Articles - February 2021

Canada's New Permanent Representative to the United Nations

A Conversation with H.E. Robert Rae
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Ambassador Bob Rae and the man who named him as Canada’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, share an unusual family history.  They are both the second generation in their family to hold their present positions. Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the current Prime Minister’s father, served as Canada’s Prime Minister for sixteen years (1968-1979; 1980-1984) with a brief interregnum as leader of the opposition. Bob Rae’s father, Saul Rae was a career diplomat who served as Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations in both New York and Geneva (1972-1976).

This parallel family history, however, only scratches the surface of the range of experiences Bob Rae brings to his position at the United Nations.  To be sure, he has the pedigree of a diplomat but he balances that with musical talents and a sense of humor also inherited from his father, who was a vaudeville performer as a child in the 1920s - part of a family act with his brother and sister billed as the “Three Little Raes of Sunshine.”

Bob Rae has the resume of a professional politician, the mind of a Rhodes Scholar, the training of a lawyer, the creativity of a sensitive and inventive policymaker, the heart of a human rights advocate, the conscience of a social critic, and the wit of a stand-up comedian paired with the satirical lyricism and musicality of Gilbert and Sullivan - all leavened with the ability to laugh at himself and the occasional absurdities of the many worlds he routinely inhabits. It’s a long list of qualities that blends into a recipe for a politically astute diplomat and a diplomatically aware politician.

Born into a diplomatic family, Bob Rae remembers going into Canada’s foreign missions with his father.  “From my youngest days in Ottawa and Washington, where he served for six years, and when he served in Geneva, my Dad brought his work home with him. And he took us to work with him. I remember as a kid going down to the embassy in Washington with him on Saturday mornings.  He would be sitting at his desk reading telegrams, and I would do my homework.  I got to understand the business of diplomacy quite early.”

But that is not the direction his early life took.  After earning an Honors B.A. in Modern History from the University of Toronto and an M.Phil. in Politics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Bob Rae took a law degree at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.  In 1984 he was named a Queen’s Counsel (QC) in recognition of his skilled practice of the law.  Even during his university days, Bob Rae had been a student activist and a frequent volunteer in others’ political campaigns.  He was first elected to the House of Commons of Canada in a 1978 by-election and then was elected to full terms in parliament in both 1979 and 1980.

Politics became Bob Rae’s career.  Between 1978 and 2013 he was elected to federal and provincial (Ontario) parliaments eleven times.   After his party won the 1990 provincial election Rae served as the 21st Premier of Ontario from 1990-1995. Re-elected from his riding in the provincial parliament, Bob Rae resigned the position 1996 and returned to the private sector resuming the practice of law, accepting academic appointments and advising various organizations.  Though he left political office, Rae was never far from the workings of government serving on a variety of panels, writing a series of reports and authoring a book entitled “From Protest to Power: Personal Reflections on a Life in Politics.”  During this time he also founded the Forum of Federations, a global network of (currently 10 countries) focused on issues of federalism and devolved government.

Ambassador Rae returned to the federal House of Commons from 2008-2013 where he served as foreign affairs spokesman, essentially shadow Foreign Minister, for his Liberal Party in opposition.   In 2011, “Maclean’s” - Canada’s leading news magazine, celebrated Bob Rae among its Parliamentarians of the Year as chosen by his parliamentary colleagues.  He served as interim leader of the Liberal Party from 2011-2013, setting the stage for Justin Trudeau’s 2013 election as party leader and subsequent emergence as Canada’s Prime Minister in 2015.

When he left politics in 2013 Bob Rae announced that he would be serving as chief negotiator and counsel for the Matawa First Nations (Ojibway and Cree) included in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire mineral development project to ensure that their mineral rights were protected and that there was coordination between First Nations peoples and the federal and provincial governments.   The following year he became a partner and senior counsel in the law firm Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP (OKT) specializing in indigenous law and constitutional issues.  At the same time, Rae taught law and public policy at the University of Toronto and was named a distinguished senior fellow at its School of Public Policy and Governance.

It is impossible to fully synthesize the scope and diversity of Ambassador Rae’s career, but the effort gives clear evidence of his energy, insights, commitments and ability to transform these into fruitful negotiations and meaningful public policy initiatives not only in Canada, but across the world.

These attributes led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to name Bob Rae as Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar in 2017.  His mandate was to assess the crisis affecting vulnerable populations – the Rohingya Muslim community, other religious and ethnic minorities, and women and girls – in that country.  Violence directed against these groups led to a mass exodus of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar to camps in Bangladesh.

