From Vancouver to Damascus and back again: Q&A with former minister Bill Graham

As Graham releases his political memoir, The Call of the World, he reflects on the 2003 decision not to join the U.S. in Iraq, what he learned from Libya and how today’s world poses different challenges for the current Canadian government.   

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April 5, 2016
Bill Graham (standing) in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 19, 2007. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

On Tuesday, April 5, the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History hosts the launch of the Honourable William Graham’s memoir, The Call of the World (UBC Press).

This new book charts Graham’s life from an idyllic upbringing filled with travel and intellectual encounters, to his study of international law across the Atlantic in Paris, to his long fight for a seat in the House of Commons and his eventual appointment as foreign minister under Jean Chrétien and defence minister under Paul Martin.

Last week, OpenCanada sat down for a discussion with Graham, in which he reflected on Canada’s stature in global affairs, the international figures he has met and the tough choices he faced as a Cabinet minister.

In The Call of the World, you describe growing up in 1950s Vancouver, living in a Tudor-style mansion near the University of British Columbia’s campus, with parents who were very plugged in to political and intellectual spheres in Canada and beyond. How did your childhood play into your eventual career path?

We’re all products of our childhood to a certain extent…so the degree to which I was influenced, I suppose, in terms of subsequently being interested in international affairs and history and international law, was to some extent informed [by the fact] that I lived in this very privileged background. [UBC president] Norman MacKenzie was a good friend of my father’s, and so he’d say, “Well, we’ve got so and so coming, can they stay at your house?” So I got to meet nuclear physicists, political scientists, world leaders…that was the way it was in those days, a very different place. And it was Vancouver, which tended to be a long way from the centre of things, but when people came there you got to see everybody because, you know, it was Vancouver. 

One summer during university, you and a friend, Patrick Wooten, “concocted a plan to buy a Land Rover and drive it to India and back in time for the fall term.” How did this trip inform your views of a region that would later be central to your terms as both foreign and defence minister?

The trip through the Middle East certainly was an eye opener for me. I was 20 years old, so this was the first time I had really come face to face with the enormous differences that existed between North American culture and the culture of the Middle East. It was an extraordinary trip, and certainly it influenced a lot of perceptions that I had about things for the rest of my life, largely of course because when you do a trip like that, you do lot of reading – people like Lawrence of Arabia, Freya Stark – these people were household names to me. When I came back [to university] I remember I wrote a long essay about Babur, my professor said how do you know about him, and I said well I just saw his tomb in Kabul!

And that trip was remarkable because of course you couldn’t do it today, for security reasons. We drove through Damascus in Syria, through Lebanon…you know, Patrick and I were so proud of ourselves, we were in our Land Rover thinking oh, we’re pretty good, and one day we were driving along on this desert road in the middle of Iran or somewhere and this little Volkswagen came put-putting along beside us, and it was two girls from London driving a Volkswagen Beetle all the way to India! Ah, maybe we weren’t so tough after all.

You mention historian Margaret MacMillan’s idea that international relations “are not simply the sum of interactions between states but are also the continual interactions that come from the movement and meeting of people.” What was your strategy for the personal interactions that came with your ministerial positions?

I would deal with a world leader or another foreign minister in no way differently than I would deal with one of my constituents in Regent Park or St. James Town. I think if you have a certain empathy and a curiosity about other people, you approach them from that perspective. So for example [in a television interview I was asked] oh, you have great respect for Colin Powell, but how about [Donald] Rumsfeld? And well, Rumsfeld was a lot trickier to deal with for sure, but he was an interesting character nonetheless, and you didn’t go at him saying this is the dingbat enemy and I’m not going to deal with him.

"I would deal with a world leader or another foreign minister in no way differently than I would deal with one of my constituents in Regent Park or St. James Town."

That would be my biggest conflict, if I had one, between us [Liberals] and the Harper administration, because the Harper administration started with the perception that we have a narrow group of friends, and out there there’s this huge world of enemies. And they aren’t enemies, they are people, that have other ambitions, and other problems that they have to resolve in their own way, and if you can approach them with empathy and understanding to say well, okay, that’s not our solution – [for example] we’re not going to tolerate female mutilation in our society and we’re going to urge you to change that – you still can’t just go and beat people over the head, particularly in a country like Canada of course.

