Op-ed by Rideau Institute Special Advisor Gar Pardy

Quatar’s quiet understanding of Canadian politics

Gar Pardy
Embassy News
May 8, 2013

Canadians can be forgiven if they have trouble recognizing Qatar or its significance to Canada. That has changed in the last few days.

Qatar, with surprising adroitness, offered to host the International Civil Aviation Organization—and in doing so wrest it away from its 66-year home in Montreal.

That this is a serious matter is readily apparent from the government’s shrill reaction. Immediately, a Team Montreal was formed including: a minister from the separatist government in Quebec City; a beleaguered, temporary mayor from Montreal; and John Baird, the Canadian foreign minister, who a few weeks ago was boasting about his successful repairing of relations with several Gulf states, including Qatar.

From the prime minister down, all hands are now on deck to beat back this dastardly attack on an international institution that has helped make Montreal into a modern cosmopolitan city.

The government, for its part, readily understands what is at stake by the Qatari offer, even though it has refused to admit that it is connected to its policy of uncritical support of Israel.

First, it is a direct attack on Canadian foreign policy, which in the last seven years has bled the support of many countries around the world. Despite Mr. Baird’s whirlwind visits to countries around the world and his polite reception, countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America have been dismayed, if not alarmed, at the significant changes in Canadian foreign policy.

A foreign policy that, since the days of the Second World War, has carefully and successfully sought to bridge some of the deep international divides and provides support for amelioration of the human condition.

One would not expect it from such a distant country but, second, the Qatari offer for ICAO represents a quiet understanding of Canadian politics. The government is in single digit support mode in Quebec and in some measure it is a direct result of its foreign policy which finds little support in that province.

As the issue continues to develop over the next several months, there can be every expectation that members of the Quebec government and numerous others in the province will publicly conclude that Ottawa’s foreign policy is the root cause of the problem. The mad rush by Mr. Baird to puff up Canadian defences against the Qatari offer says more about electoral support in Quebec than anything else.

It is still early days in the playing out of the Qatari offer but it is not an issue that will disappear. The failure of Canada to find sufficient support for a seat on the Security Council against Portugal in 2010 should have been a large warning to the government.

Instead it has made its international position even worse by its ever-deepening support of Israel, even to the extent of trying to generate support against Palestine obtaining observer state status in the UN General Assembly.

As with the Keystone XL pipeline issue with the United States, the government refuses to understand the connectedness of policy. Its earlier rejection of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and a variety of other decisions strongly supports the view that it was a denier of climate change.

This provided the solid backdrop for a wide variety of American and Canadian organizations to attack the building of the pipeline. In recent days the government has sought to portray its sow’s ear environmental policy into a silk purse, but it is seen as a move of desperation and certainly not one involving principle, Mr. Baird’s favourite word.

So it is with the government’s policy on Israel. The divide with the 22 members of the Arab League and even the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference is now beyond reconciliation. There are of course deep and profound differences between the countries making up these organizations, but the one issue around which they can usually coalesce is that of Israel and Palestine. These countries represent nearly half of the votes needed by Qatar to support its offer for the move of ICAO from Montreal.

As well, the Qatari move fits into a broader effort for diversification of who manages world affairs and from where it is done. The move from a G7 directing body to a G20 one has been painless and regarded by most as a reality-based one.

At the same time, of the 17 specialized agencies of the United Nations, of which ICAO is one, none are headquartered south of 35 degrees north (approximately Washington).  London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Rome, and Madrid are all headquarters cities, some with more than one specialized agency. But Beijing, Pretoria, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Doha, and New Delhi have been bereft of such international enhancement.

Perhaps in all of this, Mr. Baird’s naïve and nativist approach to foreign policy will undergo some change. Already there is an indication of this. He is quoted as saying that “if we can make that deal [to retain ICAO] even better, we’re prepared to do so.” And in another interview Mr. Baird said Canada will not be “outbid.”

It is novel to see Mr. Baird move away from foundational principles in the conduct of foreign policy and see the edges of old fashioned money emerge. If the CEO of SNC-Lavalin were to say that, the RCMP would probably pay him another visit.

Gar Pardy is a former ambassador and comments on foreign and public policy issues from Ottawa.

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