Rae’s investigations resulted in a report with the affecting title, “’Tell Them We’re Human’: What Canada and the World Can Do About the Rohingya Crisis.” His humane yet critical insight comes through in the introduction to the report: “I have found myself dealing with a deeply intractable and, in many ways, tragic situation.  It lends itself to moral outrage, anger and frustration. But as I have learned over many years, these emotions are not necessarily the best guide to action.”

That assignment led to yet a broader mandate in 2020 when Prime Minister Trudeau named Bob Rae as Canada’s Special Envoy on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues.  His efforts resulted in a new “Rae” report, “A Global Pandemic Requires a Global Response” made public just before Bob Rae’s appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations in July 2020.

Ambassador Rae was kind enough to allow Diplomatic Connections a virtual interview over the year- end holidays while he was in quarantine at his residence in Toronto.

Diplomatic Connections:  In what has to be a rare circumstance, your father also served as Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations both in Geneva, Switzerland and in New York (1972-1976). What is the impact of his experience on your political career and on your approach to diplomacy?
Ambassador Rae:   I took a different path when I went into politics, but there were certain things that he did . . . certain ways that he thought.  His personality and his style had an effect on me.  I learned early on to think globally, to think internationally, to think historically, to listen closely to what other people said, and to be curious about other peoples, other cultures, other languages.  Those are things that were imprinted on me as a kid.  They were just part of our family life.
Most people leave school and go into the family business, but I took a pretty substantial detour into the realm of Canadian politics. Now in a way I feel like I’ve come home.

Diplomatic Connections:  You carry your father’s pocket copy of the United Nations Charter with you?
Ambassador Rae:  Yes, I carry it in the pocket of my jacket.  Actually, I have three old copies of the Charter that my Dad carried that I keep in my pocket or on my desk in New York.

Diplomatic Connections:  You recounted a story in your memoir about advice you received from your grandmother: “When you don’t know where to start, get all the facts, assess the situation and just take the human footsteps.”  How have you applied that advice in your diplomatic life and upon arrival in New York as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations?
Ambassador Rae:  Pragmatism matters.  It’s not about being perfect; it is about making things better.   That is a very important lesson.  It is all very well to know what the causes of a problem are, but then you’ve got to move on to asking the critical questions: “What can we do?  What is the next logical step for us to take?”  That approach has certainly been a substantial part of my political and diplomatic style.  People who have been around me for a long time know that I repeatedly ask:  “OK, how do we take the human footsteps?”

Diplomatic Connections:  Canada has twice failed - earlier in 2010 and again in 2020 – in its efforts to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council.  What should Canada learn from those efforts that came up short?  What should be done differently next time?
Ambassador Rae:   We need to give ourselves time to prepare for a successful run.  It is quite a complicated process, as we have learned.  Canada has to respect that in a General Assembly of 193 countries, and coming from the group of which we are a part – Western Europe and Others – we are the “others.”  It is challenging.  When my Dad was here he was part of a very successful Canadian bid to win a seat on the Security Council.  But, that was a different time.
Increasingly, when I talk to other diplomats about the process of seeking to win a Security Council seat and to people with experience at Global Affairs Canada – Canada’s equivalent of the foreign ministry, they reinforce the idea that the 21st century United Nations operates in a different world.   It is tougher for Canada to campaign for a Security Council seat than perhaps it once was.

Diplomatic Connections:  That said, what lessons should Canada draw for future efforts to gain membership on the Security Council?
Ambassador Rae:   Canada is very well respected at the United Nations.  We are not one of the top ten richest countries in the world, but we are among the top ten biggest donors to the United Nations overall.  Here in New York, in Geneva and around the world Canada plays a very active role.
My advice is that Canada should start from that premise and then say: “What are the roles that we can effectively play?”  Canada was Chair of the Peacebuilding Commission last year, and we chair several other efforts.  We teamed up with Jamaica to drive the agenda on “Financing for Development in the Era of Covid-19 and Beyond” with the goal of identifying key actions necessary to assist countries battered by financial crisis.   I have had many meetings with the Secretary General and his senior staff.  We have close relationships all the way around.  Canada is establishing a robust presence at the United Nations, and we need to continue to do that.

Diplomatic Connections:  This year (2020-2021) is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.  What are Canada’s top priorities for this anniversary year?  What goals have you set for your time as Canada’s U.N. Ambassador?
Ambassador Rae:   Five big priorities for me.
First, I am ambassador in the time of Covid.  That is true every step of the way, not only because of the health impacts but because of the impact on the finances and the economies of the world and the dramatic impact on people’s livelihoods.  This is a huge issue, and it’s going to continue to be a major issue for the next several years.
The world needs to be better prepared to face future pandemics.  We need to build more resilience into our global institutions in order to help countries find better ways to cope with the impact of public health challenges like this. 
Second is climate change.  It is literally an existential issue for the life of our planet, the states of the United Nations, and all the people of the earth – no matter where they live.
Third is peacekeeping, peacebuilding and conflict resolution.  That is the heart of the U.N.’s mission and the heart of the United Nations Charter.
Fourth is human rights and inclusivity.  We continue to face challenges to diversity in the world, and human rights remain a big issue.  Growing authoritarianism in many countries is a troubling thing and something with which we have to continue to deal.
Fifth is the health of the United Nations system and multilateralism generally.

Diplomatic Connections:  How has Covid-19 impacted the day-to-day activities at the Permanent Mission itself?
Ambassador Rae:   The Mission is open as is the consulate.  We do not have receptions or other large group activities.  People do come and go, however.  We are very careful to maintain all of the protocols recommended to mitigate the possibility of infection from Covid-19 – mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and disinfecting surfaces and equipment. 
We are constantly challenged by the difference the Covid threat makes in terms of diplomacy.  It is hard to see people one-on-one.  It is even harder to see people in groups.  The normal events of a conference where you are meeting people and shaking hands are inadvisable, if not wholly impossible.  Diplomacy is a contact sport.  But, for the moment, that is all gone.  Instead, you have to use ZOOM or another virtual meeting platform.

Diplomatic Connections:  Virtual communications can bridge distance and separation, but does the lack of physical presence have an impact on the work of diplomacy?
Ambassador Rae:   The disease affects travel, which is a big deal for us. 
On the plus side, communications technology that allows people on-the-ground to speak directly to you is great.  So, for example, on the Peacebuilding Commission all of our meetings deal with different countries and various missions and projects.  With the wider use of these virtual technologies we have been able to talk, not just to the ambassadors here in New York, but we have been able to talk to the people who are on the ground.  That means we can make our outreach more inclusive.  We can have women from the Sahel talking to us directly.  We can hear from the people who are actually on site.  That is very helpful, and it is likely to have a permanent impact on the work of a wide variety of United Nations institutions.

Diplomatic Connections:  There are multiple Covid vaccines in the world, and several of them are identified with individual governments.   There is a Russian vaccine. There is a Chinese vaccine. There is an Indian vaccine.  What should be the role of the United Nations in trying to push forward and assure equitable global distribution of the vaccines?
Ambassador Rae:   While the vaccines have been developed and gone through various trials to affirm safety and efficacy, getting them distributed and into people’s arms is an entirely different logistical challenge.  There are two other critical problems – making the vaccines affordable and available across the world to rich and poor alike; and the problem of trust- building.  We need to encourage people across the world to overcome their fears, discount any disinformation being spread, and be willing to be vaccinated.
The developed countries need to help finance the production and distribution of the vaccines as much as possible.  That question of financing is the next big Covid issue.  We need to vaccinate the world and to do so relatively rapidly.  That is going to be an increasingly difficult but very, very important international effort to ensure that the vaccines are widely available, widely distributed and provided without strings attached. 
The pandemic is not only a global public health issue.  It is also a threat to global security.  We need to make sure that no country is left behind because, from a health point of view, it would be a human and an economic disaster.  We need to cover everybody, and we need to do it as quickly as we can.

Diplomatic Connections: What does Canada see as the future of the United Nations Security Council?  Should the Security Council be expanded?  And, if so, how?
Ambassador Rae:   Canada is part of a group that believes the Security Council should be enlarged, but I don’t see how more vetoes will make the Council more effective.  And after many years of discussion, there is no indication that the five veto-wielding countries are willing to expand the club. 
But I also understand the political sentiment behind that desire to increase the number of countries with veto power.  There is a great deal of political baggage, deep-seated resentments and historical arguments surrounding the question of Security Council enlargement. But we should be focusing on what is actually practical. 
Expanding the number of seats to ensure regional representation is both realistic and pragmatic. Based on my conversations - during the time I’ve been here in New York – it also seems to be the option with the best chance of achieving the most support.
But we are very much open to discussing all achievable proposals that might make the Security Council more transparent, democratic and accountable.

