Quiet diplomacy has its limits
by Bob Rae
February 1, 2017
After the turbulent relationship between the Diefenbaker and Kennedy governments, the government of Canada asked two seasoned diplomats, Livingston Merchant of the U.S. and Arnold Heeney of Canada, to produce a report on how the two governments should relate to each other.
The result was a report that reflected the close friendship between the two authors, as well as their professional view that political controversy was more often than not counterproductive.
Fast forward 53 years, and we have many putting forward the view that “close allies” should not be airing their differences in public, and should make every effort to avoid the controversy that would only be hurtful to their common interests. Given the closeness of the relationship, the interdependence of trade, investment, and security, it seems, in this view, wisest to express our concerns in private.
Ironically, when the Merchant-Heeney report was published, it was seen as politically difficult to sell in Canada, because it seemed to imply Canada would park its political sovereignty at the door of quiet diplomacy.
Even more ironically, soon after the report was published, Prime Minister Pearson made a speech at Temple University before a visit to Texas, and the rest is history. Pearson called for a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam, after which President Johnson picked him up by the lapels and said “don’t you come to my country and piss on my carpet.” That same year, Canada and the United States signed the AutoPact.
It is very difficult for diplomacy between Canada and the U.S. to be quiet when the president conducts his politics and diplomacy on Twitter and the airwaves. Without waving the same fog horn, it would be strange if we were unable to express our opinions with a greater degree of candour than a phone call or a whisper in the air. And for a Canadian prime minister in the Trump era it would be suicidal if the diplomats, insiders and generals convinced him to stay muzzled.
The new reality is that modern politics requires openness and honesty with our publics. We don’t have to be rude, crude, or insulting. We do have to be honest, engaged, and constructive. And, on occasion, we have to find our own voice. If Canadians fail to see their leaders expressing their deeply held views, they will find other outlets.
Bob Rae is a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and teaches at the University of Toronto.