Ottawa Citizen

John Baird is suddenly a proponent of soft diplomacy

Canada’s foreign affairs minister is right that nothing can be gained from shouting about Egypt’s sentencing of a Canadian journalist. But his government has condemned ‘going along to get along.’ No wonder Canadians are confused.


John Baird just can’t win. As the foreign affairs minister explained to Ottawa radio station CFRA about his government’s response to the conviction of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy in Egypt, “If we’re loud and vocal, we’re practising bullhorn diplomacy and not being profession­al. But if we try to take the case directly to the leadership, we’re accused of not standing up.” Baird is right. Government­s generally don’t respond well to public humiliatio­n, and it, therefore, makes little sense to condemn Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, too strongly if one hopes to have success negotiatin­g with him privately to enable Fahmy’s eventual release.

Diplomacy is about give and take, not feeling good. Its morality is based at least as much on the expected outcome as it is on the process to get there.

Chasing an ideal in world affairs is typically fruitless and costly.

Canadians should understand this, and if they did, they would view the government’s opening response to Fahmy’s conviction more sympatheti­cally.

That they don’t, however, is more Baird and his government’s fault than anyone else’s.

Too often, over the past eight years, the Canadian political leadership has portrayed subtlety, or what used to be called quiet diplomacy, as a political sellout.

Canadians have been told time and again that, unlike previous (Liberal) government­s, the Conservati­ve government will not be silent in the face of injustice, regardless of the consequenc­es.

That message has been rightly criticized by experience­d diplomats as naïve, if not ignorant, but it has been repeated incessantl­y by a government that, at times, seems to be more focused on cultivatin­g its base and building support among domestic constituen­cies than on the state’s long-term strategic needs.

Most important among them in the Fahmy case are diplomatic capital abroad and public trust at home.

Diplomatic capital means being able to call upon Canadian allies to launch joint efforts to identify where Egypt might be vulnerable politicall­y, or issues upon which its president might be willing to negotiate.

Ideally, it would have enabled the co-ordina-

Public trust at home would reduce the volume of the minister’s critics.

tion of a single public response to the Fahmy conviction by Canada, the United States, and perhaps the EU.

The lack of allied cohesion is a gift to the Egyptian president, who can play one state’s response off against another’s in an effort to divert attention and deflect blame.

Regrettabl­y, Baird could not have expected to marshal such co-operation, seeing as his government’s previous bellicose exhortatio­ns have undermined western diplomatic unity on Iran and Ukraine.

Public trust at home would reduce the volume of the minister’s critics and give him more room to manoeuvre creatively.

If it were clear that the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Developmen­t operated primarily to promote Canadian interests — rather than those of the governing party — serious pundits, analysts and activists would be more prone to wait before criticizin­g the government too strongly, giving the minister time to make diplomacy work.

Instead, Baird must fight for Fahmy on his own, and on three fronts: against the Egyptian leadership, against other western efforts that could undermine his department’s own quiet diplomatic appeals and against critics at home who have become so caught up in his government’s partisan approach to foreign affairs that they have lost the ability to recognize when the minister has, objectivel­y, got it right. Shouting might make some Canadians feel good about their “principled” foreign policy, but it is not going to get Mohamed Fahmy and his colleagues out of prison, and Baird should therefore be applauded for recognizin­g this reality and acting accordingl­y.

But if he isn’t, he has only his own government to blame.

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