Aligned with our thematic on foreign affairs, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird sat in his Parliament Hill office on March 12 for a major interview with Policy Options Editor L. Ian MacDonald.
POLICY OPTIONS: Mr. Baird, thank you for doing this. We’re doing an issue here on foreign policy, Canadian foreign policy being kind of transformed or moving away from the honest broker tradition to more of a values-based practice of foreign policy under the present government. Is that a fair assessment? From brokerage to values-based?
FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTER JOHN BAIRD: I think from brokerage to values-based. I would disagree with “honest” broker because how do you have an honest broker between an international terrorist organization and a liberal democracy? So it’s not a brokerage foreign policy; it’s a values-based foreign policy. And a foreign policy that recognizes that Canada does have interests.
PO: Has there been any institutional resistance on that from Foreign Affairs? Because it’s a department that regards itself as the repository of Canadian foreign policy traditions. What’s your sense of that? Is the department comfortable with it?
JOHN BAIRD: Firstly, there are a lot of professionals in the department, and I think that’s the greatest asset that I have as Foreign Affairs Minister. I think there was a tradition to just go along to get along, I’ll be at an international summit and we’ll be negotiating a communiqué: “And it would be really great if Canada wouldn’t mind just withdrawing the things that we were fighting for,” like a statement about religious freedom, or statement against early and forced marriage of young girls in some parts of the world. “It would just be really great if Canada, as playing a constructive role, would just back off and not push some of these difficult issues.” But I don’t think that’s what Canadians would want us to do. In an area like religious freedom, or where young girls as young as 9 to 13 years of age are being forced to marry, Canada’s not going to just quietly pull our objections and go along to get along. These are two issues, for example, that need to be discussed. They came up at the Commonwealth summit. And it would have been really nice if Canada just withdrew our objections and just went along, went along with the crowd. At the same time, how do you look at the persecution of religious minorities or young girls nine years old being forced to marry, and say well, Canada wouldn’t take your cause to the forum?
PO: Well, let’s look at the Middle East and Israel as a specific example, because this government, the Harper government, has been second to none and unstinting in its support of the Israelis. Some even say that this government is more pro-Likud than Likud. What are your thoughts on Israel, and especially following your visit there?
JOHN BAIRD: Obviously Israel has — in our time in office — faced some big challenges from Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in Gaza. And Canada’s not going to be an honest broker between an international terrorist organization and a liberal democracy, when the great struggle of our generation is the struggle between liberal democracies and international terrorist organizations. And my grandfather went to war in the Second World War to fight fascism and stayed in the Canadian Forces for 25 years fighting communism in the Cold War. And the great struggle of our generation is international terrorism. And Canada has a side. We’re four square against terrorism, and we’ll support a like-minded liberal democracy when it’s facing that threat head-on.
PO: More Likud than Likud?
JOHN BAIRD: I don’t know about that. I mean, I have a good relationship with Ehud Barak. He’s not a Likud. I have a good relationship with Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He’s not Likud. So who governs Israel is a matter for the Israelis.
PO: I guess what I meant was pro-Israeli in all circumstances?
JOHN BAIRD: No, I think we probably approach each issue as we come on it. But…there was a report I got today about a UN agency dealing with women, and the only single country that was targeted, was singled out for criticism, was Israel. Why at these international fora is it always or too often Israel that’s the one country singled out for criticism?
PO: It’s interesting that Israel was born in the United Nations General Assembly, and that Lester Pearson at the time made a very famous speech advocating its creation, and yet today it is excoriated in the UN.
JOHN BAIRD: That really is.
PO: What was your message to the Palestinian Authority when you saw them, and how did they respond?
JOHN BAIRD: You know, I had an excellent meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas. We met for almost an hour, then we had lunch for a second hour — Jim Flaherty and I. It was my second formal bilateral with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and the second formal bilateral with my counterpart, the Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad AlMaliki. I think they were good, constructive, productive meetings. And I’d say the relationship was a good one. Obviously we had some profound differences of opinion. Like President Barack Obama, we think a unilateral move at the UN for statehood is not the way to go, that these things should be done at the negotiating table. That’s the only place where you’re going to get a lasting peace with security.
