Remembering Ken Taylor

Remembering Ken Taylor: ‘An unconventional diplomat’

Oysters, martinis, and effective diplomacy. A colleague remembers former diplomat Ken Taylor

October 15, 2015

Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran, briefs a reporter on the current conditions in Iran one week before leaving Iran with six Americans in a 1980 file photo. Taylor, who sheltered six U.S. citizens during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, has died, says a family friend THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Peter BreggPeter Bregg/CP

On news of the death of Ken Taylor, at 81, I called Colin Robertson, another former Canadian diplomat, who served under Taylor in the early 1980s in New York, soon after Taylor became a hero for his role in hiding six Americans in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Robertson, who lives in Ottawa now and works with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, spoke about Taylor’s glory days following the “Canadian Caper.”

Q: What were your thoughts on hearing that your old boss had died?

A: Ken was a great Canadian patriot, a hero, but Ken was also really cool. I first met him when I was posted to New York in 1980, and he had of course already performed the great “Canadian Caper” in Tehran, and the government had appointed him our consul general there, partly because of his celebrity, the magnetism Ken had, and the importance of New York to the diplomatic establishment.

Q: So it was a good fit.

A: He took the town by storm. Anywhere he went. Even before he arrived, we saw it. Americans everywhere would thank us for what we’d done. Sending Ken to New York was exactly the right thing. He fit right into that highly cosmopolitan city, but he was still proudly Canadian. We had issues he was able to advance.

Q: What was he like to work under?

A: He was an unconventional diplomat, certainly for that era. First of all, he didn’t wear the classic blue suit; he always was always in a fashionable suit that suited him. Of course, he had that great hair, all the curls, and then the dark glasses that were his signature. Always a smile on his face. He was always approachable and personable. He had no desk in his office. He had a coffee table. You’d sit around it and deal with issues.

Q: He must have made quite an impression on you as a new guy.

A: I traveled with him as a junior officer. In his briefcase, there was always a novel—Bonfire of the Vanities—or a magazine—Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t the heavy-duty stuff. I remember him teasing me. I was traveling with a copy of Foreign Affairs. He said, “Colin, you gotta lighten up.”

There’s one episode that really sticks with me. We were traveling up to Yale, where he had a series of speeches to give. We didn’t take the car. He said, no, let’s take the train, because we could go to the bar car and have a martini. After we’d had oysters at Grand Central Station. And we talked. He pointed out that it was really important to understand the society as a whole if you were going to be a good diplomat. It wasn’t straight politics, or economics, or trade; it was understanding the culture in which you were working and having an empathy for it.

Q: You saw that in his way of doing diplomacy?

A: Ken had empathy for everybody, including the Iranian people. Remember, this was a time where the Iranians were not terribly popular, because of what had happened to the United States. He had a way—his own gentle way—of encouraging Americans that while they might have a disagreement with the Ayatollah and ruling elite in Iran, the Iranian people had great affection for America, and never break those links.

Q: And you feel that was effective, not just a nice way of looking at the world?

A: Ken defied the traditional norms of diplomacy, but he always achieved what we set out to. He was remarkably effective. As a boss, you couldn’t help but like him. He left it to you to get the job done. He wasn’t a micro-manager in any sense. He traveled a great deal because he was in great demand. But when he was there, it was just fun and interesting and you learned the craft. This how he did business. I’ve talked to people who were with him in Tehran, and before, and this is how he was. He created a sense of team around a shared purpose.

Comments Off on Remembering Ken Taylor

On John Kerry’s First Speech as Secretary of State

Scotty Greenwood of McKenna, Long and Aldridge with Colin Robertson interviewed by Don Martin on CTV Powerplay, Thursday, February 21

Comments Off on On John Kerry’s First Speech as Secretary of State

On sharing diplomatic space

From the National Post September 24  Opposition outrage aside, joint embassies with U.K. are ‘a no-brainer,’ experts say

Ottawa’s decision to share embassy space and resources with Britain, greeted with condemnation by opposition leaders on Monday, is in fact what some observers call a no-brainer: a logical way to expand Canada’s foreign presence without spending all the taxpayer dollars that go into bricks and mortar.

“This is innovative thinking that will allow us to keep our diplomatic footprint in an age of austerity,” said Colin Robertson, who served as a Canadian diplomat in the U.S. and Hong Kong for 33 years.

The move will see Canada and Britain share space and collaborate on consular services in a “handful of areas” where Canada or Britain does not already have its own mission, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a joint statement with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Mr. Baird said the agreement does not list targeted embassies, but for starters he said Britain will send staff to Canada’s mission in Haiti and the Canadian ambassador to Burma will continue to work out of Britain’s embassy there.

“It is about speed and flexibility, practicality, saving the taxpayer money in both countries, but also being able to operate effectively in a networked world … where we need to be present in more places than ever before,” Mr. Hague said.

Beyond stressing the two countries’ shared values and a mutual desire for a strong presence abroad, Mr. Baird and Mr. Hague said the agreement will also rein in costs. In its March, 2012, budget, the Conservative government promised to save $80-million by restructuring foreign properties and missions as part of a larger plan to find almost $170-million in annual savings.