There’s an expression we used to have in international law that “major powers do what they can, minor powers do what they must.” We have to recognize we live in a world beside the United States…so there’s no point deciding you hate the president of the United States, even though we didn’t like George [W] Bush, we needed [him], we needed the United States, both for our prosperity and for our international presence, so our meetings with him were always extremely cordial. Mr. Bush himself was a very easy-going, amiable person…now Dick Cheney was a different cat, but we rarely saw Dick Cheney, Canada wasn’t big enough for him to care about [laughs].

Turning to Canadian politicians – you write that you first learned “what politics could be like at its finest” when you saw Pierre Elliott Trudeau giving a speech in defence of Canadian unity.

I first saw Pierre Trudeau [when] I was doing my doctorate in Paris. He was minister for justice at the time and he came and spoke with the Canadian students there. We were of course totally enthralled, you know, this is a different sort of cat.

With Justin Trudeau at the helm, Canada’s place in the world has been a topic of much discussion. Do you think our standing on the international stage has been elevated in the few months since the October election?

There are certain fundamentals about international relations that really don’t change a lot with personalities, [though Stephen] Harper certainly did his best to make some serious changes – I think what was missed of Canada’s role was its ability to broker and encourage and try and make things work. That was reflected in the United Nations vote on our presence on the Security Council – a lot of people took that, rightfully so, as a bit of a slap in the face. Had Mr. Harper consulted me I would’ve said, don’t even try for that, you’ve gone down there, you’ve told them they’re all a bunch of idiots, you’ve told the Arab countries to hell with you, that’s 33 of them you’ve knocked off, you’ve told most of Africa we don’t care about you anymore, so there’s another 50 you’ve knocked off…if you’re a politician, do the math, where are you going to get the support, having irritated half the other countries around the world? 

"On global warming, we’re not going to solve it by finger pointing and screaming and yelling. It’s going to have to be a lot of cajoling and hard work, people coming together."

On global warming, which requires an enormous amount of cooperation and collaboration, we’re not going to solve it by finger pointing and screaming and yelling. It’s going to have to be a lot of cajoling and hard work, people coming together. That’s my modus operandi and I was lucky enough to have two prime ministers who both had that same philosophical bent, and clearly Justin Trudeau has that, and I’m sure Stéphane [Dion] does and most of the other cabinet ministers that I know there. Catherine McKenna is an extremely competent and intelligent woman, and she knows how to work with people, not to just antagonize them.

You mentioned Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion – how is the world today different than the one you had to navigate when foreign minister?

It’s a different world for sure. I would say on the security front the challenges are very different from when I was there. When I first was there, I went to Rome with Mr. Chrétien for the NATO-Russia summit, the first one, and you had [Vladimir] Putin and George Bush sitting across the table, [Silvio] Berlusconi running around with tricoloured pasta, it was a big love in. And now, there’s a whole different security challenge in terms of Russia, the Middle East…the Syrian conflict for the last five years has been extraordinarily, terribly complicated to try and resolve, and its spillover effects on other [places], Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Europe, with the refugees and everything, is phenomenal.

So these are different problems than the ones I had to deal with, but they’re all the same in the sense that you have to have a foreign policy which is rooted in your own values and interests, then you have to project that out and deal with other people around that. On the security side it’s the same thing, the security challenges are changed, but the basic nature of what you have to do to be positioned doesn’t. It’s one of the tricky things from a defence point of view…you can’t be ready for every eventuality; you have to specialize. The trouble is you always specialize in the last war, and you’re not ready for the one that comes at you. 

However, I would say that where Canada does make a difference here is that we generally consider security in a holistic way, and we see security as a part of foreign affairs, aid, and a structure whereby we’re not a big military power but we just want our military to be able to create peace and security to enable the other factors to work. And I don’t think that’s changed.

"The trouble is you always specialize in the last war, and you’re not ready for the one that comes at you."

However, I would say that where Canada does make a difference here is that we generally consider security in a holistic way, and we see security as a part of foreign affairs, aid, and a structure whereby we’re not a big military power but we just want our military to be able to create peace and security to enable the other factors to work. And I don’t think that’s changed. 

Our contribution to the fight against ISIS has been much debated – what do you think that should look like?

