A decade after Jean Chrétien risked the ire of the United States by declining to support its attack on Iraq, the former prime minister says Canada has lost some of the international stature that helped it take a more independent line.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Chrétien said Canada made the right decision by refusing to join the war without a clear resolution from the United Nations Security Council. But he also expressed regret that Canada's status within that body may have slipped since that time, with the country losing its bid for a Security Council seat and reducing its presence in Africa in recent years.
This month, Americans are marking the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq with a sense of profound introspection.
Public opinion polls suggest many believe the war, in which tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans died, was a mistake.
The U.S. military withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but the country remains under constant threat of extremist violence, with attacks still occurring almost daily in some parts of the country.
Mr. Chrétien said Tuesday he never believed the intelligence the United States claimed to have that Iraq had amassed weapons of mass destruction.
But he said Canada's decision not to participate in the war drew criticism from opposition MPs, as well as some business groups who feared the U.S. might retaliate by trying to limit trade between the two countries. And it meant defying two of Canada's strongest allies days before the U.S., Britain and several other countries began Operation Iraqi Freedom in March of 2003.
"It turned out to be very important for the independence of Canada," Mr. Chrétien said. "It is a decision that the people of Muslim faith and Arab culture have appreciated very much from Canada, and it was the right decision."
The former prime minister said he views the UN as an important institution that has helped prevent major wars. And he questioned the Conservative government's commitment to the international body, saying Canada's role appears to have diminished since it lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010.
"Canada has always been a big player at the UN, relatively speaking," Mr. Chrétien said. "What I notice is we seem to be playing much less [of a] role now [that] we were not elected to have a seat at the Security Council."
Stephen Harper has addressed the UN General Assembly only twice since he became Prime Minister, choosing last fall to accept a separate award for statesmanship elsewhere in New York instead of speaking at the annual opening with other state leaders. And Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird rebuked the UN last November, accusing it of abandoning its principles to offer an upgraded "non-member observer state" status to Palestinians.
At the same time, Mr. Chrétien said, Canada is offering less assistance to some of the world's poorest nations and closing embassies in Africa when that continent's economy is growing rapidly. "We don't have the image we used to have. Ask any observer, I don't think it's as good as it was," he said.
A spokesman for Mr. Baird said the government has taken a "principled approach" to foreign policy. "It has been Canada's long-standing tradition to stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient, or expedient. Under our government, Canada no longer panders to every dictator with a vote at the UN," Rick Roth wrote in an e-mailed response.
Fen Hampson, director of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said the government has not cut back on its commitments to the United Nations in recent years, even though losing the bid for the Security Council seat clearly came as a shock.
"I think the feeling was that, you know, we weren't necessarily going to turn our backs on the UN, but it would fall lower in our affections," he said.
But the Harper government continues to look to the United Nations for approval for military action, he said, adding, "The UN still matters to this government when it comes to legitimizing and authorizing the use of force."
ATTENDING CHAVEZ'S FUNERAL 'WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO'
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien surprised many last week by travelling to Venezuela at the last minute to join the throngs of people who gathered in Caracas for Hugo Chavez's funeral.
The trip, which he took with his wife, Aline, included a meeting with Mr. Chavez's mother, Mr. Chrétien said. He said he got to know the former Venezuelan president when Mr. Chavez visited Ottawa shortly before he was sworn in, and the two found common ground in their love of baseball.
"He told me that if I had to go to Venezuela some day that he would strike me out," Mr. Chrétien said, joking that he would have surprised the Venezuelan leader by bunting the baseball.
Mr. Chrétien said he never had a reason to travel to Venezuela while he was prime minister, and "felt that it was the right thing to do" after Mr. Chavez's death.
"I respect the people of Venezuela, and we always have normal relations with them," he said, adding that he once visited with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and generally kept the door open on diplomatic relations when he was prime minister. "So this, I had the time to do it and the desire to do it," he said. "And they were very happy that I did it."
Mr. Chrétien acknowledged that Mr. Chavez was a controversial figure and said that he "went probably too far" in his pro-poor policies.
But he added that the large number of people who turned out for Mr. Chavez's funeral speak volumes about his reputation in Venezuela.
"A lot of people love him there. He was very much on the side of the poor, and we have to think about the poor in any society," he said. "I'm not the type of guy who thinks the crumbs of the table are enough for the poor, either there or in Canada."