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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

DOUG SAUNDERS

The direct approach isn't always most effective Add to ...

William Hague is a conservative foreign minister. He is an ardent supporter of Israel and a devoted promoter of Britain’s economic interests in the world, especially its petroleum industry.

How does he put those principles into practice? By taking an oblique approach. He has led the way in denouncing Israel for its expansion of illegal settlements beyond the country’s legal pre-1967 borders, describing them as “an obstacle to peace and a threat to a two-state solution.” He blasted Israel’s decision to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority. He has, in short, tried to make sure that things are right for Israel, not that Israel is always right.

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He has pushed Britain’s economic interests, in part by insisting that one of its key planks is cultural diplomacy: When the war in Libya ended, before BP had begun operating there again, he set up a Tripoli office of the British Council, which offers generous arts grants and English-language instruction. He has promoted Britain’s 27 foreign-language public radio and TV networks, including one that has become one of the most-listened-to voices within Iran. His signature act was ensuring that Britain’s foreign aid program, one of the most generous in the world, was spared completely from his government’s budget cuts, and that it continues to support the poorest countries, not those with the most economic ties with Britain. He has been a leader in pushing for a serious global climate-change agreement.

John Baird is a conservative foreign minister. He is an ardent supporter of Israel and a devoted promoter of Canada’s economic interests in the world, especially its petroleum industry.

How does he put those principles into practice? By taking a direct approach. In May, Canada was the only Group of Eight country to block attempts to make Israel stick to its legal pre-1967 borders. “Canada will not accept or stay silent while the Jewish state is attacked for defending its territory and its citizens,” Mr. Baird told the UN General Assembly in September. At October’s UN General Assembly session, he announced that Canada was voting against all motions, whatever their merit, that were critical of Israel. And rather than chiding Israel for cutting off aid to Palestinian entities, Canada cut off its own aid to them. In short, Mr. Baird is making Canada a champion rather than a broker, declaring that Israel is right, even if not all is right for Israel.

He has defended Canada’s business interests equally directly. When it became apparent that Europeans, who are crucial trade partners, see Canada mainly as a place that kills seals and produces a high-pollution form of oil, the response has been to shout back, through every channel, that the seal hunt is okay and that Canada’s oil is “ethical.” Canada has no budget at all for cultural diplomacy at most of its embassies, and no separate program for it; the government is cutting foreign aid by $1.8-billion a year by 2014 and aligned what’s left to Canadian economic interests. Mr. Baird’s only mentions of climate change this year were to pour cold water on the idea of carbon trading, distancing himself from participants like Australia and Britain, and ignoring the issue that caused the United States to postpone the Keystone XL pipeline.

Same principles, different approaches. Which are most likely to succeed?

Without getting directly to the point, let me say that one of the best books I’ve read this year is John Kay’s Obliquity. The veteran Oxford University economist carefully examines the pathways that people and organizations follow to success, and finds, over and over, that those who succeed the most are those who take the oblique path. “If you want to go in one direction,” he writes, “the best route may involve going in another.”

The companies that make the largest profits are not the ones that have profit maximization as their main goal, but rather those that try to do something well. The people who have the most wealth are not those who set out to become wealthy, but often those who have avoided money-making opportunities. The people found to be most happy are not those who have pursued happiness, but those who have struggled against challenges.

He found that Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln had the best presidential track records of achieving “high-level objectives,” but not by applying principles directly. Rather, through “pragmatic improvisation in the face of circumstances,” both understood “that to approach their goals too directly would risk failure to achieve them.”

That last line made me think of Canada’s current way in the world. Why would any other country want to go along with Canada? Everyone knows where we’re going, but our direct path is probably not the best way to get there.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

 
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