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Lester B. Pearson’s policies still misunderstood across the political spectrum

By Antony Anderson      

A response to Michael Bonner's essay, 'The deadly problem with a Pearsonian foreign policy.'

People of all political backgrounds often forget that Lester B. Pearson supported 'both hard power and soft power, in the sword and in the ploughshare' writes Antony Anderson. Wikimedia photograph courtesy of Ben Sparkes
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In a recent essay in Power & Influence, (The deadly problem with a Pearsonian foreign policy) Michael Bonner delivered a properly scathing critique of the world’s failure to intervene during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Echoing earlier critics, Bonner indicted the usual suspects in this tragedy: the Hutu extremists who incited and led the massacres, as well as the predictably passive UN. Bonner also singles out Canadian bureaucrats and diplomats who, as he put it, “encouraged” the genocide with various acts of omission and commission—in effect, he wrote, “enabling Rwanda’s génocidaires.” In particular, Bonner noted that the Canadian government “funded, educated, and then sheltered” an extremist “who gave the genocide its intellectual impetus.” Then in a surprising leap, Bonner concludes that Canada’s enabling and encouraging transgressions are the fault of “the dominant ideology of Canadian foreign policy”: Pearsonian internationalism.

Bonner goes on to elevate this ideology to the level of a “doctrine.” (Set aside the fact that the Canadian government does not declare and promote clearly spelled out doctrines—American presidents do. We typically muddle through.) Without quoting from any official documents or statements, Bonner lays out the “doubtful assumptions” that underpin this doctrine: “Canada is the world’s fixer of problems, or ‘honest broker’…Pearsonianism assumes that the parties involved are equal…Canada is indifferent to the outcome of a contest between two parties whose positions are of equal value.” He calls this Pearsonian quagmire of moral relativism “naïve” and “disconnected from reality.”

And certainly on that last point, his definition of “Pearsonian internationalism” is utterly disconnected from the real Lester Pearson—the veteran diplomat who spent nearly three decades at what was then-External Affairs drafting, arguing out, and pursuing hard nosed, pragmatic policies intended to uphold the western alliance of democracies; who had seen and understood the rise, failure, and collapse of the League of Nations followed by the rise and impotence of the United Nations and who therefore had no illusions about the effectiveness of the UN or its capacity for meaningful intervention.

Pearson and his equally pragmatic senior colleagues—far from being naïve, moral relativists—perceived almost immediately that the UN would not offer any kind of universal security during the Cold War and began making the first public appeals to their allies to create a Western defence alliance. In 1950, he pushed his reluctant government to send troops to defend South Korea. Even before that, Pearson supported dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the second world war of his lifetime. As a young boy, Pearson signed up during the Great War to do his bit. This veteran was no pacifist. His diplomacy was never neutral.

Indeed, his masterstroke at Suez—the creation of the UN’s first peacekeeping force—was designed not just to shove a buffer between warring Israeli and Egyptian forces but to allow the British and French troops (which had also invaded Egypt) a way out of the mess, and thereby heal the appalling breach between Canada’s closest allies. During the frantic negotiations at the UN, Pearson was conscious that some delegations were suspicious of his motives in promoting the peacekeeping force and saw him as an agent of NATO and the Western alliance—which he most certainly was.

While peacekeeping may have become something of a state religion for so many Canadians, the architect was never blinded by his own creation. Pearson was acutely aware of the limitations of a mission only intended to act as a buffer with no mandate to intervene. At Suez, he proposed it simply as a stop gap measure to buy breathing room that might allow the parties to begin the hard work of negotiating a more lasting settlement in the Middle East. He never believed stationing a UN force was the end game; they were only ever meant to be the starting point. His sense of the possible was later evident in the clear-eyed questions he posed when he was in Opposition during the debate on sending peacekeepers to the Congo, and then as prime minister faced with Cyprus. A peacekeeping force was only ever meant to serve as a temporary, limited measure.

Yet in his critique of the neutralist mindset apparently engulfing Canada’s diplomats and officials, Bonner calls peacekeeping the “centrepiece of Pearsonian foreign policy.” Now this was undoubtedly true for the public and much of the press but it was never true—nor thought to be true—by the professionals who conducted our diplomacy or commanded our troops. From the 1950s onwards, the number of Canadian troops engaged in UN peacekeeping missions was a fraction of the forces stationed at home or in Europe to confront the Soviet threat. And there was no doubt in Lester Pearson’s mind that the USSR was the greatest threat facing Canada.

His sense of internationalism did not mean neutrality. It meant he wanted the democracies to transcend their misguided faith in isolationism and stand united and engaged in the world in order to face down that threat. True, he also worried, at times, about American intransigence and brinkmanship and did what he could, when necessary, to lower temperatures in Washington but he never viewed the great democracy to the south as a moral equivalent to the totalitarian behemoth suffocating Eastern Europe.

Bonner’s critique on what he calls Pearsonian internationalism is part of an unfortunate schism in how we have come to view our role on the world stage. For whatever reasons, the Harper-era Conservatives seemed to loathe Pearson; they rarely missed a chance to snub him. When John Baird became foreign minister and had to work in the Lester Pearson building, he removed the evidently distasteful words “Lester” and “Pearson” from his business card, leaving just the street address. A predecessor made department officials remove a notice on the department web site marking the 50th anniversary of the Suez Crisis. Pearson’s Nobel Prize medal is on display in the building’s foyer but was covered up during the Harper reign for at least one visit by a foreign dignitary.

The Harper government also signed off on closing down the room at Laurier House that displayed Pearson memorabilia. No doubt, Harper and his followers felt they were, in righteous fashion, renouncing morally corrupt Pearsonian pacifism when they supported the hard power path in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and when Harper uttered his crude declaration that Canada was no longer going to ‘go along just to get along.’ They probably felt the same with their promises in Opposition to rebuild the armed forces. How little they understood that Pearson, a war veteran who had lived through two world wars, a cold war, and countless regional conflicts, understood the critical need for a well-funded armed force and—as a last resort—for the unapologetic use of hard power.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau displays a preference for soft power approaches—in conscious contrast to the Conservatives whom he accused, in an unwise remark, of being too happy to “whip out their CF-18s”. That preference was evident when Trudeau reframed his government’s commitment to the allied mission against ISIL by withdrawing Canada’s CF-18s. Yes, Trudeau increased the number of special force trainers and continued to provide logistical support to the bombing campaign but fueling, servicing, guiding the bombers while declining to drop the bombs themselves still smacks of wanting to be half-in and half-out at the same time.

However, Trudeau is already proving far more sensible in his approach to diplomacy in general and the UN in particular. He’s undoubtedly aware of its many failings but appreciates that a small power like Canada needs to work through alliances and multilateral institutions to have any kind of influence in the world. We cannot bully our way to influence. Insulting allies in public (as Harper did all too often with Washington when he couldn’t get a pipeline built), abruptly breaking off relations with hostile regimes (like Harper did with Iran to no effect), disparaging the UN (another preferred Conservative pastime), may get cheers from the base but only registers in any meaningful way when a superpower indulges in these kind of stunts

Lester Pearson exists in the eye of the beholder—and the clarity of that portrait still blurs and sharpens across the political spectrum. We have forgotten that he believed in both hard power and soft power, in the sword and in the ploughshare. Canada will only be truly and fully “back” when our governments understand the need to be as open minded and as clear eyed as he was.

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