PO: On Libya, it’s clear that the insurgency could not have succeeded without NATO’s air power. Why is Syria different, and why won’t the UN go in?
JOHN BAIRD: Just because you can’t send Canadian Forces everywhere, or just because you don’t have the military option for every situation doesn’t mean you can’t do it for one situation. Just because you do it for one doesn’t mean you have to do it for all.
PO: Well, you’d have to be landbased in Turkey, for one thing. And you’d need to have naval resources off in the Mediterranean Sea.
JOHN BAIRD: Well, I consider the geography is different, the unity of the opposition is very different. The absence of a United Nations Security Council — we can’t even get a condemnation of Assad’s violence against his own people. We can’t even get the Security Council to approve United Nations sanctions. So it’s unimaginable to think that we could get authorization to use all means necessary. Obviously the Syrian armed forces is demonstrably different than Gadhafi’s forces.
PO: In other words, among other things, Libya was a relatively easy takedown. If you could ground the Libyan air force so that they couldn’t get off the ground, it was going to be easier to provide air support.
JOHN BAIRD: There are a whole bunch of factors. But there are just many differences. But I think aside from those differences, we’ve got to be very careful — we can’t solve every problem with military force.
PO: What about Iran? This is a hypothetical at this point, but their nuclear program is clearly not for peaceful purposes. Everybody agrees on that. There’s the possibility of an Israeli preemptive and takeout there. Clearly they talk to the Americans about this every day. Are we in that loop?
JOHN BAIRD: You know, President Obama has said repeatedly — last year, last week — that all options are on the table. There’s no good option and bad option here. But Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be a disaster for the world — not only for Israel, for the region, the Middle East, but for the whole planet. I think we’ve got to take every single diplomatic measure that can possibly be taken to try to address this situation. The sanctions in place are beginning to have real effect. That’s good. Canada obviously can’t do this on our own. That’s why we’ve got a good partnership with our allies and others. But those sanctions are beginning to work. In my judgment, they haven’t made the decision to weaponize today, as we speak, but when you’re enriching uranium to 20 percent, the centrifuge program, they’re clearly gathering up all of the ingredients and parts so when they make the decision they can bolt to the end. And we’ll see what their reaction is to the diplomatic pressure and the economic sanctions. They would certainly have to demonstrate they were serious and not just stalling for time.
PO: Second hypothetical, and it’s a fairly extreme one. What if the Iranians decided to try to close the Strait of Hormuz? Then they’d be facing the United States’ Seventh Fleet. Clearly the US would not allow its naval power to be challenged anywhere in the world.
JOHN BAIRD: There’s a debate in that part of the world, whether it’s the Persian Gulf, some call it the Arabian Gulf. One of my colleagues called it the American Gulf, because there are so many American vessels in it. Obviously a unilateral action to mine the Straits of Hormuz would be a significant provocation on Iran’s part and would not go unaddressed by the rest of the world.
PO: Especially in an American presidential election year. It sounds almost like a Wag the Dog scenario.
JOHN BAIRD: I don’t know about that. I’ve met President Obama. I don’t believe he would make any decision based on politics. It would be an incredibly provocative move on the Iranians’ part to mine the Strait of Hormuz.
PO: Afghanistan, the reprofiled mission, how do you feel about that? And can you comment on this terrible incident that occurred a few days ago, that American serviceman who clearly was unhinged?
JOHN BAIRD: Hillary Clinton made comments, expressing deep regret over this huge tragedy, obviously you see from time to time that people take such moves, whether it’s in the United States or, in this case, in Afghanistan. There’ve been cases where Afghanistan military or civilians have killed Canadian or Allied forces. So it’s obviously deeply, deeply disappointing.
PO: And it’s the kind of incident that gives comfort to the enemy, in this case the Taliban.
