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John Baird's Canada: No longer content to 'go along just to get along' Add to ...

He has gone so far as to compare the “honest-broker” label, a tenet of Pearson-era diplomacy, to moral weakness, an inability to choose between right and wrong.

“I was always offended by the notion that Canada shouldn’t defend anyone, shouldn’t stand on its own two feet and say what we think, that we have to be super-sensitive to what everyone thinks and not say anything of our own,” says Senator LeBreton, who started her career working for John Diefenbaker and then Brian Mulroney. “We count. People may not always agree with us, but we’re there.”

To that end, she says, Mr. Baird is “overseeing quite a culture change” at Foreign Affairs. “They’re going to know where he stands.”

From his first trips abroad, he has demonstrated that he is in charge and not worried about make a misstep. He hasn’t shied from picking sides, or soliciting business.

“We didn’t go to Libya with the expectation of getting anything – we went to do what was right, to protect the civilian population,” Mr. Baird insists. “After the war was over, you bet we want Canadian business to be fairly treated ...

“I think others would have thought, ‘Well, that would be gauche for Canada to do that.’ Well, I’ll tell ya, [then French president Nicolas] Sarkozy was right in there.”

The potential conflict between simultaneously pursuing values as well as trade with nations that don’t necessarily share those values is so apparent that many seasoned observers are surprised that Mr. Baird makes no attempt to disguise what he’s doing.

“He’s not the first foreign minister who likes to talk about values,” says a former senior official in Foreign Affairs. “But it’s very hard to get a foreign minister to say, ‘We are pursuing an interest-based foreign policy,’ because it sounds too commercial.”

In fact, Mr. Baird is so focused on economic ties that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Ed Fast is Canada’s trade minister – something his itinerary has made clear.

“I have a pretty good relationship with Hillary Clinton. I value my relationship with William Hague in the United Kingdom,” he says. “Having said that, I made my first [official] trip to Beijing. I think that signalled the importance with which you court that relationship.”

He began by referring to China as an “ally,” and has kept at it. In July, he made yet another swing through Asia, visiting China for the fourth time in a year. He has assiduously developed a relationship with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, arriving a day ahead of a visit by Mr. Harper in February to meet him and help settle a uranium deal expected to provide a shot in the arm for Saskatchewan’s Cameco Corp.

Just as important, he has shown interest in other emerging markets Canada has overlooked. On the way back from his first trip to Beijing he stopped in long-neglected Indonesia, returning to Southeast Asia last month. He also ordered a foreign-policy review that adds several potential partners (Turkey is another example) to the list of countries Canada could cultivate.

“I’d give him high marks for understanding the basic architecture of the global power shift, and where Canada’s interests lie,” says Peter Harder, a former deputy foreign affairs minister. “He’s thinking, ‘Where’s the puck going?’”

Mr. Harder feels Mr. Baird has much of what it takes to do the job: He’s willing to travel for days on end, has the backing of the PM, is bright and quick enough to absorb briefings rapidly and confident enough to be able to make a timely decision. “He’s not afraid of downtown, or what will others think. He has a good grounding, of how to decide and what to decide.”

Still, the blustery rhetoric he often chooses doesn’t win universal approval. A senior diplomat from one major country describes a favourite Baird line, that Canada will no longer “go along just to get along,” as a bit “too simple,” while others say he’s quick to pick on small pariahs, but not bigger powers.

One ambassador says Mr. Baird’s speech to the General Assembly last fall, in which he castigated North Korea, Syria and Iran, attacked opponents of Israel, and promised Canada would not “sit idly” and watch the UN decline, was seen by many diplomats more as grandstanding than serious policy. “People were laughing.”

And there is tension within his own department.

The Tories came to power suspicious of the diplomats at Foreign Affairs, whom they viewed as mushy lefties, spoiled elitists or patronizing traditionalists. In return, the diplomats have bristled at times when they feel important nuances are being lost.

Mr. Baird downplays any friction and says he has a good relationship with his deputy minister – however, Morris Rosenberg, as a former deputy in justice and health, is seen as an outsider as well.

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