From Inside Policy: John Baird’s legacy as foreign minister

In 2013 the Macdonald-Laurier Institute selected Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who announced on Tuesday that he was resigning from the position, as its Policymaker of the Year.johnbaird

In this profile for the December 2013 edition of Inside Policy, Robin Sears examines the background, the record and the character of the man who led Canada’s foreign service for close to four years.

Sears notes how John Baird – long regarded as one of Stephen Harper’s most trusted and capable ministers — evolved and matured as a politician and asks the Minister what he hopes his legacy at Foreign Affairs will be.

By Robin Sears, December 2013

The television clips of the leaders in Colombo were a dramatic visual.  No Prime Minister Harper, merely a junior sit-in.  It was the diplomatic equivalent of an empty chair.  And it was the sharpest demonstration yet of John Baird’s determination to reshape Canadian behavior and reputation internationally.  To those who had been watching his high-wire act for the past two years, it was predictable that his “principles-based foreign policy” would not quietly accept the arrogant hauteur of Sri Lanka’s brutal victors as Canada’s host and the Commonwealth chair.

It marks an important divide in the history of Canada internationally. Pearson, Trudeau, and Chretien, were each typical of the “solid and reliable” approach of Canadian diplomacy at the Commonwealth, pushing quietly for statements critical of Nigeria’s brutality in Biafra, regularly condemning Zimbabwe’s cruel octogenarian dictator, Robert Mugabe, etc.

But not showing up! Never.

No, “you must be at the table to make change” was always Canada’s narrative.  Baird does not descend to the “Munich attack,” in his condemnation of the legend of “Canada as the eternal compromiser”, in his choice of Churchill over Chamberlain as a guide.  But you feel his contempt for this “go along, get along” style of Canadian diplomacy the moment the issue is raised.  Privately, he wonders if there is anyone we wouldn’t “happily sit down with in the days gone by.”   Interestingly, two weeks before it was announced, he hinted broadly that Canada would not be alone in its protest – and indeed, even more damagingly for Sri Lanka’s autocrats, the Indian prime minister snubbed them as well.  Baird had clearly been canvassing allies.

Those Canadian opponents who would sneer at Baird’s “naive” conception of the necessary compromises of foreign policy, might want to be careful.  On attack, Baird can be devastating.  One can imagine him slapping Pierre Trudeau’s son for supporting the “sleazy compromises with evil,” the value-free rhetoric of pin-striped diplomats.

The Conservative government of Stephen Harper loves to contrast itself on many fronts with that of Trudeau pere.  Given its history of finely targeted missiles one can anticipate that the Conservative attack machine will extend to international policy – especially given Trudeau fils several foreign policy malapropisms, most recently over China.  It won’t be pretty.  In contrast to Baird’s domination of the House, even after four years in his chair Justin Trudeau often displays the bewildered frown of a kid who took a wrong turn on his way to the student Model Parliament.

To Ottawa insiders, what makes John Baird the only really interesting Harper government minister are his contradictions.  To Canadians whose picture of this lifelong politician is framed by Question Period clips, he is the quintessential Harper attack dog.  Roaring indignantly at some Opposition impertinence, Baird in full flight is impressive in his domination of the House…but you would be forgiven for praying that you did not get stranded beside him on a long flight.

To a passel of puzzled ambassadors, to the small group of journalists invited to share a bottle of wine, to his many friends in every political tribe, however, he is a gracious, funny, self-deprecating, and insightful public servant.  He clearly delights in the contradiction and its power to confound his enemies.  He cheerfully accepts a characterization of his public face as that of a “highly theatrical political actor.”  One can imagine Baird relishing the opportunity to dash onto a Stratford stage, brandishing his sword and bellowing angrily at Hamlet or Lear.

Many politicians are very different in private than their botoxed public smile.  In Baird’s case one suspects that his yin/yang disguise is more strategic and contrived.  His reputation means that he enters every new relationship as a politician with the advantage that the newcomer will always be slightly wary and on the defensive.  They are then more easily won over by the gracious private Baird, surprised to find him congratulating them on a recent speech, marriage or a child’s graduation.  Relieved not to be struggling to free their bleeding ankle from his jaws’ savage grip.