“Because it’s Britain, everybody has different feelings about [the agreement]; some of us have a soft spot for the old empire and some of us don’t like Britain,” said Gregory Thomas, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “But at the heart of it is the reality that there are so many cities and countries where Canadians need consular services, and having a Canadian office in every one costs a lot of money. To us, it seems like a sensible step.”

Mr. Robertson called the hybrid approach “smart diplomacy” because Canada cannot advance its foreign policy from the confines of Ottawa — it needs on-the-ground representation wherever Canadian interests are at stake.

“If money is the issue, why wouldn’t we co-locate with Britain?” he said. “It’s like a person moving from a house to a condominium: it doesn’t change your identity … This is a no-brainer.”

Comments Off on On sharing diplomatic space

Interview with bout de papier on Canadian International Council and diplomacy

bout de papier interview on Canadian International Council and Diplomacy

Excerpts from the interview that can be read in full above:

On life after the Foreign Service:

Retirement from the Foreign Service liberates you to speak your mind. As we baby boomers leave government service you’ll find there is a community of like-minded who share an appetite for policy debate and discussion like the CIC and other organizations – RHOMA is another obvious example. The academic community can make a contribution but with some notable exceptions, many don’t seem to realize the importance of policy relevance.  This presents an opportunity for those who have served in the Foreign Service. We understand government. We have developed networks of contacts, nationally and internationally.  We appreciate policy relevance and understand the importance of connecting the dots. We learned how to write and present policy options. I think we make a valuable contribution on issues of public policy – as did a number of our former colleagues last fall around Afghanistan in speaking out on the principle of independent reporting by officers in the field. Nothing is more debilitating for an organization as when the bosses are perceived as looking out for themselves and leave the junior officers hanging in the wind.

On punditry:

Just as government has hollowed out its policy development capacity, so the media have hollowed out their research staff, producers and reporters. This opens opportunities for those of us who believe we can serve the public interest by sharing our knowledge and experience. Mind you have to be comfortable sitting on a high chair in a dark room, speaking into a camera with no one behind it, listening for your cue through an earpiece to someone who might be thousands of miles away and then speaking in 10-15 second chunks to someone who often has no idea of what you are talking about. Then be hustled out without ceremony for the next guest. In short: Be Brief, Be Blunt, Be Gone. Briefing ministers was excellent training ground.

Any reflections on Foreign Service?

Yes. It matters more than ever. As we enter a multi-centric world, geography and demography gives Canada unique advantages. First, our proximity to the United States – if not the ‘hyperpower’ then the ‘default’ power and hungry for the kind of intelligence we can bring to the table because we belong to almost every organization going. Second, thanks to intelligent immigration policy ‘we are the world’. Most importantly, we’re part of the Indian and Chinese diaspora. Through a century and a half of hard work we understand pluralism.  We have the capacity. We have the talent. Now we have to apply it. It means resources. With vision and direction from management and our political leadership.

When I joined in 1977 it was like joining the Habs in their heyday. We were on the Security Council. Bill Barton was our ambassador – like Scotty Bowman, his quiet diplomacy had real effect. Basil Robinson was undersecretary.  Allan Gotlieb would follow a couple of years later. The place buzzed with ideas. Marcel Cadieux and Klaus Goldschlag holding forth in the Library where you were encouraged to spend time. Young Turks like Bob Fowler and Jeremy Kinsman. Officers with panache and an uninhibited elegance in putting forth ‘truth to power’. No ‘group-think’ in this band. A premium on ideas including a much-respected in-house journal, International Perspectives, in which officers were encouraged to write. Consorting with journalists and political staff (I would later marry one with both qualities) was encouraged because they brought intelligence and political nous into the equation. We played hard. We rocked. We made a difference for Canada.

Foreign service is ultimately about foreign policy. Ideas matter. Process and accountabilities are means, not ends. Bulking up on bean-counters and coaching staff doesn’t win games. And you have to keep bringing up new talent every year. Adjustment at the ministerial and political level of ‘Canada’s New Government’ accounted for some of the challenges but senior management also has much to answer. Throwing cultural funding and public diplomacy onto sacrifical alter without a squeak was unforgivable (Last time it was attempted we fought through PAFSO and RHOMA. The Senate  subsequently refused legislative passage). But when they cut post operational budgets last summer because they couldn’t count – in any other business they’d be shown the door. The enthusiasts for ‘transformation’ (remind me what version we are on) and the ‘New Way Forward’ should recall that ‘business process reengineering’ and Mao resulted in Enron and the Cultural Revolution. Brave ‘new’ worlds but not perhaps what the planners had in mind.

Sloganeering matters less in international relations than the hard language of priorities, requirements and resources, tradeoffs, and limitations. Knowing your ask. Knowing what you are ready to give to make a deal. Then, as Derek Burney famously puts it, ‘getting it done’.

I’ve spent the last couple of years at the university and I can tell you that this incoming generation is internationalist, green and believes in service. Really smart women and men. They’ll give you new ideas and improve your technique. And we need to get them out quickly and give them ice time to learn how to skate and play as a team – they’ll soon put the puck in the net for Canada.

Comments Off on Interview with bout de papier on Canadian International Council and diplomacy