Is Canada on the Path to a More Productive and Engaged Role in the World?
An Interview with Canadian Ambassador to the UN Bob Rae
The invasion of Ukraine has had a massive impact on rule of law, the global economy, and the United Nations as an institution. The world of international law has been upended, and it has been frustrating for much of the world to witness the aggressor, a permanent member of the UN, use its ability to provide any commentary on the veto at the UN Security Council, according to Ambassador Rae. There is no question that we underestimated Putin and the nature of the power he was accruing for himself. Though the international community should have been prepared to do more after the invasion of Crimea, it would be a mistake to blame anyone other than the aggressor, Ambassador Rae says. Putin’s strategy in war has not changed over time – his goal is to destroy Ukraine by undermining the Ukrainian economy, obliterate its infrastructure, and attack its language and culture.
The war in Ukraine and its associated challenges has underscored the importance of alliances and consensus among allies regarding countries like Russia and China—which has no doubt been observing the war and the Western response over the past several months. As a middle power, Canada’s defence and diplomatic capacity is going to have to become more robust. Ambassador Rae believes that having soft power requires hard power as well. As a nation of over 40 million people, with global reach, and a neighbour of the United States, our allies and partners expect us to play a role in the world. Rae emphasizes the importance of ensuring Canada’s budgets match its ambitions and rhetoric, and further stresses the need for our political leadership to fully understand the many challenges we face.
“Our region is global, and our reach is global. I think the recent conflict in Europe has demonstrated that people expect Canada to play a role in the world and they don’t want us to go away. They want us to be constructive partners. That includes all the elements— political, legal, justice, accountability, human rights—you name it.”
The following is an edited transcript of an interview the CDA Institute conducted with Ambassador.
What impact has the invasion of Ukraine had on the rules-based international order—especially considering the events preceding it, such as the pandemic and the increasing impacts of global climate change? How is the UN grappling with these successive crises? What challenges have they posed?
The impact has been huge—on values, the rule of law, and the effect on the United Nations as an institution. Certainly, as important, are the global economic consequences of the conflict, which will have more of a tsunami effect than a ripple effect. I think we are underestimating the seriousness of the current crisis on food prices and food security, which is simply enormous.
Aggression is a cardinal sin in the world of international law. It’s clearly enshrined in the charter and in every principle of international law: states don’t attack other states. If they do, it’s effectively a declaration of war, although increasingly, states don’t call it that, they’ll call it something else. President Putin has notoriously described his invasion as a special military operation, but it’s not, it’s an act of aggression. You have all the consequent abuses—abuse against civilians, abuse against international humanitarian law, the question of the statute of Rome, and all of the crimes against humanity. These crimes are being investigated, as is the issue of genocide, which Ukraine is taking to the International Court of Justice.
The world of international law has been totally upended by this, but equally important to that, is the issue of well, what do we do about it? I think it has been frustrating for much of the world to witness the aggressor, who is also a permanent member of the UN, use its ability to provide any commentary on this veto at the UN Security Council. In some ways, it has revealed the Security Council’s weaknesses, as well as the staleness of its debates. Frankly, this has forced the General Assembly and the Secretary General to do more. The reality is, we must do everything without the Security Council. That is becoming increasingly clear to all of us.
I think, in time, people will understand just how dramatic the economic impacts of the war, COVID, and climate change disruptions will be. Of all the ongoing conflicts, this one has had the most impact on our global economic and financial systems.
How did we get to this point collectively, where Putin presumably felt empowered enough to invade Ukraine? Could we have been tougher on Putin earlier on?
I think there is no question that we underestimated Putin—not just underestimated but misunderstood the nature of the power that he was accruing for himself. We failed to interpret the full meaning of his personal ideology and intentions when he came into power. I do not think people were paying attention to what he was saying. He is a former KGB agent and was a militant in the Russian Communist Party. He did not believe in what Gorbachev was doing. He did not support what Yeltsin did. He did not support the breakup of the Russian Empire. He was opposed to all of it. He thought it was a terrible thing. It is clear that when he came into power, his determination was to change things, to change Russia’s position in the world and to say, “we can’t go on like this”.
