By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News
December 28, 2011
OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird knows some of his government’s positions on the world stage are unpopular. Supporting Israel and walking away from the Kyoto accord earlier this month are two examples.
Baird won’t apologize for either.
“We don’t develop foreign policy to be popular around the world,” he says in a recent interview with Postmedia News. “Sometimes you’re alone saying something, and then a number of years later, it’s conventional wisdom.”
The refusal to concede on issues of importance to the government is one of the clearest marks that Canada’s approach to world affairs has undergone a dramatic change since the Conservatives first came to power nearly six years ago,
Gone is the so-called “soft power” and “human security agenda” of the previous Liberal government, symbolized by consensus building at the United Nations and diplomatic initiatives like peacekeeping.
In its place is a clear pursuit of interests linked to an uncompromising projection of values backed up by a strong military.
The government’s top concern, says Baird, is Canadian economic prosperity.
“It is a lens through which we view almost anything,” he says. “Foreign policy has become even more important to the economy. It’s really essential.”
The Foreign Affairs Department budget has increased by about $700 million since 2006 to $2.8 billion. Where it has resulted in more feet on the ground, those have largely been trade commissioners in trade offices opened in China, India, Brazil and other economic hotspots.
At the same time, Baird is quick to list the number of free trade and foreign investment agreements being pursued by the government. Perhaps not by coincidence, when Canada’s embassy in Tripoli, Libya reopened in September, the first officials deployed were trade officers, not political and human rights experts.
But nothing is bigger than the United States, and Baird identifies the recent Canada-U.S. border security agreement as the best example of “traditional diplomacy” from the last year.
“It took a solid, personal relationship at the top between the prime minister and the president in order to initiate something, successfully see its conclusion and announce it,” Baird says.
The same is true with the mission in Libya, he adds.
“I think Libya’s a big success because of strong leadership on behalf of the prime minister,” Baird says, though he also praises Gen. Charles Bouchard, the Canadian commander who oversaw the NATO operation.
In fact, the foreign affairs minister describes Libya as Canada’s biggest diplomatic accomplishment in the past year.
“No doubt the diplomatic work, the coalition-building and the military success in Libya was a big one for Canada,” he says. “How many thousands, tens of thousands, of civilian lives were saved? It’s just a remarkable accomplishment. (Moammar) Gadhafi was just the worst of the worst.”
The Canadian military has emerged as a major player in Canadian foreign policy in recent years, bolstered by the fact the Defence Department budget has increased nearly $5.6 billion to $20.3 billion since the Conservative government came into power. This has included the purchase of new aircraft, ships and armoured vehicles, as well as heavy combat roles in Afghanistan and Libya.
Critics have lamented what they say is the Conservative government’s prioritizing of military power over Canada’s traditional strength, diplomacy.
Sitting in his 10th-floor office at Foreign Affairs headquarters, known in Ottawa circles as Fort Pearson, Baird says the government is simply undoing years of damage wreaked by Liberal governments in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“The military was gutted for 13 years,” he says. “Hollowed out. Even the man the Liberals appointed to be chief of defence staff (Rick Hillier) called it a ‘decade of darkness.’ That didn’t happen here at DFAIT.”
But while the government is preparing to spend billions on new F-35 fighter jets, Baird refuses to rule out the closure of Canadian embassies abroad through budget cuts next year.
“I’m confident within the department we can achieve our mandate,” he says. “If spending is unsustainable, that’s the biggest threat to the public service, that’s the biggest threat to the department.”
Baird’s appointment to the Foreign Affairs portfolio in May came as a surprise to many. Known for his bombastic style in the House of Commons, many wondered whether he would be able to make the transition to becoming Canada’s top diplomat.
Baird says the biggest lesson he’s learned is that nothing matters more in Foreign Affairs than personal relationships.
“When we have an issue, whether it’s in the United States, whether it’s in Turkey, being able to pick up the phone and talk to my counterpart directly about it,” he says.
The country’s failure to land a UN Security Council seat in October 2010, ultimately losing to Portugal, has called into question whether the Conservative government has squandered the goodwill built up over the decades by previous Canadian governments.
Baird initially tries to blame North Korea and Iran, but eventually acknowledges some of the unpopular positions taken by Canada in recent years were a factor in turning away countries in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world.
When asked how he reconciles the importance of strong relationships with the fact a number of positions adopted by the government are unpopular with the international community, Baird indicates those who are most critical of Canada’s stances aren’t likely to be friends anyway.
“We’ve taken a tough stand on human rights in some parts of the world, and that makes some people feel very uncomfortable,” he says. “If you’re a government which doesn’t respect human rights, you’re probably not keen on Canada talking about the rights of women, the rights of religious minorities, the rights of gays and lesbians.”
In recent weeks, Canada has been called out by many nations, including European allies, for abandoning the Kyoto Protocol.
Baird says only a few countries have brought the issue up with him personally, adding that the government is simply leading where other nations will eventually follow.
He says this is exactly what happened with Canadian calls several years ago for all major emitters to be included in whatever climate change agreement is negotiated after Kyoto.
“People may not have liked our position on climate change in 2007, but they’ve adopted it almost wholly across much of the world today,” he said
original source: http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Tougher+foreign+policy+vital+Canada+Baird/5916863/story.html
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