Until yesterday, I suspect very few Canadian outside of the airlines industry actually knew that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN organization which promotes regulation of international air travel, had its headquarters in Montreal. Some more Canadians probably know it is today, and, as you probably know, the Harper government is trying to make it a cause celebre in their campaign to discredit the “international community” and, increasingly, to isolate Canada from the outside world.
This is a bit of a tempest in a teapot. It’s very unlikely that ICAO will actually relocate to Qatar, which has put forward a bid. Outside of the purported Arab bloc which is forming in support of the Qatari bid, ICAO will need to win support from countries that don’t really have a stake in this one way or the other. Bureaucracies — even international bureaucracies — hate change more than practically anything else. Qatar will have to sweeten the pot by subsidizing the bureaucracy to a large enough extent to make an expensive, tedious, and awkward international relocation feasible. And the Qataris don’t necessarily have that much of a stake in this either.
All of that said, we must recognize that if it emerges that ICAO’s Montreal headquarters really is in serious trouble, then that is a direct consequence of the Harper government’s self-declared “muscular” foreign policy, and that doubling down on muscular foreign policy now by declaring that Canada’s “principled” foreign policy holds that Montreal is the ICAO’s “rightful host” is not going to help matters.
Now, you might think that it would be self-evidence to any politician with a brain in their head that a small country with modest economic clout cannot throw its weight around on the international stage. For reasons about which I dare not speculate, the Conservatives have never agreed with that notion. Instead, they have swaggered around the international stage for years now, walking away from treaties, sneering at diplomatic protocol, and brashly declaring Canada’s shift away from neutrality on the Palestine question. A few days ago, Harper literally appointed his personal bodyguard to be ambassador to Jordan. Jordan probably doesn’t mind that much, because they probably don’t care about Canada that much, but it’s the sort of move which demonstrates a calculated contempt towards the Arab nations, and there have been many of these moves recently. So, is it any wonder that the Arab nations are seizing upon a cheap and simple opportunity to hit back?
As I say, bureaucratic inertia will probably keep ICAO where it is, but an intelligent government would have kept our relationships at the UN, and the ICAO council, positive enough to head off at the pass any such “Arab bloc” move. (I’m keeping the quotes in place because to be honest I’m not sure how much of this is simply being blown way out of proportion by the Harper government and compliant journalists.)
Once again, instead, the Harper government has repeatedly done the opposite. It has publicly denounced UN delegations to Canada, walked out of organizations when it can’t get its way, and, in a particularly embarrassing moment, last year foreign minister John Baird announced an official complaint (and withdrew our ambassador, naturally) that the UN Conference on Disarmament’s chairmanship, which rotates alphabetically, was passing from Cuba to North Korea. Read this one carefully to understand the significance: Baird’s press release did not complain that alphabetical order is a silly way to determine precedence, only that in an organization which uses alphabetical order in this way, “D” came after “C.”
Anyways, the point is, the Canadian government has provoked Arab countries by incessantly and inanely declaring that Canada is not a neutral party in Middle Eastern conflicts, and it has just as cavalierly disavowed its international obligations. A “principled” foreign policy could dictate the first of these, and a country with massive political, economic, and military clout could afford to routinely thumb its nose at the international community and expect everyone to keep treating us fairly and politely anyways. Canada doesn’t have that sort of clout, so it’s worth pondering why we think we get away with acting rudely and foolishly in international fora.
To that end, it’s worth asking why ICAO is in Montreal in the first place. The simple answer is that quite a good long while ago now, the evil spendthrift Liberals put the necessary, tedious investment into endless schmoozing that is absolutely necessary when a small country like Canada wants to get its way internationally. One of our prizes was the ICAO headquarters. It’s a safe bet that if an organization like ICAO was being set up today, there’s no way on Earth it would land in a Canadian city. Minister Baird would decide that the required quiet diplomacy would be too emasculating for him, he would issue an angry press release about Canada would not sacrifice its principles to win a few baubles from the UN, and that would be that.
It’s worth asking, then, why the Conservatives care about this. They didn’t seem particularly interested when large factories in Ontario — where they do need votes — closed up shop over the last few years. It seems odd for them to care so much about an office closing in Montreal, where they don’t need votes. And especially odd given that they pass up no opportunity to explain to Canadians and to the world that they regard the UN as an antiquated and unnecessary talk shop anyways.
The answer, I suspect, is that this is a cheap win-win scenario for them. If ICAO doesn’t move, which is the most likely event even if Harper’s ministers continue to behave like the jackass redneck creationists that most of them are, then they’ll announce that they “saved” the office and that the Liberals and NDP wouldn’t have had been able to take the strong muscular stand necessary to do so. If ICAO does move, then it will be yet another opportunity to announce that Canada is a morally principled hero in a world of deceitful fast-talkers, a world from which only the Conservatives are able to protect us.