As Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird exits politics, four Globe correspondents reflect on his tenure.
John Baird’s black-and-white vision made him an effective minister
John Baird’s most-used word during his time as foreign minister might have been “unequivocal.”
Every couple of weeks, it seemed, I received another e-mailed statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs about something Mr. Baird had declared Canada to be unequivocal about. Canada in the time of John Baird was unequivocal about its support for Israel, first and foremost, and its condemnation of all those who criticized the Jewish state: Iran, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations, whoever.
Mr. Baird was also unequivocal about Canadian support for the revolution in Ukraine, and our determination to stare down the “Putin regime” (our new name for Russia, it seems). At other times, we were unequivocal about the need to fight “terrorism” in Iraq, to unseat Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to condemn North Korea’s latest missile launch.
In the eyes of Mr. Baird, these were all cases of good versus evil. There was no need for nuance, or realpolitik, or, well, equivocation. We would walk tall and carry a big bullhorn.
Stephen Harper’s government is often accused of designing its foreign policy to suit the domestic political goals of the Conservative Party. Mr. Baird had the advantage of believing in the black-and-white vision of the world that he presented on the government’s behalf.
Mr. Baird and I spent a long evening in the Latvian capital of Riga last year, debating what the Kremlin really wanted in Ukraine, and how far Vladimir Putin would go to achieve those aims. Then we moved on to the Middle East. While the conversation was off-the-record, I don’t feel it’s breaking trust to say that even when Mr. Baird’s guard was down a bit, his private beliefs differed little in substance from what he says in public about those conflicts.
His certainty that Canada’s foreign policies were not just well-founded but right made Mr. Baird the most effective foreign minister of Mr. Harper’s nine years in office. Unlike some of his predecessors (I could pick on Maxime Bernier here), Mr. Baird didn’t need to look at his notes to see what the government’s position was on an issue. He could speak off-the-cuff because he saw the world the same way Mr. Harper did, and shared the same elbows-up approach to foreign policy.
Mr. Baird’s tough language – and the positions he committed Canada to – were greatly appreciated in Tel Aviv and Kiev and Kurdish northern Iraq. But those same positions made enemies that Canada didn’t have before in Gaza, Moscow and Tehran. Mr. Baird was fine with that. Even a little a proud.
But the Canada that Mr. Baird and Mr. Harper worked to redefine over the past four years also baffled diplomats (including many Canadian ones), as well as aid workers and journalists all over the world. “What happened to Canada?” was a question asked not only in the Middle East, but in the offices of the International Criminal Court and on the sidelines of climate-change negotiations. Mr. Baird had about as much love and respect for big international institutions as he did for the Putin regime. “The UN spends too much time on itself,” he once dismissively told the General Assembly.
In the hallways of places like the UN and The Hague, Mr. Baird’s name became synonymous not just with the strong, independent stances he and Mr. Harper saw themselves as taking, but also with the oversimplification of big problems. Canada, long one of the biggest supporters of multilateralism, is now often the last country to sign onto an international accord or statement, if it joins at all.
Bairdism, if we want to attribute these stances to him rather than the Prime Minister, has meant going it alone whenever it suited Conservative Ottawa.
The Iran file will be one that will stick to Mr. Baird’s legacy. While the United States and Europe have been negotiating with the reformist government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, hoping to cut a deal to curb its nuclear program, Canada has been left standing on the sidelines, with Mr. Baird lobbing spitballs at the new Iranian government via his Twitter account.
“We will judge Iran by its actions, not just by its words,” he wrote. Which is good, because Ottawa and Tehran aren’t talking.
That’s a choice Mr. Baird and Mr. Harper made years ago. My first encounter with Mr. Baird in the foreign minister’s post came in the fall of 2012 when he summoned the press corps to make an after-midnight announcement: Canada, right then and there at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, was cutting all ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As an explanation, Mr. Baird read us a laundry list of offences Tehran had committed in years past. It supported the Assad regime in Syria. It funded Hezbollah and Hamas. It had called for Israel’s destruction.
I was perplexed. Iran had taken those stances since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. So why were we severing relations now? What had Iran done recently that necessitated the rather rash move of closing Canada’s embassy and expelling Iranian diplomats from Ottawa that Friday night?
Mr. Baird’s answer was to repeat the list of things Iran had done and been doing wrong over the past three decades. That, it seemed, was the only explanation required.
Good was cutting relations with Evil. Asking why it was doing so was a waste of time. Kind of like sitting through a UN General Assembly meeting.
Baird pushed Ottawa-Beijing relations toward trade, away from human rights
After the early years of the Harper government’s deep skepticism on China, John Baird played an important role in the dramatic subsequent pivot to seeking warmer and more profitable relations with the Asian giant. He made his first major bilateral trip as foreign minister to China, a country he returned to at least another nine times in that role, calling Asia a “national imperative” for Canadian trade.
In China, he travelled to numerous smaller cities outside Beijing, telling The Globe and Mail in a 2013 interview that “getting to know the next generation of leadership is pretty important,” including at a provincial level, where numerous decisions are made that affect Canadian trade interests.
But Mr. Baird also faced criticism for pursuing a trade agenda with China to the detriment of taking a principled stand against its abuses of personal freedoms and human rights. He offered little public criticism of China, saying instead that he wanted to “rebalance” Ottawa’s relationship with Beijing toward friendlier topics.
In a speech in late November, 2014, about online freedom, he warned about the perils of countries working to balkanize the Internet and turn it into what he called the “splinternet.” China is the leading practitioner of Internet splintering, but Mr. Baird did not mention the country once in his speech.