Diplomatic Connections:  You mentioned a focus on peacekeeping and peacebuilding in your list of objectives.  Even in Canada, however, peacekeeping has fallen on hard times.  Canada was one of the leaders in helping the U.N. to develop its peacekeeping capabilities and was once a major contributor of peacekeeping forces.  How can peacekeeping be reinvigorated and built back up again?
Ambassador Rae:   Canada is one of the key countries on the C-34, the committee that looks constantly at peacekeeping operations.  [NOTE: The C-34 is officially known as the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations.  It was established in 1965 under the aegis of the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee to review and provide recommendations on U.N. Peacekeeping Operations.  Today the committee consists of 147 Member States involved in peacekeeping operations past and present as well as several observers such as the international courts, regional organizations, and Interpol.]
Canada is a major funder of peacekeeping operations.  We are looking at how we can do more on training.  We are looking at how we can better respond to requests from the United Nations for our participation.  And, we are looking as well at where Canada can play the most effective role in terms of both equipping and providing for missions in a way that reflects the modern reality.
The Vancouver Principles still apply. Canada continues doing a great deal with the issue of child soldiers, and we encourage others to join that effort.  [NOTE: The Vancouver Principles are a set of political commitments focused on child protection in peacekeeping, including all stages of a conflict cycle. They focus on preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers by armed forces and armed groups.]  Canada has worked hard on assuring the presence of women in peacekeeping operations.  We have taken a great deal of time to get that right and to encourage other member states to support that initiative.

Diplomatic Connections:  You are the product of both Anglican and Jewish heritages.  How do you see the role of religion or faith traditions in international politics today - both as a source of conflict and as a source of core values that might facilitate peacemaking?
Ambassador Rae:  When my wife Arlene and I married 41 years ago I jokingly referred to it as “the union of the frozen people and the chosen people”.  My book “The Three Questions” is based on Rabbi Hillel’s famous “If I am not for myself then who will be for me? But if I am only for myself then what am I? And if not now, when?” That continues to be an anchor of my political and reflective thinking. 
I have had to deal with the consequences of religious zealotry and extremism in the course of my political life in Canada and my work on international human rights.  My Rohingya report documents how racism and nationalism can mix with religious intolerance to create a lethal result. I can’t abide the assumptions of perfection and fundamentalist thinking.  I am not an atheist.  Like many I have come to appreciate the inspiration of faith without being intoxicated by it.

Diplomatic Connections:  You come from a theatrical and musical family.  Your father was an accomplished pianist, as are you.  What role do music and humor play in your life?
Ambassador Rae:  A big part.  Sometimes people did not take my father as seriously because he had this other – theatrical – side to his life.  I am very conscious of the same thing, but I worry a little bit less about it because I am not as funny as he was nor as talented at music as he was.  He was a very brilliant and a natural musician.
But he was also very proud of the work that he did.  His vocation was that of a diplomat, and he cared very deeply about that work.  Humor and self-deprecation are very important ways of letting people in, of showing that you’re trying to inject another element into the conversation.  Emotionally both music and humor have done a great deal for my own mental health.  That’s true of the world as well.

Diplomatic Connections:  Imagine you’ve been asked to speak to the newest class of Canadian diplomatic trainees.  What lessons do you have for them? 
Ambassador Rae:  Listening is such a key element of diplomacy.  Not just superficially listening, but really listening and trying to understand.  I actually don’t mind sitting in the General Assembly and just listening to speeches, not because those speeches necessarily reveal a great deal, but you slowly but surely begin to understand where a particular country and its government are coming from. 
Actively listening in a conversation is always important, but it is even more important as a diplomat trying to unpack the concerns of a country and government not your own.  Equally important is for diplomats, when they are talking, to realize that they could be wrong.  It is important to speak with an element of humility.  But you also have to talk in a way that is real and that carefully articulates your own country’s concerns and values. 
Work at learning languages.  When you get to know a language, you get to know a culture and begin to gain insight into how people think.  The structure of language is the structure of sentences, and that has everything to do with what is the mindset of a leader, of a diplomatic representative, of a people.
The last thing is to be curious.  Never lose your curiosity.  That is one of the key features of a great diplomat.  Always ask questions and try to find out how things work and why things are the way they are.  The more you can maintain your curiosity in the world, the longer you are able to be useful.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you Ambassador Rae for a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation.

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