JOHN BAIRD: Absolutely. And it’s just unconscionable. At the same time, I don’t think anyone — anyone — can conclude in any way, shape or form that this had anything to do with the United States or the United States Armed Forces. It was the actions — by all accounts, I understand — of a lone individual with, I assume, some big challenges.
PO: Moving to China, after your visit and the Prime Minister’s trip there in February, how do you feel about a balanced relationship as between the imperatives of trade on one hand and human rights on the other?
JOHN BAIRD: Well, it’s never been a choice, an either/or scenario. We’re not cautious or timid about promoting Canadian values in China or anywhere in the world. I think the Prime Minister’s leadership in this regard has been commendable. I think there’s no doubt that the relationship is stronger today than it was six years ago. At every occasion when the leaders meet, the issues of human rights, religious freedoms, consular cases are brought up, as I think Canadians would expect us to. China has an awful lot to offer to Canada. But Canada also has an awful lot to offer China. And we want to promote Canadian values and Canadian interests, so it’s not an either/or choice.
PO: What about Russia, now that Vladimir Putin has been re-elected as President? How do you see the engagement of the relationship there?
JOHN BAIRD: Obviously in some areas there’ve been challenges. In other areas, you know, for example on the Arctic, I think we’ve worked well with Russia. We have similar interests there.
PO: Except when pop up in the Arctic.
JOHN BAIRD: But on many issues in the Arctic, we have similar interests in wanting non-Arctic nations’ the region. In other areas we have a strong difference of opinion, you know, for example on their vetoing the resolution on Syria.
PO: So you’re saying we can work with them in the Arctic Council, on Arctic sovereignty, Arctic issues.
JOHN BAIRD: We can work with them successfully on many issues. On other issues we’ll have profound and honest differences of opinion.
PO: And how can we give sustenance and encouragement to the dissenting Russians about the development of democracy in their country?
JOHN BAIRD: Well, promoting democratic development is a key priority, promoting freedom is a big priority around the world, in Russia and everywhere.
PO: Hemispheric relations. Mr. Harper’s put a priority on that. What’s your sense of north-south?
JOHN BAIRD: Strong. It has the capacity to get a lot stronger.
PO: Are we doing more trade bilaterals?
JOHN BAIRD: I think on the trade side we’ve done a lot of trade agreements. On the bilateral relations, the relationship with Mexico is an incredibly important one, not just for the trade agreement, but they’re a great partner on regional security and so many other issues. I have a pretty decent relationship with Patricia Espinosa, my counterpart. I have visited Mexico twice. We’ve got a great relationship with President Juan Manuel Santos and his minister in Colombia. I think we’re trying to put a big focus on Brazil, where the Prime Minister and I visited last summer, in August. The relationship with Chile is a mature one. And there’s great capacity to deepen that as well. We play a huge role in the mining sector and in development and investment in that country. The Caribbean I think is one where we could do more.
PO: Are you seeing any progress in Haiti, which was a broken country before the earthquake?
JOHN BAIRD: Obviously we have a significant commitment to Haiti. I did not hide my deep disappointment at the resignation of the Prime Minister, who I think was a real asset to the country.
PO: After only five months in office.
JOHN BAIRD: Yes, four or five months. I travelled to Haiti in January with Hélène Laverdière of the NDP, Dominic LeBlanc of the Liberal Party and Bob Dechert, and we had a lot of good meetings with President Michel Martelly and the Prime Minister and others. But I certainly did not hide my disappointment with the Prime Minister’s resignation.
PO: Moving to regional issues or associations. There’s a saying that there isn’t a club in the world that Canada doesn’t like to be a member of. This is an important anniversary year for the Commonwealth, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. What’s your sense of the importance of the Commonwealth in Canada — to Canada and Canada’s influence in that club?
