The man rewriting Stephen Harper’s foreign policy for majority-government times makes no apologies for stepping on a few toes. From climate change to Israel, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is willing to shrug off the gripes.
After five years of minority government, when a focus on short-term politics meant leaving relations with some parts of the world untended, Mr. Baird now has the task of broadening Conservative foreign policy and planning for the longer term.
But it’s not a mandate to please all. The image of Canada seeking to play honest broker and likable conciliator on the world stage is being changed by a deliberate edge to Conservative foreign policy. There’s a willingness to send the military, a high priority on economics and less qualms about raising hackles.
“Stephen Harper said it and I’ve said it: ‘We don’t just go along to get along,’ ” Mr. Baird said in a year-end interview. “There’s 194 countries in the world. I don’t agree with their foreign policy on everything,” he said. “You know the Russian Foreign Minister? His job is to stand up for Russia. My job is to stand up for Canadian values and Canadian interests.”
In a year when the world shook from financial crises and Arab uprisings, Canada’s place in it was shifting, too.
Even before Canada pulled out of a ground war in Afghanistan in July, it joined an air war in Libya. When it was over, Mr. Harper touted victory, and promised a military ready for more. He blocked part of a G8 leaders’ statement urging peace talks on Israel, and bucked the UN majority in vocally opposing a Palestinian bid for statehood. The Harper government closed a deal to harmonize security with the U.S. in return for projects to speed border traffic. And Canada made itself a symbol by withdrawing from the Kyoto climate-change accord.
Mr. Baird’s public image as a partisan pit-bull might make it seem that he was chosen to make foreign policy combative. But that’s a stage persona for a politician who is affable in person. As Foreign Minister, he worked to build all-party support for the Canadian mission in Libya. Foreign diplomats give him high marks for being more accessible and engaged than his predecessors.
But he is a thick-skinned politician who doesn’t wince over disagreements or worry about a little blowback. Canada was once alone on climate change for demanding all major emitters join a new treaty, but it’s a common view now, he said, and Canada’s pro-Israel stand at the United Nations has hardly affected its relations with others.
“I don’t have many foreign ministers or many foreign governments who raise climate change with me. In eight months, maybe two or three times,” he said. “I went to the Middle East for five days. No one raised our voting record at the UN.”
In the big events of 2011, Mr. Harper’s government kept a cold, calculating eye. It reacted with caution to Arab Spring protests in Egypt, but sent fighter jets to Libya.
Mr. Baird’s first trip as Foreign Minister, to meet rebel leaders in Benghazi, marked him the most – meeting professionals and public servants risking their futures in a struggle to oust Moammar Gadhafi. Ottawa went in big with a substantial military contribution, but Mr. Baird admitted that before the stunning collapse of Gadhafi forces, he feared a long war, and a death toll of 100,000 or 250,000.
The Tories’ cooler response to uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia remains marked by the view that a “big chunk” of the revolts were protests against unemployment and cronyism, not purely a call for Western-style democracy. Amid the election of Islamists in Egypt, Mr. Baird said the goal should be to move the region to more civil society, for intellectual freedom, and less corruption – and caution is still warranted.
The harder edge isn’t universal. On a trip to Beijing, Mr. Baird looked like a man trying to get along, calling China a “friend,” as the Harper government seals a new era after a chilly start in ties – but that, too, is a function of hard-edged economic interests with a major trading partner.
Now, Mr. Baird’s task is to broaden Canada’s foreign policy beyond the few priorities of minority years, like the United States, Afghanistan, China and Israel. A foreign-policy review is quietly under way, and Mr. Baird has signalled efforts to renew ties with untended regions such as Southeast Asia.
The short-term survival politics of successive Liberal and Conservative minorities have prevented ministers from travelling and making connections abroad, and limited planning, he said. “Governments are sometimes criticized for looking at things in four-year windows,” he said. “We’ve been looking at things in four-day, four-week and four-month windows for the last seven [years] And that’s not healthy.’
The priority, as the United States and Europe face challenges and Canada needs to diversify trade, is economics. “That is the lens,” Mr. Baird said. With the U.S., Canada had success in reaching a border accord, but experienced a setback when the Keystone pipeline extension was delayed, he said. With China, Canada wants a foreign-investment agreement; with the EU, a trade deal.
But Canada needs to expand its foreign-policy planning beyond the biggest players, he said. “The countries that are going to be really important for Canada in the future also include Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nigeria. Those are pretty important.”