On John Baird as Foreign Minister

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Canada’s dynamic, blunt-talking Foreign Minister practices a unique but effective brand of diplomacy
From Macdonald Laurier Institute’s Inside Policy  December 2013 ‘John Baird Policy Maker of the Year’

“Aieeyahhhh.” And with a single swoop, John Baird brought his hand down on a three inch plywood board.

It didn’t crack.

Staff winced and the rest of us looked out the windows of the Pearson Building’s ninth floor diplomatic reception area. In the presence of parliamentarians, diplomats and other guests, Baird and Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan had just signed a Joint Declaration on Enhancing the Strategic Dialogue. In his remarks, Baird had pressed again for Canadian admission to the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus. He committed to resurrect negotiations on the stillborn Korea-Canada Free Trade Agreement.

Now we were all enduring what diplomats describe as an ‘awkward moment.’

Baird smiled and joked that he should have practiced more. He had taken taekwondo while an undergraduate at Queen’s University. With his former coach watching, Baird had another go.


Guests and a relieved staff cheered. Coach Tae Lee presented Baird with an honorary black belt. The incident says a couple of things about John Baird.

First, he is not afraid to take risks. Baird is very determined and self-confident.  If at first he does not succeed, he’ll try again.

Second, it is hard not to like John Baird.

He has a sense of humour. His amour propre does not prevent him from laughing at himself and the ever-present smile takes the sting out of the sharp rhetoric and sometimes careless language. Importantly, he likes people. A useful trait when you are a globe-trotting Foreign Minister with a cause and little patience for bromides.

Foreign Ministers and Prime Ministers
Foreign ministers used to be second only to the leader. In the US line of presidential succession, the Secretary of State follows the Vice President and Speaker of the House of Representatives and President pro tempore of the Senate.

Until 1946, Canadian prime ministers were their own foreign minister. When Mackenzie King passed the job to Louis St. Laurent, it also signaled St. Laurent’s succession as leader and then prime minister. Lester B. Pearson became St. Laurent’s foreign minister and then leader and eventually prime minister. Paul Martin Sr. was considered the likely successor to Pearson until Trudeaumania (the 1968 version).

The last foreign minister to become prime minister was Jean Chrétien. His election is not ascribed to his short experience at the Pearson Building. In recent years, the stature of the foreign minister has declined. While they still require the constitution of an ox and the patience of Job, jets and instant telecommunications have changed their role.

With globalization, summitry has expanded exponentially. Every prime minister and president now plays not just a lead role, but in varying degrees has subsumed the role of the foreign minister as the principal participant in international diplomacy, especially in managing global finances. In Canada, this has always been the case on Canada-US relations.

With the Government’s decision to fold CIDA into DFAIT, the enlarged Foreign Affairs portfolio (DFATD) now has five ministers and every domestic minister now has international responsibilities that oblige travel and comes with their own ‘foreign’ service.

The changed global environment and structural adjustments cramp the freedom of movement once enjoyed by the Foreign Minister. They remain the default representative to funerals and inaugurations and international meetings the prime minister does not want to attend. Their calendar comes pre-filled with international conferences and meetings, including a speech to the UN General Assembly.

Thirty-one men and women have occupied the post of Canadian foreign minister. To have relevance they must have the trust of the prime minister. They usually need to spend a couple of years on the job to give them time to develop the confidence of their confrères, especially their US counterpart.

The first quality of a Foreign Minister is the ability to listen. They also need to appreciate and then use their Foreign Service corps to bring direction and domestic coherence to our international policy. On the international scene, the best possess imagination and the ability to connect the dots.

To be a great foreign minister you need to have personally led on a major initiative that advanced Canadian interests.

Arguably the Canadian pantheon would include Louis St. Laurent (post-war architecture including NATO), Lester Pearson (UN and peacekeeping), Paul Martin Sr. (Cyprus and Vietnam), Mitchell Sharpe (Third Option), Allan MacEachen (North-South), Joe Clark (South Africa, unification of Germanies), Lloyd Axworthy (Human Security agenda) and John Manley (‘Smart Border’ accord).

John Baird: The essence
John Baird has been Foreign Minister since the Conservatives won their majority government in May, 2011. An able parliamentarian with considerable cabinet experience, Baird served provincially from 1995 to 2005 in the cabinets of Premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves as the Minister for Children, Community and Social Services, Energy and Francophone Affairs and as Chief Whip. After his election to the federal parliament in 2006 he served as minister at Treasury Board, Transport, Environment, and as House Leader.

In contrast to his predecessors — Peter MacKay, David Emerson, Maxime Bernier and Lawrence Cannon — all of whom served in minority parliaments, Baird has the luxury of time for travel without having to be in the House of Commons for confidence votes.

Baird travels well and thrives on the networking opportunities. The Ottawa diplomatic community appreciates his accessibility. Last year he visited 31 countries and held well over a hundred substantive bilateral meetings. This year he has already visited 41 countries and participated in 12 multilateral conferences.