JOHN BAIRD: I think it has the potential to be an important one. The Eminent Persons Group I think would be disappointed that more of its recommendations couldn’t have been advanced quicker. At the same time, we’re committed to continue to push. Senator Hugh Segal is a member of that group, and he is now our special envoy for Commonwealth reform. We hope to continue to play a big role. Canada is now a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which gives us an opportunity to push reform. One of the defining parts of the Commonwealth is human rights. And they’re obviously promoting economic development and democratic development, but also human rights: the role of women; forced early child marriages for young girls is a huge problem.
PO: You’ve just been in Myanmar, which is a pretty important human rights file, isn’t it?
JOHN BAIRD: Yes. But so is the fact that, in 41 of the 54 Commonwealth countries, homosexuality is criminalized, and the issue of religious freedom in some Commonwealth countries causes us real concern. So these human rights reforms are going to be a big priority for Canada over the next two years.
PO: And how do you see the importance of la Francophonie, the other side of the linguistic coin?
JOHN BAIRD: I had certainly been involved la Francophonie in the past as a provincial minister, but my colleague Bernard Valcourt takes the lead on that. And in the Francophonie, human rights and values wasn’t necessarily one of the cornerstones of its establishment. It’s certainly a different organization. Obviously it’s a huge window for Canada on a big part of Africa, and that, I think, has a value.
PO: And I’ve saved the biggest file for the last: Canada-US relations. This is obviously our most important trading partner and our closest neighbour and ally, and historically our best friend. Have you had the conversation with Hillary Clinton about Keystone XL, for example?
JOHN BAIRD: First China is a huge priority for Canada; the AsiaPacific region is a huge priority for Canada.
PO: I was going to ask you about the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
JOHN BAIRD: Those areas are huge priorities for Canada, but obviously the relationship with the United States remains our top priority, our top concern. On the issue of Keystone, we have an honest difference of opinion with the President, the administration. I’ve had long discussions on this, with Secretary Clinton and with many others. I think it’s a terrible position for Canada and the future prosperity of the country to be in the hands of a small group of radical activists, and we should never allow Canada to be in that position again, where we only have one customer. That’s why Keystone is very, very important. We’re going to work hard to get it built, but we’ve got to diversify our markets so that we have alternatives, and so the oil doesn’t trade at a discount, as it does now.
PO: And that brings up the issue of Northern Gateway and Trans Pacific trade routes.
JOHN BAIRD: We’re strongly supportive of the Northern Gateway project pipeline, and Trans-Pacific obviously is a trade area we’d like to get.
PO: One more club we’d like to join.
JOHN BAIRD: It’s not a club yet. Having said that, it’s not as if we’ve got to go begging. We have alternatives, and right now we’re negotiating a free trade agreement with India. Korea continues to be a priority, and free trade with Japan is a potential. And then obviously we can potentially do a free trade agreement with China. So Canada can’t just be timidly begging to get into one free trade agreement. We have alternatives.
PO: Do you get a sense that the Americans understand how important we are to them as an energy supplier? For example, a single Canadian company, Enbridge, transports more oil to America than the Saudis do, 1.6 million barrels a day.
JOHN BAIRD: I think there’s a lot of domestic politics going on.
PO: It’s an election year in the United States.
JOHN BAIRD: An election year. That never happens of course in Canada, being so pure, as we are. But there’s no doubt it’s an election year, and the power of special interests in the American political process is significant and should not be underestimated. I think at the end of the day, most people think that, if you have a choice of buying oil from Canada or someone like Gaddafi, or from Canada or Chàvez, or Canada or Iran, I think about 99 percent of Americans would prefer to buy their oil from Canada.
PO: Yes. Is there an element of hypocrisy in some of this posturing about Keystone and the oil sands, in that, for example, the coal-fired energy industry in the United States has a carbon footprint 64 times larger than the oil sands? You know this from your time in Environment.
JOHN BAIRD: Absolutely. I mean, heavy crude from Nigeria or Russia has a very similar emissions profile. So I think this is more about — this is more about the power of special interests on the American political process. We will continue to fight for Keystone, and I do believe it will be built.