Baird is also a very private public man.  He will accept teasing and hints about his private life but that is a door few are permitted to open.  He will not be drawn either on his early political motivations beyond saying that his childhood was full of news and current affairs, that he was always drawn to the spectacle of political battle.

The son of an Ottawa municipal employee he decided early that he wanted a life in politics.  The choice was never driven by his parents’ hopes.  For a suburban Ottawa boy in the 80s it was an unusual ambition, as was his early determination to get into provincial — not federal — politics.  Perhaps he knew that he wanted to launch himself on a wider stage than the rather limited political village that is Ottawa.  He credits two people with opening his eyes to public life.  His Grade 7 teacher, Ms. Kay Stanley and his MP Walter Baker.  Stanley talked to him about the world and Baker, a widely loved gracious politician – whose funeral Baird attended at fourteen – was a symbol of well-lived political life.

Baird is delightfully open about his ambition, admitting that at fourteen he decided that he wanted to be an MPP by the time he was twenty four, and a minister by thirty.  He missed both goals – by only days in each case.  Yet, he has no apparent ambition for leadership.  He seems completely happy acting in harness for a strong populist leader, first Mike Harris then Stephen Harper.  He is a loyalist, offering at one point to give up his seat to new party leader John Tory, when as be puts it with obvious contempt, “Ernie Eves refused….”

Yet he is not the unthinking loyalist that he projects in public.  He is frank in his assessment about how the Ontario Tories lost their “intellectual energy”, leading to defeat.  While he would never be quoted by the friends and allies in whom he confides, in private he is a savvy critic of the gaffes and missteps of his colleagues.  His assessment of Stephen Harper’s strengths and weaknesses is closer to the conventional wisdom than it is to party orthodoxy.

His convictions are as complex as his public and private faces.  He professes to a stern conservatism, after laughing at the memory of his first vote for a leader of the Ontario Conservative Party being cast for perhaps the reddest of Ontario Red Tories, Roy McMurtry.  He loves the confused reaction, when he brags, “I always told both guys that I was probably the only person in the world to have voted for both Roy and Mike Harris for leader!”

Those who have watched his evolution from his anti-welfare rhetoric of almost twenty years ago in the Ontario Legislature marvel at his growth.  He admits that he almost cried with joy on the night at Queen’s Park when the Harris government passed the omnibus labour bill reversing all the Rae government’s pro-labour legislation.  He admits that he could not stand to be in the Legislature when it paid tribute to the departing Bob Rae – for fear he would fail to stand, so he stayed away.  This year he led the tributes to Rae in the House as he retired from federal politics.

This year, as well, he hosted a private dinner for Brian Mulroney, Elizabeth May, Bob Rae and a few invited guests, in his minister’s dining room at the top of Fort Pearson, in honor of Mulroney’s Acid Rain Treaty anniversary.  It was an elegant evening of gracious affectionate war stories among seasoned politicians, led by Baird himself.  Their respectful jibes at each other’s expense had some of the young Tory staffers’ – weaned on a less respectful partisan discourse – jaws on the floor.

He has pushed Canada to the forefront of the battle for religious freedom, sexual freedom, tough anti-human trafficking measures, and fierce opposition to childhood marriage and genital mutilation – not the typical menu of a typical Canadian Conservative Foreign Affairs minister.  His fierce defense of Israel has not prevented him developing a wide circle of Arab ministerial friends.  He quickly lists half a dozen whom he considers as friends to a skeptical visitor.  His ability to make new friends quickly is an enormous asset.  As he points out, foreign ministers’ longevity is poor, citing several countries where he is on to his second or third in two years.

That his reputation is more nuanced internationally than at home is visible in the reaction of his peers.  Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for Baird’s reputation in the region would cause many Canadian Liberals’ heads to explode.  As the Mideast representative of the Quartet countries, Blair is responsible for the economic development plan for a prospective Palestinian state.  He speaks very highly of the role Baird has played.  “I know from…what people in the region say, [that] the position of Canada today is immensely important…Thank you very much to you for your work there,” is part of a much longer unsolicited endorsement.

The picture that emerges from asking about Baird in the Ottawa diplomatic community reflects the same Janus-faced mask he wears so well domestically: hard-edged advocate of “principled foreign policy” in public, nuanced partner in dialogue in private.

