Six essential steps: How John Baird can succeed as Canada’s foreign minister

| October 26, 2011 | 0 Comments


Foreign Minister John Baird met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August in Washington.

Foreign Minister John Baird met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August in Washington.

John Baird hit the ground running as Canada’s new foreign minister. Within days of his appointment late last spring, he was off on a secret mission to Libya to meet with key rebel leaders of its Transitional National Council. That trip was immediately followed by meetings in Turkey, China, Indonesia, the U.S. and Mexico.
Unlike his predecessor, Lawrence Cannon, Mr. Baird enjoys close personal ties with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen. More important, Canada’s newest foreign minister seems to have the complete trust and confidence of his boss. His trip to China, for example, was taken at his own initiative, not the PMO’s. Not since Lloyd Axworthy paraded the halls of “Fort Pearson” (the nickname for the dark brown concrete slab that houses the foreign ministry) has a foreign minister enjoyed the kind of political access, self-confidence and freedom of maneuver that Baird apparently has. He is very much his own man.
Nor has Mr. Baird’s energy, friendly demeanour and obvious desire to engage Ottawa’s diplomatic corps gone unnoticed. As one ambassador Tweeted recently, “Baird saw more heads of mission in his first two weeks [on the job] than Lawrence Cannon did during his entire time as foreign minister.”
With Mr. Baird at the helm, Canada’s own diplomatic corps, which has long felt marginalized and demoralized, is now back in the game. There were some snickers when Mr. Baird personally ordered the replacement of two paintings by Quebec painter Alfred Pellan hanging in the main lobby of the Pearson building with a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen. His monarchist sentiments are now on full display on what is irreverently referred to as “the Sovereign Wall.”
Does Mr. Baird have the right stuff to be a good (if not great) foreign minister? Does he have the makings of a Lester Pearson, a Joe Clark, or even a Lloyd Axworthy? Only time will tell but it is worth reflecting now on some critical ingredients of success.
1. “The sun’s rays do not burn unless brought to a focus,” said the great inventor Alexander Graham Bell. The same is true of the great engine of diplomacy and the kind of concentrated leadership that is necessary to leave a lasting footprint.
Whatever one’s views about Lloyd Axworthy, he was a successful foreign minister because he had a clear agenda and was relentless in pursuing a small number of clearly defined initiatives — the global campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines, the establishment of the International Criminal Court and the rights of war-affected women and children. Joe Clark had similar success in leaving his mark as a champion — along with Brian Mulroney — of opposing apartheid in South Africa and stepping up to the plate to relieve famine in the Horn of Africa.
It is too easy for a foreign minister to become hostage to multiple and competing demands from the bureaucracy and other interests. If pulled in too many directions, Mr. Baird could find his mission difficult to achieve, especially because he will also need a long-term vision rather than a sole focus on securing immediate, measurable results.
2. According to Henry Kissinger, “No foreign policy — no matter how ingen­ious — has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.” Kissinger understood that in a democracy, a successful foreign policy must be sold not just to one’s boss, but also to the bureaucracy and the wider public. Mr. Baird is a good communicator; he will have to shape and articulate his message. He will also have to work with, rather than be at odds with, the bureaucracy. No foreign minister, no matter how good, can accomplish anything great or lasting without getting the bureaucracy excited and engaged.
3. During their years as a minority government, the Conservatives acquired a reputation for excessive partisan zeal even when it came to foreign policy. Now that they are in a majority, Mr. Baird might heed the advice of former Michigan Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg who wisely remarked that foreign policy and national security “should be put ahead of partisan advantage.” “Politics,” he famously said, “stops at the water’s edge.”
4. Mr. Baird will work the levers of Canada’s influence in the world. There is no great mystery here. Yet, it is remarkable how governments sometimes forget where our real influence lies. As Canada’s former ambassador to Washington, Derek Burney, wrote some years ago, “To have influence of any kind, Canada must start from a position of mutual trust [with our key trading partner and ally, the United States] as well as have something sensible to say.”
During the Mulroney era, Canada stood tall on the world stage not only because we had Washington’s ear, but also because our leaders offered wise and sensible counsel. Recall Brian Mulroney’s prudent advice to George H.W. Bush that he should secure the approval of the United Nations Security Council before attacking Iraq for its seizure of Kuwait.
However, in an increasingly multi-centric world where there are different poles of attraction and influence, the U.S. is not sufficient as a sole partner. We will need to invest in forging deeper partnerships with constructive global powers like ourselves (e.g., Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland, Korea, Japan, South Africa and Turkey) who are not great powers in the traditional sense but are rising on the world stage, are committed to democratic values, and share a common interest in promoting a stable international order.
Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney used the Commonwealth to advance their agenda in Africa. Lloyd Axworthy had his like-minded group of powers in Europe and the developing world to help pursue his human security agenda. They understood that friends matter and Canada cannot work alone to advance its values and interests.
5. The marketing of Canada begins with our foreign service. The days of strict message control and gag orders, which were a point of obsession for Harper’s minority government, should be relaxed. If the department is to do its job properly, our officials must be allowed to breathe and speak freely. As Jared Cohen, a former member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s staff, prophetically observed before the WikiLeaks scandal broke, “The 21st Century is a really terrible time to be a control freak.”
6. We sometimes forget the main reasons why Lester Pearson was thought by some to be our greatest foreign minister. It was not just his tenacious internationalism, his longevity on the job (he served as secretary of state for external affairs from 1948-1957), and his smarts that made him great.
He also had, in the words of the renowned historian Norman Hillmer, “a breezy personality conveying the enthusiasm and innovation of a country coming into its own in the world.” Mr. Baird has some of these same personal qualities. Although we have more than come of age as a country, enthusiasm and innovation are in short supply and needed more than ever.

Fen Osler Hampson is Chancellor’s Professor and director of The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

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Category: Diplomatica

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Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.

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