Baird has developed an impressive rolodex and he does not hesitate to pick up the phone to talk with his counterparts.

Importantly, he has the full support of Stephen Harper. In his essential profile of John Baird, the Globe and Mail’s Campbell Clark observed: “his penchant for bold steps and embracing strong leaders, his confidence in his own political compass, and the willingness he has displayed ever since high school to shrug off ridicule rather than abandon the task at hand make him the dynamic foreign minister Mr. Harper has long lacked.”

For Baird, words are weapons to be employed for effect as he illustrates in his speeches to the UN General Assembly and in his support for Israel.

In his first speech to the UN General Assembly Baird declared “Canada does not just “go along” in order to “get along.” Citing Margaret Thatcher (Baird greatly admired the Iron Lady and named a cat after her), he argued that “collective action does not mean uniformity.” Baird advanced the case for “enlightened sovereignty” and argued that the “greatest enemies of the United Nations are those who quietly undermine its principles and, even worse, by those who sit idly, watching its slow decline.”

This year Baird told the General Assembly that while “the UN Charter mentions the word “peace” four dozen times….“ “peace” the word is easier to locate than “peace” the condition.” On Iran, he warned, “Kind words, a smile and a charm offensive are not a substitute for real action.”

Baird’s words can offend but his likeability helps to cushion the enmities that are often the result of fierce partisanship.

Baird has obliged the usually bland multilateral communiqués to include references to human rights. As he told the American Jewish Committee Forum: “for us it’s all about values… We respect freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Dignity for the people we serve. We have a history of defending the vulnerable, challenging the aggressor and confronting evil.”

Baird’s support for Israel is unequivocal: “Israel has no greater friend in the world than Canada,” and he told the UN General Assembly in September, “There can be no bargaining over Israel’s existence. While dialogue is a virtue, there can be no virtuous discussion with anyone wedded to Israel’s destruction.”

He is committed to advancing the cause of freedom and defending human rights, especially for those who are persecuted and without protection. From these elements he has articulated the ‘dignity agenda.’

The dignity agenda
Framed shortly after he became minister through speeches delivered in Montreal, the UN General Assembly in New York and Quebec City, the message is clear. People deserve the “dignity to live in freedom, in peace and to provide for one’s family.”

The dignity agenda specifically defends women, children and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) people and strongly opposes child, early and forced marriages.

Defence of LGBT rights has put him at odds with some in the Conservative base. He publicly denounced President Putin’s anti-gay policies as “mean-spirited and hateful.”

The dignity agenda neatly avoids the tiresome argument between values and interests by underlining that “doing what is morally right is in our national interest.” As Baird told the Foreign Affairs Committee in November, “Our government wants Canada’s voice to be heard, for it to be clear and for it to be unambiguously free of moral relativism.”

Its roots are bipartisan, acknowledging both Louis St. Laurent, who laid the foundations for modern Canadian foreign policy, and Brian Mulroney, for his work in Africa — especially South Africa.

The dignity divide is not left versus right but rather between systems that are open and those that are closed. If it is to succeed, the dignity agenda will need to demonstrate the kind of tangible accomplishments that Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s human security agenda achieved, notably the landmark Treaty on Land Mines and the creation of the International Criminal Court.

For now, the dignity agenda is a combination of policy instruments, notably the creation of the Ambassador for Religious Freedom. While politics and the Conservative base probably contributed to this decision, the Office, with its almost daily cascade of news releases, puts a useful spotlight on individual and group persecution.

In fashioning Canadian policy to Iran, John Baird has applied the force of the dignity agenda with targeted sanctions that will remain in place, notwithstanding the recent interim nuclear agreement, until there is evidence of Iranian good faith.

The Iranian effort has also included what Baird calls ‘direct diplomacy.’

Demonstrated in May, at Toronto’s Munk Centre, the Global Dialogue on Rights and Democracy in Iran used social media — Facebook and Twitter — as both amplifier and intervenor in the conversation. Designed to encourage open discussion in the lead-up to Iran’s June elections, Baird told his audience, including an estimated 350,000 in Iran, that they “have a friend in Canada.”

How effective is the dignity agenda?
In some respects it is a variation on and successor to the human security agenda articulated by Lloyd Axworthy. It, too, had its critics.

Morality and foreign policy “is a subject much wanting in thought” observed the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. Of necessity, international politics depends on hard power both as last resort and as first responder in time of disaster. At the same time, shining a bright light on human rights abuses has worked to both mitigate individual situations and eventually effect remedial change.

Getting right the mechanisms for policy delivery and adjusting them to the rapidly evolving global circumstance is essential if initiatives, like the dignity agenda, are to be effective.

Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development: A new design
The consolidation of diplomacy, trade and development as a single integrated vehicle makes sense. Notwithstanding best efforts at the senior political level, whether the government of the day was Conservative or Liberal, too often there was a disconnect, especially in the field, between foreign policy and development. The consolidation will require a change in the cultures of both former departments. It begins by bridging the gap between domestic priorities and international commitments in the development sphere.

The Government has promised a new direction that would link development programs directly to trade and foreign policy objectives.  CIDA partnerships would be broadened to include business as well as NGOs and multinational organizations. Former CIDA Minister Julian Fantino proclaimed “Canadian money” would be used to promote “Canadian values, Canadian business, the Canadian economy” and served notice that NGOs would not be funded “for life.”

This philosophical shift is not unique to Canada. It is supported by an emerging school of thought — notably renowned economists William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo — that argues that after half a century and $2.4 trillion in investment the West created a dependency culture in Africa. What is needed is sustainable jobs and economic development.

The trend in the West is to return development to the direction of foreign affairs. Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described development as an “indispensable foreign policy tool for advancing American interests and solving global problems.” The US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and other European countries are aiming at the same objective.

Hard questions need to be asked on how and where our foreign aid is spent. Integrating it into ‘economic diplomacy’ will be challenging and its critics deserve attention.

The emphasis should be on outcomes that visibly advance sustainable development and complement Canadian interests.

The Foreign Service
To deliver its ambitious international agenda: recruiting foreign talent to settle in Canada, negotiating trade deals, advancing the ‘dignity’ agenda and economic diplomacy, the Harper Government must rely on its Foreign Service to design and deliver these initiatives.

Unfortunately, as demonstrated by the costly and unnecessary sixmonth strike earlier this year, the Harper Government’s relationship with its Foreign Service has been more one of mutual contempt than collaborative partnership. If the Conservative Government is unhappy with its foreign service, why not ask John Baird to devote some attention to reforming it? The last serious look at the Foreign Service was a Royal Commission conducted by Pamela McDougall between 1979-80.

In tackling this challenge, Baird could either widen the scope of the outside advisory panel on the CIDA consolidation or create another panel to include a look at the terms and conditions of service. Such a review should include examining a more flexible approach to postings, improved language training, and better recognition of the spousal contribution. It would complement ongoing work on the Government’s Global Commerce Strategy and economic diplomacy initiative.

If we are to develop a 21st century Foreign Service and achieve the economic diplomacy goals, our ambassadors and trade commissioners must use social media. If the foreign services of our US and European allies can use these new tools of public diplomacy — to blog, tweet and speak out in support of their national interests — why can’t we?

Getting down to business
When the new president, John F. Kennedy, asked the old prime minister what he most feared, Harold MacMillan reportedly replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Managing the files is like playing pinball. In advancing objectives, a foreign minister is constantly dealing with the unexpected.

On his appointment as Foreign Minister, Baird immersed himself in the Libyan and Syrian files and he has since travelled to the Middle East and North Africa on over a dozen occasions. On Syria, he has directed the increase in Canadian assistance for the over two million refugees who have fled the country and underlined the need to protect religious minorities.

Baird has taken a particular interest in Burma. Prior to the April, 2012, Burmese elections he gave a reference library on democracy to Burma’s Speaker and then presented dissident leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi with honorary Canadian citizenship.

On China, Baird wants more engagement, a perspective not shared by some of his senior colleagues in caucus and the cabinet. But as Baird told the Canada-China Business Council in October, we “recognize that we have much to offer one another, that our respective strengths are remarkably complementary and that we have significant unfulfilled potential.” In terms of potential, implementing the Foreign Investment Protection Agreement will be a test of Baird’s ability to bring along his colleagues.

A file on which Baird has devoted considerable personal attention is the implementation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. As he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in November, his recent visit to Laos where he saw the horrific effects on children left him “deeply moved.”

Declaring that “no Canadian soldier will use cluster munitions, ever,” Baird notified the committee that we will exempt our Forces to avoid future criminal prosecution because of our necessary interoperability with our US allies. A sensible approach and it is illustrative of the often opaque choices facing foreign ministers.

An interim assessment
It is, of course, premature to make a final assessment of John Baird’s performance as Foreign Minister. He is a work in progress. His rhetoric still needs to avoid the gratuitous.

The dignity agenda offers promise, especially in its support of women, children, and minorities like LGBT. It is right to focus on the odious practice of child and forced marriages but it needs a measurable accomplishment, like multilateral sanction through the UN, to give it weight.

The consolidation of CIDA into Foreign Affairs should create the mechanism necessary to deliver on the government’s ambitious international policies on trade, development and foreign policy. Partnership with the private sector is the best way to create jobs and long-term economic development. It will also advance our economic diplomacy goals.

Indispensible to delivery is a trusted, resourced Foreign Service that can use all the new tools of diplomacy.

John Baird has distinguished himself well in a challenging job. If he can deliver on these three initiatives and deal with the inevitable ‘events’, then he will have earned his place in the pantheon of our great foreign ministers.