I think what I just said is highly reflective of that – what Mr. Trudeau said during the campaign, and what the decision was, was that this is ultimately not a military solution. There were lots of other people there with aircraft, they’re not saying that ISIS should be left alone and allowed to spread without people stopping it; it has to be stopped. But how can we be best able to help stop it, and also create an environment where you can cure the underlying political problem? We felt strongly [that] supporting the Kurds, supporting troops on the ground with the trainers and everything, was a far more useful role to play than just flying aircraft at 20,000 feet and dropping a bomb.

We learned that, I’ll tell you, in Libya. The Libyan campaign – and this is quite ironic for me because when I was defence minister, I was, with [Former Chief of the Defence Staff for Canadian Forces] Rick Hillier, a kind of boots-on-the-ground guy, [of the opinion] the air force should have helicopters and everything, to deliver the army and to do the on the ground stuff. Then Libya came along and it was exclusively an air war, there were no ground troops at all, so I thought, so as usual, I’m as dumb as the rest, we just prepared for the last war in Afghanistan and here now we have this new one. But in fact, in retrospect, those of us who thought that way were right. I mean, it was an air campaign but because it wasn’t followed up by a proper ground operation, we’re in the mess we are today, where Libya is a colossal mess. Everybody agrees, but Barack Obama – there’s a very good piece on him in The Atlantic – his philosophy was, “I’m not going to get sucked into those imbroglios.”

Under your tenure as foreign minister, Canada said no to going to war in Iraq alongside the ‘coalition of the willing.’ Was that a proud moment for you?

It was a highlight, and certainly occupied a great deal of my time. Harold MacMillan had that expression about foreign policy – it’s just “events, dear boy, events.” Well, Iraq was an event, it came along – I had all sorts of ideas of what I wanted to do as foreign minister and it certainly wasn’t spending most of my days trying to deal with this oncoming crisis. But, it occurred. I’m very proud of the decision Mr. Chrétien took, and I think history has certainly reaffirmed the correctness of it. A lot of people don’t realize that it was not as easy as you might think; there were a lot of people in this country who strongly urged us that we should’ve been joining the United States, they’re our ally, our best friend, and how can you abandon your friend in need? People would stop me at the airport and in the street and say, what are you doing, you guys are crazy…and I’d say you know, you say we’re great buddies with them, brothers; if your brother was drunk, would you give him the keys to the car and say go ahead, drive yourself over the cliff? And get in beside him?

In just a few months, U.S. President Barack Obama will leave the White House –

After he gets his justice appointed – never mind, let’s not go down that rabbit hole!

How do you see U.S.-Canada relations progressing after his departure?

What I have noticed is that when I first was involved in politics, and certainly when I was a younger person growing up, American politics was very much dominated by the northern communities. New York, Massachusetts, and the states along the Canadian border…that’s where the locus of power was.

That locus of power has shifted from the north east and the north to the southwest, and so you get Texas, you get Cruz; this is a different United States you’re dealing with. Much more isolationist, much more suspicious of international relations. For us, the danger as Canadians, is that their perception of neighbours is the ‘Mexican perception,’ and they see that as a problem, whereas our friends in the north always saw [us] as an ally, a friend, someone who they could work with. So that in itself made a big change. We have a very important group called the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group, and when the Republicans first took control of the House, they wouldn’t come [up to Canada], because they were all from the south, you know, “Oh those Canadians, we don’t have anything to do with those people.” It took us about four years to build back the relationship.

Your career is an inspiration to countless students of international affairs. Would you recommend politics as an aspiration for young people interested in engaging with the world?

In many ways, young people today I think have a greater evantail [range] of opportunities, there are so many NGOs, international businesses, the Internet…[it] doesn’t have to be global politics. You have to have a bit of a political bug to do that, and you’re not going to get there unless you’re successful domestically, because that’s the nature of the political thing. So you can be as international as you want but unless you can get elected locally you’re not going to go anywhere… so I wouldn’t necessarily put politics at the top of my list.

I think at [Global Affairs Canada] there’s a little regret that 30-40 years ago the top thing students graduating [with international relations degrees] would want to do would be to write the foreign service exams and go into the foreign service, and now it’s far less [the case]…it’s not because the foreign service is less important, it’s just there are so many other avenues available to people who are interested in the world. You can be engaged in so many different ways.