Canada and the Founding of the United Nations
“The new organization must come to think and act less and less in terms of force and more and more in terms of forces – the forces that create and destroy international unity and goodwill; the forces that create poverty and promote well-being.” – Lester Pearson, April 1945.
The Canadian delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations arrived in San Francisco in late April 1945 in poor spirits. Their American hosts’ assurances notwithstanding, the Canadians found themselves without office space and typewriters. To compound matters, one of Canada’s chief negotiators, Ambassador Lester Pearson, had shared a train from Washington with Herbert Evatt, Australia’s chatty minister of external affairs. Evatt’s non-stop waxing about Australia’s emergence as a rising power had left Pearson with a terrible head-ache. Making matters worse, the train had lost his luggage.
Nonetheless, the 22-member Canadian contingent quickly got down to business. The San Francisco conference had been called to create a new international centre for global governance. The negotiators’ text had been drafted largely by the United States and the United Kingdom, and their plan already had the general approval of the Soviet Union, China, and France. Together, these five countries were set to become Great Powers: the only permanent members of the United Nations executive body, the Security Council, and the only ones with veto power over international responses to global crises. The latter was a touchy subject. How could a purportedly inclusive organization – one that committed to recognizing the equality of sovereign states – grant special powers to five of its members? To many, Evatt included, the veto undermined the spirit of the United Nations before the project had even gotten underway.
The Canadians shared Evatt’s concerns, but not his attitude. They, too, recognized that the future world organization would be judged in large part on the sincere commitment of its founding members to equality and peace. But they also understood that successful international diplomacy sometimes required compromise. The Americans and Soviets had been clear for months: if the new world body did not grant them the right to veto United Nations Security Council decisions, they would walk away from the negotiations and never return. With memories of the failed League of Nations fresh on their mind, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, his ministerial colleagues, and his government officials responded accordingly.
At first, the Canadian delegation sought to modify the scope of the Great Powers’ privileged position. Perhaps the veto could be limited to specific cases of international conflict, for example. Their suggestions were poorly received. The Soviets reiterated that any modifications of the power of the UN Security Council’s permanent members would lead to their immediate departure from San Francisco. Evatt refused to back down, and New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, publicly declared the veto “an evil thing.” The Canadians responded differently. Having secured confirmation from both Washington and Moscow that there would be no United Nations without the Great Power veto; Ottawa took a public stand in its favour. The need for an inclusive world organization dedicated to the promotion of international peace and security was too critical to be risked for the sake of abstract principles.
The New York Times announced the Canadian decision to back the veto on its front page, and a number of the smaller powers accepted Ottawa’s argument. An Australian amendment to limit the veto failed, and the organization launched successfully at the end of June.
The experience was a lesson for Canada’s diplomatic community. Peace at any costs was no peace at all. The United Nations was never meant to achieve nirvana; rather it was designed to prevent catastrophic failure. Keeping the Great Powers involved was a positive step in that direction.
By: Adam Chapnick, Professor, Deputy Director, Education, Directorate of Academics, Canadian Forces College, National Defence.