Bob Rae on how to tell someone to go to hell (diplomatically)
A Q&A with Canada’s new ambassador to the UN
Becoming Canada’s ambassador to the UN meant relocating to New York in the middle of a pandemic. Be honest: did you consider giving the Prime Minister the old thanks but no thanks?
No, I didn’t. After all, we have Covid in Toronto, too. For me, the role is an enormous opportunity to engage with the global community during a time of crisis. Human rights, conflict resolution, peacekeeping, peace-building, climate change and reform of the UN itself—these are all things that have been of interest to me since I was a teenager.
You’ve held a lot of roles over the last few decades. Is there one that prepared you most for the current gig?
In many ways, the UN General Assembly is the biggest parliament in the world, so my work as a parliamentarian was instructive. I’ve worked as a lawyer on a lot of complex negotiation including Indigenous and international issues. And I was the foreign affairs critic for my party. I think a lot of what I’ve done has built up to this moment. Whether it’s the culmination or not, I don’t know. So far I feel fine.
Your appointment came after Canada lost its bid for a Security Council seat. What went wrong?
They always say victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. The truth is we entered the race at a time when a number of countries that normally would have supported us had already committed to other countries.
You’ve been in the role for a few months. Is there an achievement that sticks out?
In October, I addressed Security Council representatives from China and Syria who said that Canada has no right to comment on human rights abuses in other countries because of our history with Indigenous people. I made the point that Canada has established a system of accountability, and asked where are the commissions on truth and reconciliation in Syria? In China? It was a moment.
I saw that. Someone on Twitter commented that you seem like a guy who knows how to tell it like it is without ruffling feathers.
I’ve always liked the saying that a good diplomat is someone who tells you to go to hell in such a way that you think you might enjoy the trip.
Can you give us a sense of how you spend your days at the moment?
Well, let me look at my calendar. Today started at 8 a.m. with a meeting on disarmament, followed by a staff meeting, then a Zoom-based celebration of the International Day of the Girl, then a meeting with the director general on multilateral issues at Global Affairs Canada, then a Zoom reception for the 50th anniversary of Fiji, then two more online meetings.
Sounds very busy.
Yes, though there are fewer in-person receptions than there were before the pandemic, which means I have more private time.
It must be strange adjusting to a new city at this particular moment.
It’s very nice here. My wife, Arlene, and I have been seeing old friends, making new ones and getting to know the city. We play tourist on weekends. We visited the Statue of Liberty recently.
Where are you living?
In an apartment that is owned by the government of Canada.
By the time this piece comes out, the U.S. election will have been decided. Can you tell me how the result affects your role?
During the first presidential debate, you tweeted a photo of an empty bottle of Smoking Loon wine. Is it fair to say you found the debate frustrating?
I’ll let the photo speak for itself.
I feel like this is what it’s like to have a diplomat tell you to go to hell.
Yes, it is. Yes.
The debate was an example of the lack of civility in politics today. You’ve never shied away from a heated exchange—but is there a line?
Yes, and it’s being crossed all the time. I wrote about this in my book, What’s Happened to Politics? Civil discourse was rapidly disappearing, and this was 2013, before the Twittersphere took over. I was always vigorous as a parliamentarian, but I also maintained friendships with people in other parties. Then again, that’s probably easier to do when you’ve been a member of two.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.