TORONTO — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seriously rattled Europe and the rest of the world and upset the normally sedate discourse of diplomats at the United Nations as well. The public remarks of Canada’s UN ambassador about the war have stood out for their vehemence against Russia and President Vladimir Putin’s claims for a military incursion against a neighbor.
“Whatever lies are spoken here today trying to justify the unjustifiable or to explain the inexplicable. . . . It is President Putin’s war of choice . . . ” Bob Rae, Canada’s envoy, said on Feb. 28 in an emergency special session in the General Assembly on Ukraine, four days after Russia began attacking its neighbor.
Rae’s frank talk and hashtag diplomacy are getting noticed in a profession where talk is more often subtle than confrontational. With a Twitter-handle tip of the hat to his year of birth, Canada’s envoy, @BobRae48, currently has about 173,000 followers — friends and foes alike. He describes himself as “ambassador, writer, teacher” and that his tweets express his “personal views.”
On March 21, in response to a tweet by Volodymyr Artiukh, an academic researcher, about “the focus on NATO expansion,” in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Rae wrote: “This blaming of the current crisis on NATO and the West has to be put to sleep. This has been about Putin’s drive to restore empire, tyranny and dominance, and to block freedom and sovereignty. He is Stalin’s horrendous successor.”
For those who have followed his career, Rae’s outspokenness is entirely in character. He is described as a man who understands the power of words, knows what is at stake and is determined for Canada to champion human rights. He uses Twitter to amplify Canada’s voice at the UN, calling out nations and their leaders who defy the UN Charter, of which a worn copy that belonged to his father, a former envoy, is always in his pocket, he says.
Indeed, Rae, 73, learned the art of diplomacy and debate from his father. Saul Rae was a career Canadian diplomat who served as ambassador to the UN in Geneva (1962-1967) and New York City (1972-1976)
He is known in Toronto social and political circles for his lightness and sense of humor and love of music. Rae plays the piano and composes songs for his wife, Arlene Perly Rae, each year on their wedding anniversary. (She is pictured with Rae on his Twitter page.) He dabbles in poetry and has written four books reflecting on the state of politics, democracy and the public good.
A recipient of a Rhodes scholarship and a lawyer, many people describe Rae as the smartest man in the room. A pragmatic politician, Rae moved back and forth from federal to provincial politics, from the center-leaning Liberal Party to the left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP). In 1990, he was sworn in as the first, and so far, only NDP premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. His premiership ended with a crushing electoral defeat five years later, and he returned to Ottawa and the Liberal Party in 2006.
He ran twice for the leadership of the federal Liberals, but lost both times, and finally served as the interim party leader from 2011, until Justin Trudeau’s election in 2013 as prime minister. Rae left politics after that.
Julian Porter, a prominent Canadian lawyer and a close friend who has breakfast (virtually) with Rae most Tuesday mornings, ascribes his astute oratorial skills to the early days as a member of Parliament in Ottawa for the New Democrats. Representing a small party with few seats and little influence, he quickly learned the art of being heard on the floor in Canada’s House of Commons.
In his own work, Rae has described Canada’s tenuous influence on the world stage, particularly at the UN. Years before he was appointed Canada’s ambassador to the world body in 2020, Rae wrote about his country’s value to the UN in his 2015 book, “What’s Happened to Politics?.”
“As a country that is less than a superpower, Canada cannot rely on its muscle to make itself heard,” he wrote. “Our influence comes from a capacity for wisdom, from being a trusted source of information, knowledge and judgment on some of the most difficult issues facing the world.”
In a March 16 Politico interview, he was asked if he was satisfied with the amount of discourse at the UN in response to the crisis in Ukraine. Rae replied, “There is always lots of discourse at the UN. The question is: Is the discourse related to reality? Is it related to the ability to take action?”
Trusted by Prime Minister Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland (who has Ukrainian roots), Rae’s outrage at Russia’s actions in Ukraine resonates with Canadians. Those who know him well professionally and personally say that he speaks from the heart. Trudeau appointed him to the UN post.
“There may be people looking askance at the Canadian ambassador’s outspoken comments,” said Guillermo Rishchynski, a former Canadian envoy to the UN.
“Nevertheless, Rae’s leadership shows Canada well,” he added. “We have been defeated twice for a seat on the Security Council. Leading with our chin on this can only help Canada.” (Canada lost a three-way race for two Security Council seats, defeated by Norway and Ireland, in 2020, leaving the country stung by its second failure in a decade to gain a spot in the chamber.)
Canada’s diplomatic corps is acutely aware that Twitter can also be a platform for unforced errors. In 2018, Freeland called out Saudi Arabia on Twitter for unjustly imprisoning human rights advocates. The Saudis swiftly expelled Canada’s ambassador and cut trade.
“It was an expensive tweet for Canada. The lesson is that there is no nuance on Twitter,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a nonpartisan research institute based in Calgary.
Not one for nuance, and responding to the lack of allied support for Canada in the spat with Saudi Arabia, Rae posted on Twitter on Aug. 7, 2018: “The Brits and the Trumpians run for cover and say ‘we’re friends with both the Saudis and the Canadians.’ Thanks for the support for human rights, guys, and we’ll remember this one for sure.”
In a recent CBC interview, Rae said of Russia’s leaders, “We know they are lying because their lips are moving.” He also posted those remarks on Twitter.
In his 2015 book “What’s Happened to Politics?,” he wrote about a study of propaganda in WWI, called “The First Casualty,” referring to the idea that truth is the first thing discarded by all sides as they attempt to influence public opinion.
While Rishchynski sees Rae’s wit and outrage at Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as fit for the moment, not everyone agrees. Several diplomats have said privately in interviews for this article that they fear Rae’s frank-talking undermines Canada’s ability to play a meaningful role in peacekeeping and humanitarian spaces at the UN.
On the evening of Feb. 23 in New York City, as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in Europe in the morning of Feb. 24, Rae reposted a PassBlue tweet with a photo of Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia presiding over a late-night emergency session of the Security Council on Ukraine, with the caption, “Criminals and apologists for criminals.”
Even longstanding admirers disagree with Rae’s bluntness on Russia’s assault on Ukraine. “If you want a cease-fire or to de-escalate, is it wise to threaten Putin with war crimes or genocide?” said John Packer, associate professor of law and the Neuberger-Jesin Professor of International Conflict Resolution at the University of Ottawa. “All are applicable, but what is the point of saying it? The art of diplomacy is to obtain the change of behavior you seek when you have no ability to force that change.”
Rae is not backing down, however. Addressing fellow UN General Assembly members regarding a recent South African-led proposed resolution focusing on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine that omitted references to Russia’s aggression, Rae said:
“A humanitarian crisis of this type is not a spontaneous event. It is the direct result of a deliberate decision by one country, the Russian Federation, to invade another, Ukraine. We cannot be expected to discuss Moby Dick without talking about the whale.” (The resolution was never taken to a vote.)
His Twitter following keeps growing: @BobRae48 added 2,000 new followers between March 24 and 27.
Susanne Courtney is a freelance journalist and writer based in Canada. A former fellow in global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy in Toronto, her writing focuses primarily on international affairs, international development and development finance. Recently, she wrote the 2021 State of the Sector Report on Canada’s Impact Investing in Emerging and Frontier Markets.