There was a little iconoclastic glee in John Baird, as foreign affairs minister. He upset apple carts.
He went to East Jerusalem to see an Israeli minister and when critics complained he attended a meeting in occupied territory, he suggested they were making a big deal out of nothing. He sent back civil servants' advice. He shut Canada's embassy in Iran and changed voting positions on the Mideast at the United Nations.
But he was also a foreign affairs minister of firsts, not all of them as controversial. He rushed to Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, was the first Canadian foreign affairs minister to visit Myanmar, signing an exception to sanctions so he could fly in as the country loosened its autocratic hold. He went to Iraq, urging pluralism.
This was the feature of Mr. Baird's tenure as foreign affairs minister: He indulged in what critics called megaphone diplomacy, seeking a reaction with loud statements, but also knocking on a lot of doors for quieter talk. He went to 99 countries, his aides said, including some that seemed unlikely to give him a warm welcome. He showed up anyway.
His first task as foreign affairs minister was to tend relations with the countries at the top of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's priority list – and he travelled assiduously to China and to Israel, and courted close ties to secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. But he also broadened the Conservatives' foreign policy by making high-level connections in places that didn't seem like easy choices.
In his speech in the Commons on Tuesday, Mr. Baird looked back at his naive and partisan former self, elected as an Ontario MPP at the age of 25, and said he learned you can't get things done if you are defined by partisanship. But he never completely gave up the partisan jabs – his press secretaries laboured to dispel his pit bull image, but that effort was set back when he reverted to that stage persona.
As foreign affairs minister, there was a similar trend: he matured from political actor to worldly minister, reaching across the aisle to talk with opposition MPs, and broadening Mr. Harper's foreign policy with a presence in more countries. He travelled tirelessly to build relationships in foreign capitals. But he still liked to knock over the odd tea kettle on the world stage.
Two years ago, on a long trip to the Middle East, he made a show of repairing relations with the United Emirates after a bitter dispute over airline-landing rights by taking the country's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for a smiling photo op at an Abu Dhabi Tim Hortons. He dotted around the Gulf, and held long meetings with Jordan's foreign minister.
He was happy to point out that his civil servants had warned that changing Canada's voting pattern at the UN to a more staunchly pro-Israel position would lead to diplomatic chill, even trade sanctions in the Middle East, but instead he had friends among Arab foreign ministers. That was partly a point about policy, but also satisfaction at showing up the mandarins.
And then, at the end of the trip, Mr. Baird started a flap by meeting Israeli Minister Tzipi Livni in East Jerusalem – and dismissed Arab countries that complained. Veteran diplomats rolled their eyes. Mr. Baird must have known he'd get a reaction.
Inside his own department, Mr. Baird was unpopular. Many diplomats viewed him almost as a vandal defacing Canada's international reputation, and sacrificing international relations for domestic political grandstanding.
There was also a sense that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government disdained diplomats, and their traditions. They sold off ambassador's houses, including the Rome villa Italy's government had donated as war reparations. Civil servants sometimes felt he was unwilling to listen to frank advice; he was reportedly annoyed they kept recommending things he had rejected more than once. Mr. Baird was willing to overrule. Mr. Baird chose loud condemnations of Sri Lanka, and closed the embassy in Iran, when many diplomats preferred quiet engagement.
But he also took risks to engage. In 2013, he was the first Canadian foreign affairs minister to visit Iraq in 37 years, urging then prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to include Sunni leaders, meeting opposition politicians, and travelling through the scarred streets of Baghdad in a flak jacket to meet leaders of several faiths at an Anglican church, to urge pluralism in a country where sectarian divisions were feeding extremism. His visit to Myanmar led to diplomatic ties. He went to Cuba, and despite rhetorical clashes, was about to go to Venezuela when Hugo Chavez died. Mr. Baird grew up as foreign affairs minister, but he still wanted to break moulds.