(Disclaimer: Mr. Rae has been a regular guest in my class on Canadian government and strategic decision-making and has said very kind things about my last two books.)
Two thoughtful journalists, Paul Wells of Maclean’s and Martin Regg Cohn of the Toronto Star, have come to virtually opposite conclusions about Rae’s appointment. I find it difficult to fully agree with either of them.
According to Wells, Rae might be “a gifted deliverer of impromptu remarks,” but he is not a career diplomat, and the posting to New York requires more than just a sharp intellect and superior negotiation skills.
The UN is “an infernally complex place. The rule book is as thick as the Manhattan phone directory, and much depends on whom you know.”
Perhaps it might have been prudent for the Liberals to choose from among the many seasoned professionals at Global Affairs Canada for this particular job.
In contrast, Regg Cohn draws attention to Rae’s time as Ontario’s 21st premier, suggesting that “There is no better preparation for the pinstripes brigade in the puffed up diplomatic corps than to run a province.”
Add to that his international experience, including his recent work on behalf of the Trudeau government looking into the plight of the Rohingya, and Regg Cohn can’t imagine a better choice.
I agree with Wells that Rae lacks UN experience, and my own research confirms that navigating the UN’s written and unwritten rules of behaviour takes time for even the best-prepared diplomat.
But I also concur with Regg Cohn’s suggestion that, in temperament and intellect, Rae will be an excellent fit in New York.
My problem with both analyses is that we don’t really know what Mr. Trudeau wants from his new UN representative. Without that understanding, I don’t think it’s possible to evaluate the quality of the appointment.
In recent history, there have been at least four kinds of successful Canadian permanent representatives in New York.
Stephen Lewis was an NDP political activist, lacking in formal diplomatic experience.
But his Progressive Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, was looking for someone with an edge, particularly when it came to denouncing apartheid in South Africa. He got exactly that.
Yves Fortier, one of Mulroney’s closest friends and business associates, succeeded Lewis.
He, too, had no formal background at the UN, although he was a world-renowned arbitrator.
In Fortier, Mulroney sought someone he could trust implicitly while Canada was on the UN Security Council.
To compensate for Fortier’s lack of UN experience, Philippe Kirsch, one of Canada’s foremost diplomats, stayed on in New York as deputy permanent representative and took responsibility for the operational management of the delegation.
Fortier had the humility to defer to Kirsch on issues of procedure and protocol, and was generally a pleasure to work for. Moreover, his close relationship with the prime minister produced instant credibility at the negotiating table. No career diplomat I have spoken to resented his presence.
Fortier was followed by Louise Fréchette, an official with 21 years’ experience, including a number as part of Canada’s UN delegation in Geneva.
Fréchette was so well-regarded across New York that she later served eight years as the UN’s first deputy secretary-general.
Finally, in 2011, the Harper government appointed Guillermo Rishchynski Canada’s UN ambassador.
Rishchynski used the mediation skills he had developed over nearly 30 years as a foreign service officer to keep the low profile that his prime minister expected of him without compromising Canadian national interests.
That most readers won’t recognize his name suggests that he, too, succeeded.
Bob Rae has Lewis’ ability to effect change, Fortier’s gravitas, and the necessary deference to the diplomatic establishment.
He lacks Fréchette’s UN experience, and is unlikely to keep his head down.
He could be an excellent choice if his skill-set matches the policy objectives that the Trudeau government has presumably established for his time in New York.
But if Rae was selected for political purposes – as a fig leaf to the Liberal old guard, for example – the decision to pass over a number of eminently qualified career public servants is harder to justify, and morale at Global Affairs Canada is likely to suffer as a result.
For another perspective on this issue, take a look at what Susan Delacourt has written. And if you’d like to delve more deeply into the history of Canadian diplomacy, consider just about anything published by the late Greg Donaghy. Greg was an outstanding scholar whose kindness and generosity will be deeply missed across Canada’s academic and professional diplomatic community.
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