He argued, however, that in China “you don’t protest, you participate,” saying he was diligent in promoting Canadian values privately to Chinese officials. To Chinese arguments that the Dalai Lama is a separatist leader, he said, he replied that “in Canada we have separatist leaders. They sit across from me in the House of Commons. They ask me questions every day. We give them a car and driver, a pension and a salary and an office to work in. That’s what a separatist leader is in Canada.
Baird embraced Canada’s policy changes toward Israel under Harper
There were times, when John Baird was foreign minister, that people weren’t quite sure in what country’s cabinet he served.
His enthusiasm for Israel on a visit there in 2012 led even an Israeli cabinet minister to confess Mr. Baird had made him feel less loyal. “I think Canada’s an even better friend of Israel than we [Israelis] are,” said then-finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, a leading member of the governing Likud party.
Certainly Palestinians have grown to dislike him.
On Mr. Baird’s first visit to Ramallah in 2012 to meet with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and then-prime minister Salam Fayyad, a senior Palestinian official said they had no problem with the Canadian’s pro-Israel statements. “There’s no mistaking where he stands,” the official said, somewhat admiringly.
But the Palestinian leadership also said they hoped Mr. Baird would use his closeness to the Israelis to argue for policies that might help move the peace process forward, such as a halt to settlement construction.
It was not to be. And, on Mr. Baird’s most recent trip in January, Palestinians let him know their feelings.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in the peace process and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, described Mr. Baird in a Globe and Mail comment piece as “going out of his way to legitimize the banality and brutality of a 50-year-old Israeli occupation [of the West Bank],” and called on Mr. Baird to apologize.
A crowd outside the Palestinian foreign minister’s office heaved shoes and eggs at Mr. Baird in a display of contempt that could only have been carried out with official approval.
Throughout the Middle East, Canada has become known as Israel’s most supportive ally, largely through the policy changes ushered in by Stephen Harper’s government.
As a more-than-eager minister, Mr. Baird appeared to embrace the new direction of the Canadian government toward Israel – and, consequently, toward the Palestinians – no matter the effect.
His damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead approach sat very well with the Netanyahu government, but earned him opprobrium at the United Nations, where Mr. Baird spoke passionately against granting the Palestinians status as a “non-member observer state,” a vote he lost 138-9.
Mr. Baird wore the disappointing outcome as a badge of honour that showed how he stuck to the values he holds dear.
To that end, he liked to tell the story of being a 24-year-old staffer to then-foreign minister Perrin Beatty. Every day, he said, the minister and his staff would get a briefing from a foreign affairs official. One day, the briefing referred to Katyusha rockets being fired into northern Israel by the militant Shia group, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
When Mr. Baird asked, “What should we do?” he was told: “Nothing.”
“It’s not that easy to tell the black hats from the white hats,” the official said, “so we keep quiet.”
“I could not stay quiet,” an indignant Mr. Baird said. He proceeded to draw a black hat and white hat on a piece of paper, putting Israel under the white hat and Hezbollah the black.
He listed the values “free country, democratic” and “our friend” under Israel, and he wrote “centre of global terrorism” and “our enemy” beneath Hezbollah.
He told the official: “We can certainly differentiate between the white hats and the black hats, and I certainly know who I support.”
Israeli audiences applauded enthusiastically whenever he told the story.
But modern-day Israel is not the same thing as the Jewish diaspora facing the Holocaust; nor are the Palestinians (or Iran for that matter) the same as Nazi Germany. No state’s policies are lily white, nor pitch black. Mr. Baird, for all his intelligence and charm, chose not to untangle the Arab-Israeli complexities and help build a bridge between the parties, but to take a side, that of Israel, to which he gave carte blanche.
Sub-Saharan Africa was a lower priority for Baird
In his four years of intense travel around the world as foreign minister, John Baird didn’t leave much room for sub-Saharan Africa.
Mr. Baird made brief visits to several sub-Saharan African countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania. He met a number of African leaders in international forums. But it was always clear that sub-Saharan Africa was a lower priority for Mr. Baird and the Harper government than it had been under the previous Liberal government.
One of the most telling signs of this disengagement was Mr. Baird’s failure to make a working visit to South Africa. For most his term as foreign minister, South Africa was the biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. (It was eventually overtaken by Nigeria.) South Africa was also a G20 member, a diplomatic power in Africa and a member of the BRICS partnership of five countries. Yet Mr. Baird never visited the country for bilateral meetings.
His failure to give priority to South Africa contributed to Canada’s diplomatic errors here, including Canada’s inadvertent snub of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, when it neglected to send any diplomats to the ruling party’s 100th anniversary celebrations in 2012.
In private conversation, South African diplomats who deal with Canadian issues have expressed frustration at Canada’s neglect of South Africa. In part, this stems from a Canadian foreign minister who showed little interest in one of Africa’s most strategically important countries. It meant that Canada lost the goodwill that it had built up with the ANC in the 1980s when former prime minister Brian Mulroney pushed for Commonwealth sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Mr. Baird appeared to have three main priorities in Africa. The first priority was criticizing terrorism in Africa. He has issued a barrage of statements on African terrorism, criticizing groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabab and calling them “repugnant” and “cowardly.”
His second priority was promoting Canadian business and Canadian investment in Africa. On a visit to Nairobi in 2013, for example, Mr. Baird said he was keen to explore Canada’s trade opportunities in Kenya – “especially for Canadian natural resource companies.” He also helped to set up a bilateral commission between Canada and Nigeria, which had business issues as one of its main focuses.
His third priority in Africa was human rights, including gay rights. He was outspoken in criticizing Uganda and Nigeria for passing laws that would impose harsh prison sentences on gays.
“Canada is deeply concerned that Nigeria has adopted a law that further criminalizes homosexuality,” Mr. Baird said last year in one example of this priority. “We call on Nigeria to repeal this law.”Report Typo/Error
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