This is the third time Stephen Harper has found himself suddenly short a foreign minister and the first time it has mattered. On May 26, 2008, Maxime Bernier resigned the portfolio after he left confidential documents at a girlfriend’s house, and the capital was briefly awash in bad puns about “leaky briefs.” In the federal election of May 2, 2011, Lawrence Cannon lost his seat to a rookie New Democrat. Now John Baird.
But Bernier was — is — a libertarian who was convinced that if governments talk to one another they will find new things to do when they shouldn’t be doing much of anything, so he was never entirely sure Canada should have a foreign minister and a little put out that it apparently had to be him. And Cannon took no joy in a job that pushed his limited interpersonal skills beyond their natural breaking point. (“Lawrence?” a senior veteran of Quebec provincial politics told me while Cannon’s elevation to Fort Pearson was still just a rumour. “Lawrence likes to go home to the riding on weekends.” And indeed it was so: I know one person who had a front-row seat at Canada’s failed bid for a United Nations Security Council seat who insists that what broke the deal wasn’t Canada’s relatively isolated stance on Israel or any other question of principle, it was Cannon’s insistence that as a minister, he should not be reduced to schmoozing mere ambassadors at the United Nations. Canada’s competitors were more pragmatic, and Canada’s natural advantage, only an hour’s flight from the UN, was eliminated.
Baird, on the other hand, has been an absolute breath of fresh air. Of course he’s been a conservative (as opposed to merely a Conservative) foreign minister, so DFAIT lifers Paul Heinbecker and Jeremy Kinsman would reliably get the vapours at the mention of his name. He sold embassies and official residences. He informed DFAT-D (as the newly renamed ministry came to be called) envoys that they would have no more space in their cubicles in Ankara or Canberra than their counterparts in Ottawa were permitted. He stuck close to talking points, which could make him maddeningly terse: following him around central Europe last April, I passed a dejected reporter for the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita leaving the Canadian embassy in Warsaw. “They gave me 20 minutes for an interview,” my Polish colleague said. “When I ran out of questions, we still had eight minutes left.”
But Baird travelled constantly, met everyone who’d talk to him, kept his eyes open, and radically expanded the breadth and complexity of the Harper government’s foreign policy. When the Conservatives were elected in 2006, they acted as if Canada’s relations with the world could be reduced to the anglosphere (friendly governments in the U.S. and Australia, the palatable Tony Blair in London) plus Israel. When those governments changed, usually for the worse from Harper’s perspective, Ottawa’s instinct was usually to turtle and blame the stupid world.
But 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. He watched, learned, and amended his opinions: he walked into the gig with the Euroskeptic positions one usually picks up by reading The Spectator, but in Warsaw he amazed me by calling the European Union “a force for good.” He told Harper not to bother going back to China before Harper ratified the trade and investment “FIPPA” that had sat on Harper’s desk, collecting dust, for a year. Eventually Harper relented. And when Harper inaugurated his involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict with a crybabyish insistence that New Democrats and Liberals didn’t deserve to soil a government expedition to Kyiv, Baird ostentatiously brought opposition critics with him on foreign trips for months after.
He has been, in other words, willing to exercise the “challenge function” (traditionally reserved for senior bureaucrats, but these days Harper should take it where he can get it) without which a government always risks becoming a complacent echo chamber. And when he was done challenging he has been faithful and boisterous in his execution of Harper’s governing philosophy. So he’s one of the few ministers who extends and usefully refines Harper’s influence, rather than simply parroting his lines.
In November I heard second-hand that Baird was getting ready to step away from federal politics, convinced Harper could not win another majority. I didn’t follow up with Baird, so take that as hearsay. Some reports tonight suggest substantive differences with Harper over Russia, but note those rumours cast Baird in relatively heroic light. We’ll find out more anon. Ed Fast, who replaces Baird on an interim basis, is attentive to the details of his files, but I’ve seen no evidence that he has Baird’s imagination. The Harper PMO’s reflex in the aftermath of a surprise is to look for somebody like that. It’s too bad.
In 2012, Baird sat down with Paul Wells to discuss his work and reputation: