Four years is not much time to establish a ministerial legacy, especially in a government centrally controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office. There were, however, interesting trends in John Baird’s time as Canada’s foreign minister which merit examination in an evaluation of his record.
The starting point is context. The most important contextual element for any minister in the Foreign Affairs portfolio is the Harper government’s determination to rid Canada of its traditional Pearsonian diplomacy. That tradition had been the underlying basis of Conservative and Liberal foreign policies for over the past half century. The Prime Minister’s motives for his antipathy to this tradition are unknown, especially since he apparently knew little about foreign policy prior to assuming office. Possibly it was the Pearson name, reason enough in some quarters. Possibly it was simply corollary damage in the government’s attempt to assert a new Canadian identity and shift Canada and Canadians in a radically different direction. It was certainly ideological in orientation, borrowing heavily from American sources.
Behind the slowly-evolving Baird agenda was the long, unacknowledged shadow of Lester Pearson
The game plan for change, though never clearly enunciated, has been relatively clear: focus on trade issues, denigrate the United Nations and multilateralism, forget about consultations with Canadians, don’t worry unduly about bilateral relations or regional strategies, and use foreign policy issues to shore up relationships with Canadian diaspora groups. It was a communications strategy for domestic political advantage rather than a foreign policy, supposedly with few downside foreign policy risks. The Canadian media, in the midst of financial crisis, was unable to devote serious attention to foreign policy, and the government got a relatively free ride. It rarely twigged to Canada’s marginalization in the Middle East, the vacuousness of its approach to Libya, Ukraine and other crises, or the absence of policies for Asia and Africa. It didn’t notice the perplexity of allies who quickly judged that blather was no substitute for policy.
John Baird started his tenure as foreign minister faithful to the anti-Pearsonian instructions of the PMO. He disparaged the term ‘diplomacy’ as if it were a foul word and announced with his megaphone new ways in which Canada was doing business. He emphasized a ‘principled’ foreign policy (as if principles had never been part of the Canadian tradition), and focused on trade issues with no recognition that earlier governments had pioneered this theme.
On Baird’s watch, and under PMO direction, a lot of damage was done. He continued the fire-sale of important, historic diplomatic properties and the closure or downsizing of embassies in key states. The procedures for appointing new heads of mission broke down, largely due to a level of politicized PMO vetting unprecedented in Canadian history. Baird marginalized embassies and ambassadors on his travels, and tried (without much success) to establish direct lines with other foreign ministers. The hundreds of unprocessed memoranda in his office attest to inattention to detail and disdain for public service accountability. His entourage of ‘boys in short pants’, the small group of young ideologues assigned by the PMO to his ministerial office, tried micro-managing the department instead of encouraging an open, appropriate interchange with career professionals. Policy development stagnated at a time when speeches on challenging issues should have been written by people who knew the issues.
Despite the problems, Baird and Canadian foreign policy did evolve positively over four years, if only at the margins. Baird made use of some freedom from PMO control to focus on gay rights and combatting the scourge of child and forced marriages. In selecting the issues and moving forward, he inadvertently took on the Pearsonian traditions which were the object of his early scorn. He needed to consult Canadians, and the civil society groups expelled from the Foreign Affairs building in the early Harper years were eventually invited back, albeit selectively and carefully.
He also needed a strategy, a word foreign to PMO tacticians. It devolved essentially into the multilateralism initially scorned by the PMO. In lending support to the PM’s maternal health initiative, he inevitably partnered with the World Health Organization and was obliged to maintain Canada’s continued high standing in the UN, despite his speeches before the General Assembly. After slash-and-burn budgetary measures which decimated many Foreign Affairs capabilities and tossed aside traditional partners, he preserved funding needed to advance his own pet projects.
Most surprisingly, as he reached out for international support he was obliged to pay attention to bilateral issues and at least listen politely to the views of others, as opposed to the ‘lecture and leave’ approach which dominated his initial road trips.
In short, behind the slowly-evolving Baird agenda was the long, unacknowledged shadow of Lester Pearson. The reason is simple: the tenets of Pearsonian diplomacy are not Liberal or partisan. They are an immutable function of Canada’s geography and size, our relative power in the world, our diversity, and the way in which we need to play the diplomatic game to best advantage. Governments change, and ministers come and go. But those interests and challenges remain the same. Fighting against our natural interests and instincts because the brand isn’t Tory blue is simply unproductive and a recipe for failure. Baird was groping towards these realizations—ones that a Prime Minister wearing ideological blinkers imported from the south still doesn’t get.
Another few years might have seen Baird build on what is now a pretty empty record. His travels seemed unrelated to his goals, his talking points were still more bombast than substance, and he never identified a way forward on ideas like gay rights which fit uncomfortably with Harper government priorities. He also left a departmental mess for his successor.
The significance of John Baird’s tenure wasn’t his lack of success, foreordained by PMO policy directions that were consistently silly and short-sighted. The true significance was his modest evolution towards building strategies and advocating positions which began to reflect the nature of Canada and Canadian interests and values. These the Harper government can’t change.