Remembering Lester Pearson, the peacebuilder
While Lester B. Pearson is most remembered for his contributions to peacekeeping, he added just as much to Canada’s foreign policy legacy with his leadership on international assistance, argue Robert Greenhill and Marina Sharpe.
Founder, Global Canada
Senior Research Fellow, Global Canada
December 11 marks the 60th anniversary of Lester B. Pearson’s 1957 Nobel Peace Prize. It was awarded in recognition of the work, undertaken while he was Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs, that led to the first ever deployment of United Nations peacekeepers to de-escalate the 1956 Suez Crisis. Pearson’s Nobel lecture, titled The Four Faces of Peace, focused on the four ingredients he then viewed as essential to peace: free trade, checks on power, diplomacy and inter-cultural exchange.
As we recall this milestone in the life of Canada’s greatest diplomat, we must remember that the Nobel Prize was just that: a milestone in a remarkable career, not its end point. After 1957, Pearson would go on to view international assistance as essentially a fifth face of peace. By the end of his career, he came to see international development as perhaps the single most important instrument for global security. A static focus on Pearson’s 1957 Nobel Prize — less than half way through his post-World War II career, before he had served as prime minister and distinguished himself as a global elder statesman — overlooks this critical fifth “face of peace.”
Having witnessed the carnage of World War I, Pearson was always committed to peace. Prior to World War II, he worked on disarmament negotiations. After the war, he was involved in building the UN and other multilateral institutions, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Pearson brought his open and pragmatic character to all these endeavours, always looking for better ways to reduce threats to peace. In 1956 — the year Egypt’s conflict with Israel, France and the United Kingdom prompted the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force — peacekeeping was a new innovation in this regard. Towards the end of the 1950s and during 1960s, however, Pearson’s problem-solving mindset led him to focus on the root causes of conflict. He came to see international assistance as a key way of mitigating threats to peace. Peacekeeping can certainly defuse conflict, but peacebuilding through international assistance can help prevent conflict altogether.
Pearson’s engagement with international assistance began in 1950, when, as secretary of state for external affairs, he advocated for Canada’s contribution to the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia, the first-ever multilateral international development programme. In that context, Pearson viewed international assistance as a powerful weapon against communism, particularly given the outbreak of the Korean War.
Major changes in the late 1950s, including decolonization and the admission of newly independent African states into the UN, fundamentally shifted and expanded Pearson’s worldview. He began to see poverty and human misery as core sources of conflict, and reconceptualized the strategic role of international assistance beyond its early Cold War aims.
In addition to strong moral reasons, Pearson saw international assistance as a strategic investment in a more secure and prosperous planet: “Foreign aid is a matter of national self-interest. Let there be no misunderstanding on that score.” By 1961, as leader of the opposition, Pearson argued for increased international assistance, “not so much to assist other countries but to assist ourselves; to assist security and stability in the world.”
Pearson argued that international assistance was more cost effective in building conditions for peace than traditional instruments, such as the military. He maintained that “$40 million, $50 million or $100 million which is wisely spent in international economic assistance in the right places at this time might do more to increase stability and security in the world than spending $100 million or $150 million on some forms of arms defence.”
Given this belief in the strategic role of international assistance, it is not surprising that Canada’s contributions increased quickly after Pearson became prime minister in April 1963. In 1963, Canada spent $70 million on development. By 1967, Pearson’s last full year in office, Canada’s commitment had tripled to $210 million. As prime minister, Pearson also laid the foundation for the creation of two major Canadian development institutions, launched under his successor, Pierre Trudeau: the Canadian International Development Agency, which was merged into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now Global Affairs) in 2013, and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Pearson was clearly an advocate for international development throughout his time in office. As prime minister, however, he also focused on many other matters of government. After he retired from public life in 1968, he could choose how to spend his time. Pearson decided to focus significantly on development, chairing both the IDRC’s inaugural Board of Governors and the influential World Bank Commission on International Development. In the commission’s report, Pearson noted that the world’s response to the challenge of international development “will show whether we understand the implications of interdependence or whether we prefer to delude ourselves that the poverty and deprivation of the great majority of mankind can be ignored without tragic consequences for all.”
Pearson was able to share most clearly his personal views on international assistance in several high-profile lectures following his retirement from politics. His carefully considered opinion was that international development had become the most important instrument of global peace and security.
In a 1969 lecture to the Council on Foreign Relations, Pearson stated “there is no greater threat to humanity, no greater danger to peace than that from two-thirds of mankind remaining hungry, disillusioned, and desperate. … Wretchedness and poverty in one part of the world, with the conflict and desperate hopelessness it creates, is bound to affect stability and progress in all other parts.”
Pearson made the case in even stronger terms in 1972 when he argued that “there can be no peace, no security, nothing but ultimate disaster, when a few rich countries with a small minority of the world’s people alone have access to the brave, and frightening, new world of technology, science, and of high material living standards, while the large majority live in deprivation and want, shut off from opportunities of full economic development; but with expectations and aspirations aroused far beyond the hope of realizing them.”
The pragmatic Pearson realized that international assistance was not a panacea. He argued that no “country will be able to go ahead except by its own effort and its own policies and the wise use of its own resources, human and material. All that external aid can do … is to help the country help itself. The final responsibility rests at home. However, if a country is trying to go forward, to help itself, then we who are more fortunate have an obligation to assist in that process.”
Pearson was remarkably prescient, with a well-honed ability to spot major shifts in international affairs at their outset. Pearson’s observations on global interdependence remain strikingly relevant today: “The acceleration of history, which is largely the result of the bewildering impact of modern technology, has changed the whole concept of national interest. Who can now ask where his country will be in a few decades without asking where the world will be?”
By the 1960s, Canada’s Nobel Prize-winning diplomat of the 1950s had developed into one of the world’s most thoughtful and influential advocates for international assistance. On December 11, as we celebrate Pearson the peacekeeper, we should not overlook Pearson the peacebuilder.
To renew Pearson’s brand of internationalism in the 21st century — as current Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called for in her policy defining speech earlier this year — we must expand our understanding of Pearson’s strategic thinking, incorporating the pre-eminent role he came to accord international development as a fifth face of peace.