international cooperation found in the UN Charter. And perhaps more than any other people, Canadians have tied their international ambitions to the organization's fortunes, the underlying reason being that a functional and effective UN system is seen as both a useful forum for pursuing an activist foreign policy, as well as an important end in and of itself.
For these and other reasons, Canadians have in the past shown a vested interest in seeing the United Nations succeed. This has been due, in part, to the hold that the organization has traditionally had on the imagination of the country. In short, Canadians' sense of place in the world depends on an effective United Nations.
This attachment has been apparent during the recent reform initiatives. Canadian diplomacy, at least at the level of rhetoric, has focused on the promotion of human security (security rooted in the protection and dignity of the individual) within the UN system, the hope being that doing so will help transform the United Nations into an organization that is better able to address contemporary problems requiring international solutions.
Canada's efforts have not gone unrewarded, although their true impact will likely not be fully understood for many years. The most notable success came at a meeting of Heads of State in New York in September 2005, in which the UN General Assembly adopted, in principle, the notion of the "responsibility to protect" (R2P), an idea that emerged from the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). Based on the premise that state sovereignty is earned and not absolute, R2P proposes that the international community has a moral (if not legal) duty to intervene in another state's sovereignty should that state be unwilling or unable to protect its citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing, or mass human rights abuses. The vote at the General Assembly was, without question, an important symbolic victory--one that vindicated Canadian efforts over the last five years at championing the concept of R2P, and, more importantly, offering proof that Canada can indeed have a meaningful and principled influence at the United Nations.
Sadly, in international affairs, symbolism and substance are often too very different things; it remains to be seen whether R2P can ever make the leap from theory to practice. Given both the international community's intransigence on the question of Security Council reform, specifically the issue of the authority of the Permanent Five (P5) to veto any UN intervention, and the ongoing challenges that the United Nations faces in halting the genocide currently taking place in Darfur, Sudan, it is doubtful whether R2P will ever amount to more than just words. Unfortunately, the reform efforts were not the first time that Canada has found itself in a position of questionable influence at the United Nations.
On this note, Chapnick's book offers an important critique of Canada's early contributions to the founding of the United Nations. Beginning in January 1942 with the establishment of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and ending with the conference at San Francisco in the summer of 1945, Chapnick suggests that the true significance of Canada's involvement in the negotiations that led to the creation of the United Nations lay not in the influence that the Department of External Affairs (DEA) had on the final outcome (which he believes was minimal), but rather that the talks captured the imagination of a nation that no longer identified with either pre-war isolationism or the British empire. What emerged from the talks was a new national myth--one that was far removed from reality--in which Canadians eventually came to see themselves as a "middle power," a position that even today, more than sixty years later, still occupies a considerable hold on the national psyche. (The idea suggests that Canada was a recognized member of a second tier of nations that were neither great powers nor small countries but fell somewhere in between, and whose role it was to promote international peace through mediation and cooperation.)
This book is about the discrepancies between symbolism and substance. In it, Chapnick challenges both the substance of the middle power idea, as well as the widely held view that Canada played a significant role in forging the United Nations. No fan of the concept, Chapnick argues that the idea rang hollow. While it was in tune with Canadian nationalism at the time, it created faulty expectations and more importantly, contributed to a number of missed opportunities that ultimately proved detrimental to Canadian interests at the nascent organization.
Part of the problem was internal to the DEA. Indeed, the debate about Canada's place in the postwar world was one that divided the department. Those who championed the middle power idea both in Canada and abroad came from the idealist wing of the Department, which included mandarins such as Lester Pearson and Escott Reid, both of whom envisioned an activist international role for Canada. Their views were at odds with the aims of the more pragmatic members of the DEA such as Norman Robertson and Hume Wrong, who, like Prime Minister Mackenzie King, favored a cautious, functionalist approach to Canada's foreign relations. The split was not inconsequential. According to Chapnick, it compromised the Department's ability to articulate a coherent policy to its allies, and perhaps more importantly, exposed the failings of a department that, contrary to popular belief, appeared fallible, amateurish, under-resourced, prone to clashes of personality, and, above all, woefully ill-prepared for the postwar era. Although sometimes blunt in his assessments, Chapnick deserves credit for choosing not to gloss over the shortcomings of a department that other historians have praised--perhaps unjustly--for carving out a disproportionately large influence on the world stage following the war. In the end, however, the rifts were too deep to overcome. While Canadians embraced the idea, the more guarded, and influential, elements of the Department remained leery of it. By June 1945, with little enthusiasm for the idea, the Canadian delegation at San Francisco abandoned the middle power idea, recognizing that it would compromise the fragile unity that existed amongst the great powers.