Challenged about the Harper government’s tough anti-Iran rhetoric, its anti-UN stance and most recently its decision to bail out of the Commonwealth Summit Baird comes close to anger.  “This bullshit that Canada has always been the referee with no stake in the game, no principles it advances is just that, bullshit.  People respect our taking principled stands.  Even if they don’t agree with us, they respect our convictions.  I don’t need their approval or validation,” he snaps, referring to the barrage of criticism of a retired generation of Canadian diplomats.

And don’t even mention Joe Clark to this successor.  Clark’s just published gratuitous attack on the Harper government’s international record, doesn’t merit a response in Baird’s view.

His revulsion at the Commonwealth’s acceptance of sleazy partners such as the brutal Sri Lankans, or the bizarre defense of Syria or Iran among too many member countries of the United Nations may be grounded in principle.  But there is another analysis which it seems to fit as well: the deeply anti-institutional bias of the populist DNA of this government.

Choosing between the pretentiously named “freedom agenda” – borrowed from the Bush propagandists – and institution building, Baird sits with the prejudices of many in his government.  Freedom first.  Theirs is a curiously naive, if genuinely held faith, in the power of “freedom” to overwhelm corrupt or malign institutions.  Without the protection of strong institutions in communities where tribal thugs, or religious bullies or boys with guns hold power, their so-called “freedom agenda” is likely to get you killed.

They have little patience with those who argue that Diefenbaker used the Commonwealth to isolate South Africa and Mulroney used it to throttle apartheid itself.  The Harperites’ open contempt for the UN General Assembly, for example, is after all merely a more candid display of what many who endure its hypocrisy also believe.  What one jaded UN veteran dubbed, “our oceans of meaningless words flooding across a desert of inaction.”

Baird is also keenly aware of the risks of megaphone diplomacy, pointing out with some indignation that his critics only hear what he says in public.  By definition no one hears the quiet demarches that he delivers on behalf of Chinese dissident prisoners, or victims of religious or sexual oppression in the Middle East, he protests.  Then he adds, “But I don’t worship at the altar of consensus.  I don’t seek validation from the establishment and the elites,” adding a particularly strong smack at the criticism from one of Canada’s most revered diplomats.

He claims that his loud denunciations on child marriage or official homophobia in Uganda usually follow strenuous efforts to deliver warnings in private.  “We followed the criminalization of sexual orientation in Russia very closely.  We cautioned them at the highest level nine times before going public.”

He bridles as well at the suggestion that he has combative relations with his bureaucracy at the embattled Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.  Old school diplomats mutter on the Ottawa cocktail circuit, seven and years after the Huns arrived at the gates, that the Harperites are “destroying in a decade half a century of Canadian diplomacy.”  Their friends in the development community echo the diplomats’ rage, claiming that Harper’s evisceration of CIDA was designed to take development dollars and spent them on trade promotion.

It’s too early to tell if any of that conspiratorial claim is true, but Baird reports that departmental officials — from his new, widely-respected Deputy Minister, Daniel Jean, down to the geographic and sector leaders — enjoy “co-operative, supportive and professional relations” with he and with his staff.  Baird has an incentive to claim that there is “peace at Fort Pearson” of course.

He does not want to appear to be a Minister incapable of winning his officials’ loyalty.  In defense of his claim, it is widely said that Baird managed Treasury Board – a typically thankless portfolio in a period of restraint, and Transport – a sprawling monster of a portfolio, and Environment – a death trap normally for ambitious Conservative ministers, to rave reviews both from clients and officials.

Given the ability of seasoned diplomats to offer several sincerely held, but completely contradictory views, depending on their audience, it may well be true that they snarl about the Huns to friends and to each other in private, but then turn and smile winningly during sessions with their political masters.

The integration of diplomats, trade officials and development experts in a single department has never been done in Canada. Versions of it have been tried elsewhere to mixed reviews.  The integration of the giant new department is likely to be a large part of Baird’s legacy whenever he moves on, so he has a big investment in making it work.  Given his mastery of very tough departments first in Queen’s Park and now in Ottawa, it would not be prudent to bet against him.

Make no mistake, Canada’s loud and confident young Foreign Minister is keenly sensitive to legacy.  He wants to drive a spike through the smooth-talking, always compromising, friend-to-dictator-and-democrat-alike, brand of Canadian diplomacy that the Harper Conservatives believe they inherited.  They knew what they despised, but they had a harder time defining their own Conservative strategy.

