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Balsillie's disappointing foray into global affairs

Jim Balsillie, seen speaking in Detroit on Wednesday, is staging a pep rally Friday in Hamilton to support his bid to bring an NHL team to southern Ontario.

Rebecca Cook/Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Build a better global think tank and the world ain't going to beat a path to your door. Particularly if your door is in Canada, as BlackBerry's Jim Balsillie apparently is discovering $100-million after the fact.

That is the minimum amount the co-CEO of Research In Motion has invested in the academic international affairs conglomerate he's been creating since 2002 not far from his company's headquarters in Waterloo, Ont., and linked to the city's University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

He's pulled in more or less matching grants from the Canadian and Ontario governments.

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He's bought, built and begat the Balsillie School of International Affairs, the Balsillie Centre for Excellence, the Canadian International Council, IGLOO (International Governance Leaders and Organizations Online) and - the jewel of his global endeavour - the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

CIGI, founded seven years ago, is by far the most richly endowed policy institute in Canada, with 60 senior fellows, researchers and support staff.

Although now, foreign affairs scholars say, he's just fired CIGI's founding executive director, John English, for failing to give the institute sufficient profile and influence, a report that has roiled Canada's international relations community.

The mandate Mr. Balsillie and Ottawa handed Mr. English seven years ago was to recruit the world's best minds to rethink the machinery of international governance.

Foreign policy experts say, however, that, from birth, CIGI has been beset by four problems:

It has taken time to attract top-notch scholars - people such as former diplomats Paul Heinbecker and Jorge Heine, former United Nations top officials Louise Fr├ęchette and Ramesh Thakur and political scientist Andrew Cooper - and get them launched on projects.

By being in Waterloo, rather than Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal, CIGI has suffered from tree-falls-in-forest-when-no-one-is-there-to-hear syndrome. Its work receives extensive coverage in the local Kitchener-Waterloo Record, but is rarely noticed elsewhere in Canada's news media.

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It has done work on global health, nuclear energy, the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, human security, environmental sustainability, international law and economic governance. But none of those issues are high on the agenda of its ostensible main customer, the federal government.

All of which points to CIGI's fourth problem: "This is not a government that is policy driven," said one of Canada's international relations experts. "No one is having a great deal of influence."

Mr. English's departure shocked many in the academic and public service foreign policy communities, none of whom would comment on the record - and one of whom refused to comment even off the record - because their institutions either receive or are eligible to receive funds from CIGI and CIC.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Balsillie has insisted that Mr. English wasn't fired, he resigned at an in-camera board meeting.

The sole member of the CIGI board who isn't a RIM executive or business associate of Mr. Balsillie's - Foreign Affairs assistant deputy minister Deborah Lyons - has not responded to a request to comment other than to say that she was not at the meeting.

One academic pointed out that Mr. English recently quit his teaching post at the University of Waterloo to devote all his time to CIGI and had no intention of quitting.

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Mr. English, one of the most well-liked and respected scholars in the country (and author of an acclaimed biography of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau), wrote in an e-mail that he would not comment.

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