The Verdict on John Baird

Man of principle or Harper’s mouthpiece? The nation’s pundits assess Canada’s outgoing foreign minister.
By: /
February 4, 2015

Tuesday, Feb. 3, John Baird resigned as foreign affairs minister and will soon be leaving politics altogether for parts so far unidentified.

As so often happens when a politician of Baird’s stature leaves politics, colleagues and opponents had only good things to say about the man following his announcement in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister called Baird “one of the finest ministers that I have had the privilege of working with,” New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said he was “someone who understands the importance of getting things done,” and Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau told Baird directly, “I'm still trying to understand why you are leaving.”

The nation’s pundits, however, took to their columns to express a more varied take on Baird’s career. We’ve gathered together here what they thought of his legacy as minister of foreign affairs — a position he has held since 2011.

Baird was considered by many to be a man of principle. Tom Axworthy thought of him as “a real believer in the concept of a moral foreign policy that puts principles ahead of realpolitik.” Baird took strong stances on Ukraine, Iran, and Israel. He championed causes like gay rights and ending child marriage. And he did so with an aggressive style, called “megaphone diplomacy” by some, and “no-nonsense” by others.

And Baird had a reputation for working tirelessly on those causes and other Canadian interests. He travelled to a reported 99 countries. He “wore out junior members of his staff with his frequent jaunts around the globe to promote Canada’s interests,” in the words of Derek Burney and Fen Osler Hampson. However, all those jaunts might have alienated some members of the foreign service, who “would roll their eyes or wince when they heard he was coming to town. They did not see the utility of many of his visits and wearied of the arrangements they had to make to accommodate his stays,” according to Post Media’s Matthew Fisher.

Indeed, assessments of the impact Baird made with his bullhorn and frequent flyer miles are mixed.

The Globe and Mail’s Campbell Clark offers a mostly positive take: Baird courted closer ties with key allies while also broadening Canada’s diplomatic scope, travelling to China, Iraq, Myanmar, and Cuba. Canada’s pro-Israel position could have alienated the country in the wider Middle East, but by some measure Baird worked to maintain friendships with Arab foreign ministers. Robin V. Searsnotes that, “In private, Baird received praise from Arab leaders, and even Tony Blair, for his work on the Middle East file.” Maclean’s Paul Wells echoes this take on his diplomacy: “Baird was comfortable with the notion of a world in which more than six countries matter, and he built functional relationships with globally middleweight but regionally influential powers like Turkey, Indonesia, Vietnam and Nigeria.”

On the other hand, “there were too many times when Baird’s bullhorn was just a tool in the service of a short-sighted and divisive view of the world,” according to the Toronto Star editorial board. It cites Canada’s cutting of diplomatic ties with Iran and its “open contempt” for the United Nations as two examples of cutting off the country’s nose to spite its face.

University of Ottawa professor David Petrasek goes further, arguing that Baird pushed his causes “in such a way that partisanship and selectivity undermined the objective.” Baird talked a great deal about Iran’s human rights record, but said very little indeed about Saudi Arabia and Bahrain’s. He denounced Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, but never Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians.

And what of his place in the notoriously trained seal-like Harper cabinet? The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson doesn’t pull his punches when he says “Mr. Baird did not make Canadian foreign policy; he certainly was not a foreign policy expert or thinker. He executed foreign policy as conceived by the Prime Minister with whom he shared a common perspective on the world.” In a similar vein, Embassy’s Jim Creskey lists the notable accomplishments of foreign ministers past like Pearson, Clark and Axworthy before noting, “Baird, on the other hand, ends a list of Harper government foreign ministers—Peter MacKay, Maxime Bernier, David Emerson, Lawrence Cannon—largely notable for only one major achievement: toeing the PMO line, right or wrong.”

The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon is a little more charitable when it comes to Baird’s independent thought: “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.” And, according to Wells, Baird would occasionally disagree with the Prime Minister behind closed doors, exercising the “challenge function” of government.

While a unified verdict is unlikely to be reached, we will give the final word here to John Baird himself, who summed up his own legacy as this:

Canadians can be proud of what we stand for. They can be proud that our government has always put their interests first.

I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished. We have shown Canada’s strength, Canada’s compassion, and Canada’s values in every corner of the world.

We have given Canadians the tools they need to succeed in the international marketplace, with historic free-trade deals.

We have provided lifesaving support to people in areas where death and destruction are far too common.

Canada has stood up for the oppressed, and brought much hope and dignity to the people that seek the same freedoms we enjoy.

We have championed freedom in those areas of the world where their leaders use violence and repression as tools of the weak and cowardly.