Ottawa Citizen, February 5, 2015.
During a visit to Israel three years ago, the Jerusalem Post asked John Baird what he’d be doing with his life if he were not Canada’s foreign minister. “Likely working on a kibbutz,” Baird said. A joke, maybe, but only sort of, because if your prime minister sends you to Jerusalem to express unequivocal solidarity with what your government’s loudest detractors would prefer you to dismiss as the Middle East’s apartheid-disfigured Zionist Entity, then that’s how you do it.
Now that he’s suddenly bolted from the Conservatives’ front benches, the federal cabinet’s 45-year-old prize linebacker should not be expected to show up picking avocados and packing grapefruit at some communal farm in the Upper Galilee. But Baird’s glib response to the question spoke volumes, not just about the affection for Israel that he shared with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but about the whole tenor and tone Canadian foreign policy was to take with Baird at the helm.
Forthright, plain-spoken and unapologetic in its sympathies, the voice Baird gave to Canadian foreign policy and to “Canadian values” in the world was like fingernails on a blackboard to Canada’s foreign-policy establishment. Baird knew it. He delighted in it, and his repeated insistence that Canada would no longer “go along to get along” with the decrepit police states that dominate the United Nations served only to aggravate his adversaries further.
What tended to go overlooked about Baird was there was always a reservoir of principle, decency and gravitas underlying what often came off as mere bombast. This mattered, because until Baird was appointed foreign minister, immediately after the Conservatives won their first majority government in May, 2011, the Conservatives didn’t really have a foreign policy. With Baird in charge, foreign affairs emerged as one of the Conservatives’ strong suits, if only because of the Opposition’s weaknesses on the file. A federal election is only months away, and now the Conservatives are going to have to fight it without Baird.
A particularly aggravating thing about Baird was that as minister, he wasn’t just a tough guy. He was a nice guy. For all the rhetoric about Canada having gone rogue on the “world stage,” Baird took pains to build consensus with the opposition New Democrats and Liberals whenever the opportunity presented itself. Despite the very real tensions between Baird’s office and the Liberal-era overburden of disgruntled mandarins in the foreign affairs department, Baird was also a keen listener, a collegial type and a pretty good boss.
Most aggravating is that for all the exceptions – abdication from international efforts to deal with global warming, a weird reluctance to sign international arms-trade treaties, an approach to sanctions that sometimes seems to leave convenient loopholes for Canadian corporations – as a rule, much about Canada’s foreign policy during Baird’s tenure was boldly liberal and legitimately “progressive.” This made it exceedingly difficult to sustain the caricature of the Conservatives as being ungenerous captives of shadowy Christian evangelical warmongers and sinister neoliberal puppeteers.
On the “world stage” we’re always talking about, it is no chump change that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has committed to the cause of maternal and child health. The target Harper has in his sights is the global eradication of the preventable deaths of mothers and newborns. Since Canada’s first commitment of $1.1 billion at the G8 Summit in 2010, Ottawa has added an additional $1.75 under the “Muskoka Initiative,” and last May, Harper announced a further $3.5 billion.
The objective is to prevent the deaths of 1.3 million children under the age of five and save the lives of 64,000 mothers through such basic services as family planning education, reproductive health care, post-partum care, treatment of diseases, immunization and safe drinking water.
A keystone feature of Baird’s term was Canada’s emergence as a global champion of the cause of persecuted gay people in Africa and the “Muslim world” at the United Nations and in the Commonweath. In a generous tribute to Baird, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar noted it: “He led like no other minister on the world stage when it came to the persecution of gays, lesbians and transsexuals.”
With the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom, Canada is now also a global leader in multilateral efforts to protect religious minorities. Another thing Baird never gets enough credit for is ensuring that Canada consistently led UN initiatives to hold the Khomeinist regime in Iran accountable for its ghoulish human rights abuses.
Baird hit a few fouls, of course. Only weeks after his appointment he made the comically erroneous claim that the People’s Republic of China was a Canadian “ally,” and only dug himself deeper when he tried to defend himself: “I mean, obviously countries we work well with, like Russia and Germany, have been through challenges in their history, but we now count them as allies.” A small problem with that: Unlike the Nazis and the Stalinists in Berlin and Moscow, in Beijing the Chinese Communist Party still runs the show.
The Russian “ally” reference proved to have limited shelf life, besides. Still, it was hard not be proud of Baird in December, 2013, during the revolt by Ukrainian democrats against the corrupt pro-Moscow Yanukovych regime, when he saw to it that he’d be one of the first senior foreign officials to visit the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, mingling with protesters in Independence Square. In the following weeks, Baird secured a unanimous motion in the House of Commons condemning Vladimir Putin’s military incursions in Crimea and supporting Canada’s decision to recall the ambassador from Moscow and suspend G8 relations with Russia.
One of Baird’s final accomplishments was almost certainly the release of Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who has been imprisoned in Cairo for more than a year. Not accomplished: the release of the all-but-forgotten Christian couple Kevin and Julia Garratt, imprisoned in China on trumped-up espionage charges last August.
All in all, Baird’s cabinet colleague Jason Kenney’s brief tribute to him rings true: “A happy warrior, a patriot, & one of the best foreign ministers in Canadian history.”