John Baird: ‘a pragmatic internationalist’

Former Foreign Minister John Baird will be remembered for being a staunch defender of human rights, freedom and democracy in the world, our writers argue.

Former Foreign Minister John Baird will be remembered for being a staunch defender of human rights, freedom and democracy in the world, our writers argue.

When he became foreign affairs minister in 2011, one of the first things John Baird did was to issue an edict to hang an oversized portrait of the Queen on the main wall of the lobby of the Pearson Building, Foreign Affairs’ headquarters. He also ordered her portrait to be prominently displayed in all of the Canadian chancelleries abroad. Many members of the foreign service, as well as former Canadian diplomats, were aghast. There was a lot of sniggering in the corridors of the Pearson Building.
Mr. Baird’s critics said Canada should not advertise the Queen as Canada’s head of state with such blatant symbolism since we are no longer a colony, but an independent country. His rejoinder was that the Queen is Canada’s sovereign. To pretend otherwise is lèse-majesté (the crime of violating the dignity of majesty).
He clearly believed we should not bury our history and heritage. As Canadians, we should be proud and sufficiently self-confident to celebrate it. The message was clear: No more hiding in the bushes in the name of multiculturalism, political correctness or cloistered republicanism.

With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

It was vintage Baird: brash, impenitent and in your face. That was his political trademark.
However, he was far more conciliatory when his political armour was off. He listened to other points of view and consulted with members of the opposition, especially when key national interests were involved. That was certainly true when he invited NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar and Liberal critic Marc Garneau to accompany him on a fact-finding mission to Iraq. Unlike the prime minister, Mr. Baird genuinely likes other people and, in turn, was liked by many — and not just his fellow MPs.
He was also a first-class retail politician, as his Ottawa West Nepean constituents will attest. He had bundles of bonhomie, energy and good humour. He named his cat “Thatcher” after Margaret Thatcher, a leader he greatly admired. Like any good politician, Mr. Baird always made the other person feel they were the most important person in the room. He also did not have an inflated sense of self-importance. As Mr. Baird admitted in an exit interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, he had no delusions that his authority came from his persona rather than from the office itself. Still, he had many fans among foreign leaders and enjoyed close relations with former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of Australia, Mexico, Sweden and Poland. Such ties went beyond the usual niceties of diplomatic protocol.

With former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.

With former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.

Mr. Baird’s critics, a handful of retired public servants, have gone out of their way to belittle his achievements. They have lambasted his unflinching support for the State of Israel, his opposition to Palestinian statehood (though what they don’t say is that Canada’s opposition is conditional on the successful conclusion of a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians), his decision to close Canada’s embassy in Tehran and his tough stance on nuclear talks with Iran and on Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
If he made enemies among the chattering classes for his stance on these issues, it was to the good, not just for him but also for Canada. To quote Winston Churchill: “You have enemies. Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Mr. Baird will be remembered for being a staunch defender of human rights, freedom and democracy in the world. In Ukraine, he courageously took to the streets in support of the Maidan protesters and was one of the first Western leaders to do so. His support did not waiver after Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Baird at the UN, where he advocated for reform and accountability.

Mr. Baird at the UN, where he advocated for reform and accountability.

Like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mr. Baird also believed Canada should stand by its friends in the world. He admitted he regularly raised Canada’s opposition to new Israeli settlements on the West Bank in his private conversations with Israeli leaders, but he also believed that friends do not criticize each other in public.
His strong support for Israel, however, did not come at the expense of closer ties with the Arab world, something that his critics conveniently overlook. As a frequent visitor to the Middle East, Mr. Baird oversaw new trade pacts with the Gulf States and a free-trade agreement with Jordan. He also went out of his way to try to strengthen relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally, notwithstanding Canada’s reservations about the direction in which its current leadership has been moving.

With his beloved late cat, Thatcher.

With his beloved late cat, Thatcher.

On Iran, the jury is still out on the nuclear talks. However, he was in good company in voicing his skepticism about the proposals that are on the table. As two former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, who are also skeptics about the U.S. negotiating position, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Any final deal [with Iran] must ensure the world’s ability to detect a move toward a nuclear breakout, lengthen the world’s time to react and underscore its determination to do so. The preservation of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and the avoidance of a Middle East nuclear-arms race hang in the balance.”
Mr. Baird was a realist when it came to the United Nations. For too long Canadians have been uncritical, diehard supporters of an institution that has fallen victim to members who trumpet partisan causes in the UN General Assembly, and a Security Council that has reverted to Cold War deadlock. Both Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird were committed to a reform and accountability agenda for the UN and other multilateral institutions, which has been misinterpreted by critics as Canada somehow turning its back on the UN.
His common-sense approach to diplomacy is one of the reasons Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former Labor prime minister and foreign minister, approached him recently to serve on his independent commission on multilateralism. In Mr. Rudd’s words, Mr. Baird is a “pragmatic internationalist,” someone who is committed to “practical problem-solving, rather than having a seminar on castles in the air,” and a consummate “realist” who wants to see international institutions such as the UN “function and function effectively.”
He was instrumental in strengthening Canada’s ties with the countries of the Asia-Pacific, including China, though his enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him. On his first trip, he referred to China as an “ally” of Canada. It was a gaffe, but one that actually endeared him to his Chinese hosts and helped smooth relations, which had been rocky in the early years of the Conservative government.
Mr. Baird and Trade Minister Ed Fast were also the first two ministers in any Canadian government to visit all 10 ASEAN countries and, in some cases, more than once. This, too, has been widely noticed in a region that has all too often been ignored by Canada.
Promoting gender and sexual equality were also priorities for Mr. Baird. He took Russia and several African states to task over their policies. His “dignity” agenda put him at odds with social conservatives within his party, but he refused to back off on what he considered to be a fundamental principle of human rights.
One of his biggest legacies when it comes to the machinery of government — in addition to the accountability legislation, which he introduced when he was head of Treasury Board — was the incorporation of the Canadian International Development Agency with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (which were amalgamated in 1982).
For years, Canada’s overseas development assistance policies had been out of sync with its foreign policy priorities to the enormous frustration of our diplomats and those in the field. A succession of governments — Liberal and Conservative — had preached the virtues of a “whole-of-government” approach to Canada’s international relations. But it was all rhetoric and precious little action until he came along and did the unthinkable by bringing CIDA into the fold.
Like any successful foreign minister, he had a smart, able and competent staff.  It was another reason, too, why some in the department were resentful, preferring to be absolute custodians of wisdom.
John Baird’s hasty and sudden departure from public life left many Ottawa pundits scratching their heads. They wondered why someone who was relatively young — 45 — would step down at the height of a highly successful political career. Were the reasons personal? Had Mr. Baird had a falling out with the prime minister? Had he, as he said publicly, simply had enough after 20 years of public life? Had the sudden death of his close friend, former finance minister Jim Flaherty, been an epiphany in his thoughts about his own future? Speculation abounds. But the truth of the matter is that Mr. Baird had been considering an exit from public life for some time and had discussed his options with some of his associates and close friends prior to his announcement.
John Baird will be remembered as an activist, but principled, foreign minister. He would be the first to acknowledge that he did not know all there was to know about foreign policy, but he did understand Canadian interests and values and was determined to defend and advance both.

Derek H. Burney is senior strategic adviser to Norton Rose Fulbright and was Canadian ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.

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Category: Diplomatica

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Derek H. Burney is senior strategic adviser to Norton Rose Fulbright and was Canadian ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.

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