Baird Improved Over Time, But Ultimately Fell Short

By Colin Robertson

This is one of a series of CIPS Blog posts examining the legacy of John Baird as Canada’s foreign minister. See also the posts by Peter Jones, Ferry de Kerckhove and David Petrasek.

John Baird arrived at the Pearson Building in May 2011 as an experienced minister and accomplished, if partisan, parliamentarian.

Naturally curious and personally affable, as Canada’s Foreign Minister, Baird reserved his ‘pit bull’ persona for bureaucrats, the media and legislative debate. He charmed his way through the diplomatic circuit and fully engaged both Hillary Clinton and her successor John Kerry (with whom he waged and lost a case of Canadian after the USA beat Canada in the Women’s World Championship).

With his energy and force of personality, John Baird could have been the Conservatives’ equivalent of Lloyd Axworthy.

In his essential profile of John Baird, the Globe and Mail’s Campbell Clark observed of Baird, “his penchant for bold steps and embracing strong leaders, his confidence in his own political compass, and the willingness he has displayed ever since high school to shrug off ridicule rather than abandon the task at hand make him the dynamic foreign minister Mr. Harper has long lacked.”

Words became Baird’s diplomatic sword. As Baird told the Foreign Affairs Committee: “Our government wants Canada’s voice to be heard, for it to be clear and for it to be unambiguously free of moral relativism.”

Baird’s support for Israel was unequivocal: “Israel has no greater friend in the world than Canada.” On Iran, he warned, “Kind words, a smile and a charm offensive are not a substitute for real action.”

Shortly after he became minister, he framed his ‘dignity agenda’ with its message that people deserve the “dignity to live in freedom, in peace and to provide for one’s family”.

The dignity agenda embraced women, children and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) people. It condemned child, early and forced marriages. These themes, especially his leadership on ‘girls not brides’ were his constant refrain.

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Baird’s personal leadership was instrumental in the passage of UN resolutions on child, early and forced marriages, Iran and terrorism. He pioneered in the use of digital diplomacy to “give a voice to the voiceless”.

Baird’s was not the conventional Canadian approach to the United Nations. In his first speech to the UN General Assembly Baird announced “Canada does not just “go along” in order to “get along”. He quoted Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase that “collective action does not mean uniformity”. For Baird, the “greatest enemies of the United Nations are those who quietly undermine its principles and, even worse, by those who sit idly, watching its slow decline.”

Baird’s tenure coincided with a strike of foreign service officers, unprecedented in length and scope, picketing at headquarters and abroad.

The Harper government’s relationship with the foreign service can be characterized as one of mutual contempt. Notwithstanding the growing concentration of policy-making within central agencies (Privy Council Office and National Security Offices elsewhere in the anglosphere), an effective G7 government needs to trust and enable its foreign service.

For some in the foreign service, Baird was minister as tourist. Selling off our historic residences is a mistake. When used–if the incumbents won’t, then replace them – they are platforms for marketing Canada. As Jean Chretien observed, “you don’t do diplomacy from your basement”.

While most remain for sale, Baird listened to a former consul general and his spouse make the case for the value of Los Angeles as a platform for marketing Canadian entertainment. The residence was taken off the market (leading one to wonder how hard the bureaucrats defended the value of our residences).

To his critics he was a diplomatic dilettante, who provoked but who failed to deliver. Baird was proud of comparisons to his hero, John Diefenbaker, an earlier renegade in power who railed against the ‘pearsonalities’ in External Affairs. Baird renamed the building next door to the Pearson Building after Diefenbaker.


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A more generous perspective came from NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar in his parliamentary remarks on Baird’s resignation. Dewar observed that despite disagreements, Baird listened and “asked for our advice and actually followed up on some of the issues we were advocating for” notably “women, peace, and security and the whole issue of sexual violence.”

With his energy and force of personality, John Baird could have been the Conservatives’ equivalent of Lloyd Axworthy. Baird’s dignity agenda should have matched the accomplishments of Axworthy’s human security agenda.

But Baird too often lacked discipline and focus. He delighted in being the bull in the diplomatic china shop breaking, usually with intent, established norms and conventions. Sometimes this served the national interest but too often it left unfinished business. A trusted foreign service could have helped him, especially with the dignity agenda.

John Baird got better as he matured. He advanced the cause of human rights in a fashion consistent with Canadian values and traditions.

So what to make of John Baird as foreign minister: ‘high potential but achievements are incomplete’.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

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