He has accrued an incredible amount of personal power, essentially making himself president for life, as President Xi has done in China. We need to understand the meaning of this kind of autocracy, what it does, what it does to the world order, and what it does to the people of Russia and China. There has been a lot of wishful thinking. Georgia, the Chechens—I mean, he obliterated the opposition, he murdered thousands of people as part of his consolidation of power. He is a brutal dictator. I do not say these things rhetorically—we need to understand the nature of what we are up against.
Having said that, I think it would be a mistake to blame ourselves—blame the aggressor. He is responsible for this. I mean, if we had acted earlier, I do not think we would have had the kind of support in NATO or elsewhere, to do more than what was done. What was done in response to Crimea is what the international community was prepared to do. Should the whole community have been prepared to do more? Obviously. But they did not. And they were not. What has happened in Ukraine has finally galvanized most of NATO, and most of the western countries, to understand what the nature of the threat is, as well as understand how Putin is manifesting his power. But frankly, when you read what people say on a daily basis, sometimes you wonder whether enough people fully understand the nature of what’s taking place. I think there is still some wishful thinking. Henry Kissinger’s recent comments, and the comments of others—it is just wishful thinking. To basically say, “maybe if we treated this dictator kindlier, he might have responded differently.” I do not agree with that approach. I am very much opposed to it.
Will the consequences of the war force Putin to change his calculations at some point? What kind of strategic situation will Putin be facing if he is still in power after the war ends?
I don’t think that Putin’s strategy has changed that much. I think his tactics have changed. I think he faced an incredibly resilient Ukrainian army and an incredibly effective response to his ineffective attack, particularly in the North, and even in some of the disputes in the South and East. I do not think his overall strategy has changed though. His goal is to destroy Ukraine, to undermine the Ukrainian economy in every way that he can, to obliterate its infrastructure, attack its language, and its culture. Putin wants to steal a lot of territory as well. He wants to make permanent, his conquest of Crimea, and he wants to ensure that there is a land link between Crimea, across to the east, and to the north. I do not think he has limited geographic ambitions, nor do I think he feels he has achieved them.
But then what’s left of Ukraine? If Putin gets his way, Ukraine will no longer have access to the sea, which is critical for their economy. Ultimately, he wants to obliterate their government and usher in a weakened vassal state, that he will then be able to control—sort of like Vichy France. That’s clearly what he’s intending. He wants control over the school curriculum, the position of the Russian language everywhere in Ukraine, and he wants to deny the integrity of Ukraine as a nation, as a state, as a culture, and as a people. In my book, that’s genocide. We can’t afford any weakness in how we respond to that, that is just not possible.
What happens to him if he doesn’t achieve this, or if there are more military setbacks because of tactical failures on his part? It could well be very disruptive in Russia. Of course, strategically, we have to be thinking about that. But I think it’s also important to be aware of what those possibilities might be. We also must accept the fact that, in many instances, what replaces a dictator is often no better than the dictator, and sometimes even worse, in terms of what could emerge. We also need to understand that a great many members of the Russian middle class and intellectuals have left the country. Many people have fled Russia and have no intention of going back until there’s dramatic change. They find the place unlivable. Russia has lost a huge amount of talent.
As a middle power, how can Canada optimize its support of Ukraine? What strengths can we leverage efficiently to aid Ukraine, especially given some of our other commitments?
There may have been a time when we felt that we could coast along under the umbrella of NATO or NORAD without doing very much. The Americans would cover for us and that was okay. I don’t think that’s in the cards in any way anymore. I don’t think the Americans will put up with that. I don’t believe our allies in Europe will put up with it. The emerging reality is that our defense capacity is going to have to become more robust. I think our diplomatic capacity has to be more robust. I think our development capacity has to be more robust.
I believe that if you want soft power, you need hard power. You need to show that you’re willing to contribute to the global effort. Frankly, at our best, we’ve always done that. I don’t believe we can do less now. It’s important for us to understand these things all go together. If we don’t step up in a substantive way, we can talk about our convening power as much as we want, but in order to be effective, we need to say: “this is what we’re bringing to the table. This is this is what we’re prepared to do”. There are lots of countries out there that think they have convening power, but they don’t convene anything, because they don’t bring anything to the table. You have to have something substantive to bring that will make a difference. That requires continuing on the path that I think we’re now on. I think we are on the path to a more productive and engaged role on several fronts.
