Oversold and Underwhelming: John Baird’s First Year on the Job

Almost one year to the day after his appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird was asked in an interview on CBC Radio’s The House on Saturday to define his foreign policy. “More smart power, less soft power,” he replied. Finding the answer less than illuminating, the interviewer persisted: “what have you done differently?” To which Baird confidently responded “less obscure platitudes”, and went on to talk about Canada’s role in NATO’s UN-backed Libya mission.

But is participation in the Libya operation a distinctively Conservative foreign policy stance? Baird’s allusion to an era of supposedly ‘soft’ foreign policy is misleading. It was a Liberal foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, under Prime Minister Chrétien, who committed Canada’s armed forces to the NATO operation in Kosovo in 1999. Unlike Libya, that operation lacked UN authorization, and hence the political decision to participate was far riskier. The Liberals too first took the decision to send Canadian troops to Afghanistan.

“[W]hat outcome can John Baird point to in the past year that is distinctive of his approach?”

When pushed, in truth, Baird is hard-pressed to substantiate his supposedly new tilt in foreign policy. His outspoken defence of the Israeli government, his strident rhetoric in relation to the Iranian regime, his lukewarm support for the UN, and his insistence that Canada will take principled stands in defense of Canadian interests: all may sound a different note. For some, this is a note that rings ominously. But in policy terms, at least so far, there is little of consequence. He has launched no policy that seeks global change or the re-shaping of the international institutions he distrusts. Nor has he altered Canada’s relations with any country in ways that leave a mark and distinguish his (and Conservative) foreign policy.

People will say that Baird has shown far greater public support for Israel. That may be true, but Canada has almost always voted in support of Israel in UN forums. Equally, it is hard to imagine that previous Liberal governments would have unreservedly endorsed the Palestinian bid for UN membership, even if they might not have campaigned quite so vigorously (but to what effect?) against it.

On the human rights front, Baird has spoken forcefully of the need for greater efforts to promote freedom, democracy and the rule of law. But press releases change very little. It was Hillary Clinton who bravely and cogently argued that gay rights were human rights in an impassioned speech to the Geneva diplomatic corps on Human Rights Day 2010, and who announced a program to work with other countries to advance this agenda. Similarly, it was the Americans who took the lead in building a coalition of countries to pass a UN resolution in March 2012 concerning human rights in Sri Lanka (although Canada helped push it along).

The foreign minister has denounced the crackdowns in Syria and Bahrain and the continuing violence in Egypt; and Canadian sanctions against the Assad regime are among the most stringent. But this is hardly distinctive, as it reflects Western policy in general.  Arguably, in relation to Syria, Baird missed an opportunity to play a bigger role by largely taking a back seat in relation to Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, the one initiative that has any chance of averting civil war. He did not offer Canadian troops to the UN monitoring mission overseeing the ceasefire.

As for Libya, as noted, military humanism is hardly distinctive of Conservative foreign policy. Moreover, the decision to participate was undertaken two months before Baird took office. For Baird, Libya policy was simply a matter of staying the course. Baird participated in the “Friends of Libya” group. But he missed his real chance to make a mark when he failed to ensure that Canada will play a crucial role in the new Libya. It took months after Qaddafi’s fall for Canada to put an ambassador in place; and beyond some money for disarmament programs, there is no significant aid for the civil society groups who will be so central to democratic progress in Libya.

Indeed, with respect to the Arab Awakening, the most momentous foreign policy event of 2011, Baird has been active with his rhetoric, but he has not significantly stepped up his engagement with the transition countries or with key regional powers such as Turkey. Nor has he offered anything in the way of a clear policy statement regarding Canada’s role in the region during this era of unprecedented change.

To encourage the reform process, Baird visited Burma in early March 2012—but that was hardly path-breaking. His visit came three months after Hillary Clinton visited the country, and two months after the British Foreign Secretary visited. Indeed, even while Baird was denouncing Burma in his speech to the UN in September 2011, the Europeans and Americans had been engaged quietly for months with the new reformist government.

What of trade? No doubt there is a discernible effort by the Harper government on trade, but Baird is hardly central to it. Nor is he front and centre on the pipeline and border issues that have dominated the relationship with the U.S. over the past year, as these files rest largely with other Ministers.

So what has John Baird been up to? He has promised to establish an Office of Religious Freedom within DFAIT—but it is now more than a year since the promise was made, and no such Office yet exists.

Beyond the internal restructuring (some would say hollowing out) of DFAIT, and the closure of Rights and Democracy, it is hard to name a product that is more than a pronouncement.  And this is surprising. People expected big things from Baird. He took up the foreign affairs post with the reputation of someone close to the Prime Minister—someone who gets things done.

No doubt officials in DFAIT are working hard on several fronts. But what outcome can John Baird point to in the past year that is distinctive of his approach? Different, that is, besides vague allusions to ‘soft’ and ‘smart’ power, and strident press releases. Indeed, “obscure platitudes” would seem best to characterize not his predecessors but John Baird’s own first year as foreign minister.

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