Through four previous foreign ministers, they struggled to describe what it was they liked: flipping from Africa to the Americas, from big projects to aiding the poor in Haiti, then to maternal and child health from hard infrastructure, and most recently a still inchoate vision of “corporate/government partnerships” in delivering assistance.

Partly due to good timing, and partly because Baird has a sharper political nose and eye than any of Peter McKay, Maxime Bernier, David Emerson and Lawrence Cannon – his long list of predecessors – Baird’s agenda has been crisp and clearly defined.  First he likes to move quickly and decisively: he led on Libya, only a half step behind the manic French President Nikolas Sarkozy.  He led on Burma, fighting for early recognition of the regime’s stumbling efforts toward democratization. And, he led on Syria when many, including the Obama administration, were more querulous.

He also enjoys the bold move.  He has finally launched the long promised Office of Religious Freedom, which has taken a series of unexpectedly tough positions and offered a long list of grantees access to its considerable cash.  He has been a lightning rod on the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, on human trafficking and on child marriage – using language that he acknowledges sometimes causes discomfort in diplomatic circles.  Then he explodes, “But who will defend a nine year old girl being forced to marry a 54 year old man! Who? If Canada won’t?”

But it is his bold stance on sexual orientation that has won him a considerable international profile.  On the cruel cynicism of Putin’s attacks on gay men and women, on the torture and murder of gays in East Africa and the Middle East he has been fearless and unrelenting.  A vestige of a Conservative women’s group from the 80s, “Real Women” – today reduced to a couple of dozen aging bigots from Western Canada – attacked Baird by press release for attempting “to impose foreign cultural values” on third world countries, appearing to enthusiastically support the torturing and imprisoning of their gay citizens.  Baird lashed back, and as he points out they quickly climbed down in a hair-splitting letter to editors.

Asked about the role he is playing in dragging Canadian Conservatives from the dark days of early Reform propaganda on “the sanctity of the family,” “marriage’s sacred bond between a man and a woman” and the “troubling role of activist homosexuals in our school system,” Baird dismisses such concern: “I don’t know a single Canadian Conservative today who believes in the criminalization of sexual orientation.”  Well, he must filter his Conservative friends with special care most observers would respond.  There may not be many today who would openly espouse such thoughts publicly, but there are many with deeply homophobic quotes on the record from days gone by.

Later, one expects that Baird will acknowledge the revolution in social values he helped promote within his own political tribe, and maybe also internationally.  Today, it is still too new, too early – and the repressed social conservatives too dangerously sullen – for any such celebration.

Baird wants part of his legacy to be a Canada that speaks “truth to evil.”  Landing in Cuba, in part to attempt to win the release of an aging Canadian businessman, unfairly imprisoned without trial by the Cuban national security hardmen, Baird offered no public praise for the aging dictators or their regime – something Trudeau the Elder did with enthusiasm on every visit.  Instead, in tough private meetings he noted just how much of Cuban foreign exchange reserves were the product of 500,000 Canadian sunseekers on Veradero beaches.

It is tempting to conclude that Baird’s, like Harper’s, uncritical support of the most right-wing government in Israeli history is merely a play to unlock the 50 year embrace of the Liberal party by rich Jewish businessmen.  That may have been how it started.  Harper did use the most right-wing leaders of the Canadian Jewish community as important early fund-raisers.  He managed to pry several very important Canadian Jewish leaders from their lifelong seats in the leadership of the red team to his own.

But, however opportunistic the Reform/Alliance impulse may have been, Baird is unapologetically and clearly sincerely pro-Israeli today.  Still, the Baird complexities poke through even here: he restored funding for the Palestinians, and has travelled several times to Ramallah.  As Blair’s unreserved compliment indicates, even at this core of Harperite international orthodoxy Baird follows a more nuanced path than he usually acknowledges or gets credit for.  As he says, referring to Arab leaders, “Even though we disagree on one big thing, we work together well on many others.”

