Baird’s Canadian Exceptionalism

Jennifer Jeffs on John Baird's speech to the UN General Assembly
By: /
October 3, 2012

At the UN General Assembly on Monday, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade John Baird gave a strong speech in which he presented the delegation with what he termed the “immutable goals” of UN member states. In a speech punctuated by quotations from historic heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, Baird held up three aspirational goals: “the wellbeing and prosperity, the security, and the dignity of humankind.” After commencing with these lofty terms Minister Baird honed in on somewhat more concrete goals, the first of which he centered explicitly on Canada. To achieve wellbeing and prosperity, Canada needs to increase and broaden its international trade. “We’re looking for partners” he told the assembly.

On the second goal of human security, Baird turned the delegation’s attention away from Canada – averting reminders to his audience at home of perceived disappointments in the Harper government’s foreign affairs history – choosing instead to point his finger at rogue states, Syria and Iran, and at unnamed member states of the UN “that are allowing the atrocities to continue.” Unsurprisingly, Baird also took the opportunity to defend Canada’s closure of its Iranian embassy last month on the grounds that Canada steadfastly refuses to engage with “a regime that…threatens to perpetuate crimes against humanity."

On the goal of human dignity, Baird presented examples of the notorious political prison camps of North Korea; the forcible recruitment by rogue groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo; forced marriage of young girls; criminalization of sexuality; and the suppression of religious freedoms. He completely steered away from Canadian efforts in the past – which have had mixed results due to inconsistent commitment levels – in the advancement of democracy and human rights promotion in a region such as Latin America, where Prime Minister Harper made a commitment to advancing democracy early in his tenure in the form of the “Americas Strategy,” a strategy based on a “peace and prosperity partnership” (PPP) seldom mentioned in official discussions today.

Minister Baird struck his strongest note when he told the delegation, “The UN spends too much time on itself. It must now look outward. The preoccupation with procedure and process must yield to the tracking of substance and results.” This declaration recalled Canada’s acclaimed role in the early days of the United Nations, a time when Canada’s efforts to promote global stability through the UN yielded positive change and progress. However, Baird undercut his valuable distinction between process and progress – and its evocation of Canada’s traditional international role of “honest broker” – by using the distinction to excuse Canada from involvement in UN reform. “Canada’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations will henceforth devote primary attention to what the United Nations is achieving, not to how the UN arranges its affairs.”

The attitude that Canada is exceptional in its license to refuse involvement in the kind of work – organizational procedure and process – that Baird regards as inefficient, may ill-befit a middle power. What made Canada exceptional in the past was its ability to effectively leverage its middle power position to facilitate peaceful power transitions. Now, as Pax Britannica and Pax Americana draw to close, perhaps Canada – with its diverse population and membership in a wide variety of international networks – should be positioning itself as a mediator, power broker, or negotiator among the rising, current, and former powers. Instead, we seem to demand change on the world stage while cutting the diplomatic resources necessary to explain to those concerned how we can help bring about those changes.

Baird is right to judge the UN not on what it is but on what it does. And what it can do is entirely dependent on the will of its member states. In the same vein, perhaps Canadians should view the Harper government through the lens of measurable progress on international issues instead of dwelling on perceptions of what it stands for.

This op-ed originally appeared in Embassy

Photo courtesy of Reuters