Was it ever John Baird’s foreign policy?

If Harper led Canada’s role abroad, Baird’s real impact was in creating division at home. By David Carment.
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February 10, 2015

With this week’s appointment of Rob Nicholson as Canada’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs, there will undoubtedly be analysis whether his approach to foreign policy will differ from his predecessor. But the rush to either criticize or defend John Baird’s foreign policy record since his resignation last week seems out of place considering that Canada’s foreign policy was never his to begin with.

Among the 40 or so titles published in Carleton University’s Canadian Foreign Policy Journal (where I am editor) since the Conservatives came to power, Baird’s name is mostly absent. Stephen Harper’s name, on the other hand, is prominent in every single piece written about the government and its foreign policy. This dismissal of John Baird’s influence is not accidental. It reflects an understanding that key foreign policy decisions do not come from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) but are the responsibility of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

There are certainly many reasons to criticize Baird’s time at DFATD but one that is often overlooked is the fact that he kept the door open to unelected political appointments from the PMO, while closing it at the same time to public oversight and accountability. To be clear, the role of political staff and advisers is not to serve the public interest or to sustain the public service. Their role is to support the government and by extension the Conservative Party of Canada.

The world of the political staffer is one of constant electioneering in which every policy instrument, every piece of communication, every effort to engage the public is carefully structured and crafted to generate a maximum politically decisive outcome. Whether working as senior advisers, or speechwriters or communications specialists their role in shaping Canada’s foreign policy has only expanded with time.

Leaked memos from the department signalled long ago a deepening discord between career foreign service officers and political staffers. Nowhere has this divisiveness been more acutely felt than in the institutional restructuring Baird set out to accomplish during his term as Foreign Minister.

One of these, was the dismantling of the Pearsonian-internationalist legacy deeply embedded in the department — a process initiated by his predecessors Lawrence Cannon and Peter MacKay. This objective would be pursued on many fronts. Inwardly by targeting  individuals and policies at DFATD deemed hostile or superfluous to the Conservative agenda and outwardly by withdrawing from or openly criticising international bodies to which previous Liberal governments had made long-standing commitments.

Baird ’s failure to properly bid for a seat on the UN Security Council is the most acute example of his advisers’ failure to understand the importance of institutions to Canadian interests. More recently, his very public threat to the Palestinian Authority with respect to their request for membership in the International Criminal Court created more problems than it solved. Baird could have just as easily taken its leaders aside and expressed his government's concerns privately. By speaking publicly to the issue, Baird either unwittingly or deliberately undermined the court by challenging its authority over who should be granted admission.

The CIDA-DFAIT merger has been touted as the other great institutional transformation over which Baird can claim ownership. But in reality it was a change the Harper government intended to implement when it first came to power in 2006. All that was needed was the right person to push the initiative through without regard for due process. Whether the merger succeeds or not is secondary to how the merger was achieved. A textbook example of a failure in public diplomacy with no prior consultation and a Canadian public still uninformed and unclear on why this particular decision was made. Indeed, under Baird’s leadership, DFATD has gone out of its way to circumvent, alienate and undermine large segments of civil society either by pulling their funding or by leaving them out of the discussion altogether. The closure of the North-South Institute and The International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development are two notable examples.

Finally we come to the decision by Baird to not conduct a foreign policy review during his time at DFATD. I suppose when a Foreign Minister can rely on political staffers to gauge public opinion and run the numbers, the need to actually talk with Canadians might seem superfluous. While many elites dismiss the importance of foreign policy reviews, the decision to not publicly weigh and balance Canada’s foreign policy choices has opened up huge rifts on the home front. No foreign policy should purposely divide. But that is exactly where we stand at the end of Baird’s tenure. A Canada that is deeply divided and uncertain of its place in the world.

Reviews are there not only to ensure that the ends governments propose are matched with the means available to them. Reviews are one of the few ways Canadians have to hold their governments accountable. It is ironic then that before Baird became Foreign Minister he managed to manoeuvre the overly bureaucratic and heavy-handed Accountability Act into law. Ironic, because under the Harper government, access to information has been curtailed, foreign policy budgets have been pushed through without proper and full debate and international treaties are tabled with little parliamentary oversight. None of this would be possible were it not for those political staffers who pay no price for being wrong.