The next two years will be challenging for Baird.  Assuming the departmental integration proceeds without too many brown envelopes from angry civil servants landing on reporters’ desks, the restraint agenda is already causing a slowdown in funding.  Critics will jump on any apparently greater flow of money to “public/private international development co-operation” involving Canadian corporations abroad, at the expense of traditional sacred cows like the UN system and its many agencies, long the recipients of generous multi-year Canadian funding.

Baird argues with considerable conviction, but perhaps somewhat more dubious evidence, that “Canada has won respect for its clarity and strong positions, even from those who don’t agree with us.”  Perhaps, but the universal muddiness of diplomatic discourse is also functional.  Minimizing differences is less likely to lead to confrontation than heightening them.  That is the foundation of every negotiator’s playbook.

Others have trod this path.  Margaret Thatcher’s “robust” foreign policy legacy is a source of pride to British Conservatives to this day.  But they quickly abandoned it as soon as she was gone, reverting to the Foreign Office’s comfortable verbal mush.  A Conservative Foreign Secretary verbal style that Labour Deputy Leader Denis Healey said made him feel as if he had been “savaged by a dead sheep.”  Carl Bildt, the tough-talking Swedish conservative, was its first non-leftist foreign minister in nearly half a century.  His clarity and unrelenting rhetoric on Serbia and “ethnic cleansing” were also quickly replaced by the more placid nostrums of traditional Nordic diplomacy.

Baird may have instilled, more permanently, permission to ask the tough questions traditional diplomacy works hard to avoid having asked let alone answered.  Before John Baird, the idea of challenging child marriage was never a DFAIT priority.  “When was the last Foreign Minister you heard attack enforced marriage more than me?” he asks rhetorically.  Indeed, the record is clear that none have been as vigorous about all forms of intolerance: sexual, ethnic, religious as this one.

Another more prosaic legacy is sure to be part of the Baird years: the absorption of Canada’s revered development organization into the new monster department.  Now, even its friends have to admit that CIDA had become a sclerotic, ritual bound, bureaucratic swamp by the time of its demise.

It was an organization – like Indian Affairs and Northern Development – with a deep obstructionist culture, about the efforts of outsiders to change sacred policy.  It had happily digested several so-called CEOs and Ministers, and their reputations.  CIDA officials would brag, in a strange form of gallows humour, that it took a minimum of two years for any new idea to move from conception to execution in the field.

The experience of others who have attempted a similar mash-up of diplomacy, trade promotion and development assistance is mixed.  There is, after all, a natural conflict between those whose priority is to assist the poorest of the poor, those who want to help sell more Canadian products and services abroad, and those pin-striped chaps whose job it is to stay beneath the radar and ensure that Canada stays out of trouble.

Fans of integration argue that without harmonized policy across all three faces of Canada internationally mean endless turf wars and overlaps, and waste money and dilute impact. Time will tell. It’s just that such governmental amalgamation efforts – often championed by conservatives as money savers – usually end it tears.

It would be a powerful irony, indeed, if the man who is a lightning rod among critics for “the ruination of Canada’s international reputation” were to have as his legacy greater advances on the sexual and criminal exploitation of children, lesbians and gays than any Liberal government before him; as well as the successful revitalization of Canada’s badly decayed international development capability.

Asked what a future assessment of his legacy as foreign minister might be, Baird is as always, ambitious, and somewhat puzzling.  He mentions in passing the “battle against terror,” and his skepticism on Iran – what you might expect from a more ordinary Conservative foreign minister.

But his focus is on something entirely out of the ordinary: blunt truth-telling and fighting for the some of the most powerless.

“[It’ll be about someone] who is not afraid to stand up!, he declares, “…and it will be on the values front.  Enforced marriage, pluralism, sexual and religious freedom, and the rights of women are becoming part of the mainstream agenda and they never were before…we’ve pushed that.”

“After all, when you have genuine religious freedom most other freedoms will follow — not all, but most.  Democracy is an expression of that freedom and pluralism…that’s one of the biggest things we’ve pushed: freedom, prosperity, and pluralism. And the success of pluralism is the Canadian success story…”

If he’s right, and he does move the dial on those core values internationally, Liberals and New Dems will never forgive him.  Such effrontery in defence of “their” progressive values from an unreformed, shamelessly defiant Harrisite/Harperite Conservative, would be unforgiveable.

Contributing writer Robin V. Sears, a former national director of the NDP, is a principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group.