External factors also played a role in limiting the idea's appeal abroad, and, consequently, Canada's influence. Focusing on the key moments in the United Nations's origins, Chapnick ably situates Canadian thinking (or lack of thinking) about the postwar order within the larger context of the great power negotiations. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is the extensive amount of research that has gone into it. Having consulted archives in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, Chapnick makes a compelling case that, from 1942 to 1945, Canadian officials were largely peripheral and even late in coming to the discussions about a new international organization to replace the failed League of Nations, discussions that had begun midway through the war with limited concern for the priorities or interests of the non-great powers. Moreover, he proves convincingly that the idea was perhaps doomed to falter since neither the United States nor United Kingdom was terribly keen on the middle power idea, while the Soviets, whose support for the United Nations was wavering prior to San Francisco, opposed it wholeheartedly. Chapnick rightly concludes that with no champion among the great powers, Canada, in its half-hearted pursuit of formal recognition as a middle power, was largely inconsequential to postwar planning, particularly on matters relating to international peace and security such as the composition and structure of the Security Council. The end result was that, contrary to perceptions, Canada left San Francisco just as it had arrived: a small power.
The Middle Power Project is, above all, a study about the importance of ideas. Chapnick believes, and rightly so, that ideas matter, particularly when questions of identity are at play. In charting the evolution of the idea, he is meticulous in searching out evidence from within Canada's foreign policy elite that the middle power idea was slowly creeping into the Canadian discourse about the postwar order throughout the early 1940s. For Canadians, the idea took hold because it captured the independent, internationalist sentiments taking hold across the country, sentiments that have since been linked to the values and actions of Lester Pearson, Canada's most celebrated diplomat-politician.
Nonetheless, Chapnick is also quite adamant that ideas have their limitations. They are often clumsy, their success a result of not only substance but also good timing, strong personalities, and a little bit of luck. Chapnick is no fan of the middle power idea. He believes that it led to misguided priorities. He concludes that, devoid of any real meaning (no one, for instance, knew what differentiated small countries from medium-sized countries), the middle power idea ultimately hurt Canadian diplomacy, in part, because it revealed a DEA that was out of touch with the needs of the great powers.
Clearly, Chapnick is disappointed with Canada's contributions at the founding meetings of the United Nations, which, in the end, were restricted largely to social and economic issues. Highly sympathetic to the Robertson and Wrong camp, he laments that Canada did not do more to promote a functionalist policy at the United Nations, in which each member state's influence is determined by its direct contributions to the organization.
It is here where his argument begins to lose some of its focus. Much of the book is an attack on Pearson, and to a lesser extent Reid. Chapnick's overt dislike of Pearson, whom he treats as a naïve maverick within the department, may be off-putting to readers who have grown up with the romance of the Pearsonian legacy. Indeed, at times, it seems as though Chapnick goes out of his way to discredit Pearson, whom he believes has received far too much credit for guiding Canada's hand at the United Nations.
But Chapnick's treatment of Pearson is a relatively minor criticism and should not take away from his larger arguments about the conditions that led to the birth of what is now a sacred national myth. Overall, he makes a strong case that Canada was a bit player with questionable priorities, when it came to question of the postwar international order whose rhetoric did not match its actions. One cannot help but wonder whether historians sixty years from now will look back on Canada's recent efforts to revitalize the United Nations and come to similar conclusions.
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Andrew Thompson. Review of Chapnick, Adam, The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations.
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