Interview

Interview: John Baird

Canada's new foreign minister on Libya, Syria, and the thickening of America's borders.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

John Baird took over as Canada’s minister of foreign affairs in May. Last week, he spoke with Foreign Policy during his first visit to Washington as minister, discussing why it would be "a mistake" to call the war in Libya a stalemate, the need to reform Canada’s refugee policy, and the problems with a U.S.-Canada border getting "thicker and thicker."

Foreign Policy: Can you tell me what issues you’re raising on your visit to Washington?

John Baird: The biggest things are working with the Americans in Libya, and obviously we’re trying to work our actions in Syria in concert. We’re doing about 10 percent of the military sorties over Libya; plus, we have a bunch of other infrastructure there. We’re meeting with good success on protecting the civilian population, but at the same time, we realize that there won’t be genuine peace and stability in the country until Qaddafi goes. So we’ve been pretty hard on that. We’ve implemented all the same sanctions that the Americans and the United Nations have. In Syria, we’ve been progressively tightening the noose on sanctions against President al-Assad and discussed what we can do going forward with our other allies on it. Obviously the U.S., the U.K., and Canada have been more aggressive than many of the other countries.

FP: Do you see any signs that the Libya conflict may be nearing a resolution?

JB: I think it would be a mistake to call it a stalemate. We have been successful particularly in protecting the civilian population. Obviously with the criminal indictment by the International Criminal Court, we want to see Qaddafi go. Obviously, the [Transitional National Council] and the rebels are making advances but it’s been slow. But at the same time we’ve degraded his ability to cause mass civilian deaths. And so the Libyan people have to win this on their own, but obviously NATO has been playing an important mission sanctioned by the U.N.

FP: How long a commitment is Canada prepared to make in Libya if this drags on?

JB: You know, the Canadian Parliament sanctioned the mission. The House of Commons sanctioned the mission, and we extended it for a further 90 days in June. And thus far it hasn’t been a political issue in Canada. I think it went through by a vote of 294 to 1, with all four of the parties in the house, and just one person didn’t vote for it (I expect just so she could be noted as the one that didn’t). I’d like to see us have a Libya Contact Group meeting in Tripoli at the end of September working with an interim government rather than planning for an extension [of the NATO mandate], but obviously we’re committed to the case.

FP: What do you think is the next step in responding to what’s happening in Syria now?

JB: We had a long discussion with a number of people who were in town, including Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada have had kind of the strongest response, and we want to work on our allies to get them to strengthen their actions in this regard. Neither Canada nor the United States have major economic relations with Syria. We have one major project — a Canadian company has a major project there — but beyond that very little. So we’re working hard on our allies and would certainly like to step up our actions against the regime.

FP: Could you foresee a situation where there might be a military response?

JB: Not at this time. We met with three or four opposition activists here in the United States; I understand that they had met Secretary Clinton earlier in the week. They weren’t asking for a military operation. They were asking for increased pressure multilaterally. And it was a good meeting. Obviously I’d like to see us step up the measures there.

FP: What issues have you discussed in terms of U.S.-Canada relations?

JB: One is what we call "Beyond the Border," which is an effort to try to break down the thickening of the border. The prime minister and the president announced it in early February. We’re hoping to see that continue to move forward and conclude. The border is big for security reasons, but it just gets thicker and thicker.

A friend of mine’s daughter is a consultant at one of the major consulting houses and she needed to bring her university degree to show, which she did and it had a nice Princeton logo on it. The border guard then explained to her that the United States was an English-speaking country and she should get it translated because it was in Latin. That was about three- or four-thousand dollars worth of economic activity lost because she had to go back home.

FP: What kind of response do you get from U.S. officials?

JB: We’ve had a good working group on both sides. We met with the co-chair of the American working group earlier. For Canada and our government the No. 1, the No. 2, and the No. 3 issue are jobs and the economy, jobs and the economy, jobs and the economy. And progressively in the last 25 years, but certainly since 9/11, we’ve seen a thickening of the border, with more red tape and more problems. It’s particularly bad in the manufacturing sector.

We have one bridge, the bridge between Windsor in Ontario and Detroit, Michigan, where you have $130 billion worth of trade that goes over one bridge. And if there’s a tie-up at the border, just a tie-up in manufacturing, that could be deadly for manufacturing on both sides.

Yes, we’ve got to deal with security at the same time, but if we have a container coming on the West Coast of Canada and then going through to Chicago, does it need to be inspected when it leaves Asia, when it arrives in Canada, and when it gets to the border, or can we work to integrate our systems so it only has to be checked once? Within the two countries we have a pretty integrated economy, and obviously as [the border] gets thicker it hurts the competiveness of both our economies.

FP: There’s been some debate in Canada over the country’s refugee policy, and I’m curious: Coming into this job, do you think Canada takes in too many political refugees, the right number? Do you foresee a change in that policy?

JB: We did a pretty significant refugee reform last year. It’s still being implemented, so we haven’t seen the results of it yet. It is a concern. I think we have a pretty progressive record on that, but the biggest thing we’re tackling is human smuggling — illegal human migration off our west coast. We have boats from Asia coming and people being exploited financially, ripped off, put in intolerable conditions even to their own health and well-being, let alone their safety in these ships. So this is a huge issue for us. We’ve got significant work we’re doing in Southeast Asia on this to try and prevent these ships from coming to Canada. Obviously we put visa restrictions on travel from Mexico recently because there was such a substantial number of Mexicans coming from the United States into Canada. So we tightened it up considerably.

FP: What do you see as Canada’s priorities on climate change in the post-Copenhagen environment?

JB: We’ve adopted a very similar position to the Obama administration. If there’s to be a deal, it has to be with all the large major emitters including the United States and Canada, including China and India. Any deal has to see genuine reductions in greenhouse gases. If we simply export carbon emissions to the other side of the world, it could actually make it worse. If we close steel mills in Canada and the United States and we just buy steel from India or China, there will be higher emissions in the production of that steel, plus the emissions in transporting it to the other side of the world, so we won’t have accomplished anything.

That’s why if we’re going to accomplish anything we have to have all the major emitters on board. So we have a 17 percent reduction plan like the United States. We’re working to bring forward regulations to ban new [construction] of dirty coal electricity plants, [and we’re] the only country in the world committed to do that.

FP: Could that reduction plan include further regulation of the Alberta tar sands?

JB: We call it the oil sands, not the tar sands. We’ve made considerable environmental progress. The Alberta government is, I think, the only government in North America that is actually regulating a large final emitter [a facility that emits more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year] and significant amounts, hundreds of millions of dollars, are going into a science-and-technology fund.

In western Canada, we do have commercial carbon capture already up and running today. Not demonstration projects. There’s one full commercial project in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where they’re using it for enhanced oil recovery and over the years it’s been pretty successful. So obviously we need to step up our game as other countries do.

FP: What have you found most surprising on the job so far?

JB: Probably that many people who practice diplomacy can sometimes be very undiplomatic.

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