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Words of wisdom for Canada's new foreign minister

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Dear Minister Baird.

I wonder if you might entertain a few Polonius-like chestnuts about your daunting new gig from a world-weary older chap.

Of course you'd be the first to recognize that where you're concerned, one invariably thinks not of Hamlet but of the old Jekyll and Hyde tale. Can you actually transmogrify from the deranged Mr. Hyde who almost single-handedly brought Parliament into disrepute into Canada's sophisticated senior diplomat? Believe it or not, for the sake of Canada, many of us hope so.

As it happens, I've known a number of foreign ministers in my time, not only here but abroad. Basically there are only two ways of handling your job: the really easy way and the effective way. The first is a breeze since it involves learning maybe one sentence about most other countries and about every challenge that will confront you. This is a very tempting option, since your job is impossibly complex. I recall sitting not long ago with a dear friend who, like you, had just abruptly been promoted to foreign minister, simply rhyming off the endless issues that would have to be faced, often simultaneously.

Perhaps first are the interests of the other 200-odd countries. Bizarrely enough, there's no agreement on the real number. The New Internationalist World Guide expounds on 243 countries, the United Nations has 192 members, but most sources say there are between 193 and 195 countries, depending on how you categorize the Vatican and Taiwan. (Pay attention, minister. This stuff is sure to matter to someone you'll have to work with).

Of course front-and-centre there's the ever-frustrating UN and its alphabet soup of agencies, including the promising new UN Women's Agency. How wonderful it would be if Canada threw its weight and resources behind this new body. By the way, you'll find half the UN has been preoccupied with maternal and child health for decades. Then there's the fading Commonwealth; you really should try to learn what in the world it does. And La Francophone, France's costly little charade to pretend it's still a world power. Add here the inscrutable African Union, NATO (bet you can't name all the members and explain how they agree on anything), the G8 (a wasteful anachronism) and G20 (a work very much still in progress). And never forget the World Bank and IMF, whose simple-minded neoliberal prescriptions have damaged so many poor countries. Make sure someone briefs you about SAPs, minister. You might say they did to Africa what Dominique Strauss-Kahn is alleged to have done to an African-born hotel maid.

And don't forget AIDS, underdevelopment in general and malaria and food security. And WASH. Please, please remember this funny acronym for water, sanitation and hygiene -- one of the most critical yet neglected challenges in so many countries. Study up on community health workers, a genuine answer to many health problems; I have much information on the subject for you, sir. Wait till you discover the remarkable and thrilling emergence of the global south as shown, for example, by the formidable BRICS alliance (you of course know who they are, yes, minister?).

Add the challenges we face related to China and India, not to mention other emerging Asian giants. It will be Asia's century, Mr. Baird, have no doubt about it, and it's already here. Of course there's our entire multifaceted relationship with the United States that some consider the only Canadian foreign policy that matters, plus the Security Council and the all-important issues of international law and war and peace that it deals with -- as well as its McCarthyite 1267 terrorist blacklist, which the steadfast friends of Montreal's Abousfian Abdelrazik will make sure you know about. Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? You should. It's way easier being House Leader.

Plus the welcome social democratization of much of Latin America and the extrication of the continent, at long last, from the heavy hand of U.S. economic domination. You'll immediately see direct parallels between the way France has treated its former colonies in Africa and the historic relationship between the United States and Latin America. And while we're in the hemisphere I'd better note the drug trade: booming, spreading, escalating, bringing with it ever-increasing violence and corruption that can never be stopped using America's foolhardy but predictable militarized strategy.

Which leads me to mention Afghanistan and Libya and Canada's very perplexing involvement in both, plus the entire swiftly-changing Arab world that is not to be confused, as it often is, with the swiftly-changing Muslim world. (Three indispensable words for you, minister: Al Jazeera English). Do you think it's perhaps significant, minister, that the three countries where Western countries are at war are all Muslim? I'll add Pakistan with no further elaboration, and maybe I'll end this litany with just two words, Israel and Palestine. I must say these two words alone, let alone all the others, make me deeply pessimistic about the future of the planet.

And this, of course, is why it's so much easier to adopt approach No. 1, the Single Sentence Diplomat. I take from the experience of many of your predecessors in various countries that it's quite possible to digest only one statement about most of this list, just as the Harper government, Pavlov-like, always sang the same single false note on the entire Palestine-Israel conflict, as indeed it did, to the dismay of many, this very week).

But of course there are distinct penalties for choosing the predictable and simple-minded path: Canada will continue to lose whatever standing in the world it once had. Don't get me wrong. This is no paean of praise for the long-lost days of brilliant Liberal foreign policy. Yes, there were some good moments. But many of those tales are highly overblown and deeply romanticized. Unaccountably, Canada was often flattered by seeming to be punching way above its weight when it was doing nothing of the kind.

Still, everybody but everybody agrees that these past several years have been the dog days for Canada's international standing. Not every country gets humiliated by Jon Stewart for having bone-headed policies. We're talking about nothing less than restoring Canada's place in the world, Canada as respected honest broker, about Canada standing up for peace and diplomacy over war, for tough peacemaking when needed, for social justice, women's rights, the environment. But no one yet has a clue if you're serious about doing any of this.

I hope you won't feel it's being cheeky if I occasionally drop you further notes sharing some views on specific issues you'll be confronting. I'm thinking Israel and Palestine is a priority for both of us, and I also have mind-boggling material on the vast sums of money that are siphoned out of poor countries, especially Africa, to us rich countries. Did you know that Africa generously contributes foreign aid to us?

I wish you -- no, I'm not kidding, I truly do -- the very best of luck.

This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

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