The fact is that we have a country of roughly 40 million people. We’re geographically huge. We’re Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic, and the United States is our neighbor. Our region is global, and our reach is global. I think the recent conflict in Europe has demonstrated that people expect Canada to play a role in the world and they don’t want us to go away. They want us to be constructive partners. That includes all the elements— political, legal, justice, accountability, human rights—you name it. This puts pressure on us to do more. But, frankly, our budget doesn’t match up to that right now. We need to have the budgets that match our ambition and our rhetoric. We need to be aware of the realities and challenges we are facing.
What is the UN currently doing to try and restore Ukrainian grain exports as the global food crisis worsens? Russia has been accused of weaponizing food and hunger, what do you make of this assessment?
Russia is weaponizing food. There’s no question about it. Clearly, they are. They’ve indicated that they will only fully cooperate with clearing the port in Odessa if the sanctions are removed. The Secretary General has referred to it in a couple of his speeches, as well as in the conversations that he had with minister Joly and other foreign ministers. He is trying to broker, together with Turkey, the United States, the Russians, and the Ukrainians, an approach that would get the grain out of Ukraine and allow for, not only grains, but fertilizers to move out of these ports. The Russians are talking about releasing some out of the ports that they control. We will have to wait and see what happens, but discussions are underway.
A deal is still possible if common sense prevails because there really is no excuse for starving millions in the world and depriving them of access to food and food security. That will add to the list of crimes, which the Russians are committing, and I think they’re going to get a lot of pressure from developing countries and others. It’s got nothing to do with the war. You can either win or lose the conflict without inflicting this kind of damage on everybody else.
China is no doubt observing events unfold in Ukraine and the Western response. What do you think Beijing has learned or taken away from the past 3 or 4 months?
China is a complicated country. It has global ambitions and likes to see itself as a leader of the developing world. They have global reach and a massive economy. They are an autocracy, and they believe profoundly in their system. I think that they will continue to be very careful and cautious, but I have no doubt that their interests are unfortunately aligned with the other autocrats. However, beyond that interest, self-interest always prevails. I think that the Chinese economy is not doing well. They are going to be preoccupied with the impact of these last few years. There’s lots of internal tensions and challenges within China that have been glossed over by a growth rate of 8-10% over the last several years. But just as a booming economy covers a lot of cracks, a troubled economy reveals a lot of divisions, fissures, and problems. I think we’re seeing that internally. That could have a number of different effects. It could drive President Xi to look for a war, or a conflict, or some expression of greater nationalism. I mean, stranger things have happened. So we have to be aware of that. I think that’s something everybody is aware of.
I also think that China will have observed that the combined will of Europe, the United States, Canada, and the allies is quite strong. I think President Biden made that clear a few weeks ago in China—perhaps a little clearer than some people wanted him to. Personally, I’m not unhappy with what he said. I think that it’s important to be clear. We have had enough ambiguity to last a lifetime. But I think we do need to understand that Taiwan is an important symbol of a real place, with a real government, and a real economy, and a real interest. You can’t allow that to be obliterated, whether they’re technically a member of the United Nations or not. I think we can’t be buffaloed continually by these two countries saying: “We get our way, or we’ll put our finger on the nuclear button”. We have to be prepared to defend what we believe in. We have to understand that all the escalation at the moment is coming from the other side. It’s not coming from us.
The Honourable Bob Rae is the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations in New York. Mr. Rae served as Premier of Ontario from 1990-1995, and interim Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 2011-2013. He was elected to federal and provincial parliaments 11 times between 1978 and 2013. Mr. Rae received his Honours B.A. in Modern History from the University of Toronto, an M.Phil in Politics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, and graduated from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law in 1977. He was named a Queen’s Counsel in 1984.
In October 2017, Mr. Rae was appointed as Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar. In this role, he engaged in diplomatic efforts to address the crisis in the country’s Rakhine State and wrote the report “Tell Them We’re Human” in 2018. In March 2020, he was named by Prime Minister Trudeau to be Canada’s Special Envoy on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues. This led to his report “A Global Pandemic Requires a Global Response”, which was made public shortly before his appointment as Ambassador to the UN.