What Harper's U.N. no-show for the head-of-state speeches says about Canada.
Compare and contrast. Stephen Harper was AWOL during speeches by fellow heads of state at the opening session last week of the 64th U.N. General Assembly. But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor facing a tough re-election vote at home in less than a week's time, was present and accounted for. Indeed, the leader of the world's third-largest economy gave one of the more compelling speeches on climate change - the pressing topic of the gathering - while our head of government was purposefully not even present.
So Canada had nothing to say to the world about climate change that morning, alone among this remarkable gathering of 32 global leaders. That number included Chinese President Hu Jintao, worth listening to because:
(a) China handled the world financial crisis with greater alacrity than any nation, with the earliest and one of the most massive stimulus packages
(b) Hu broke, finally, with China's longstanding resistance to action on climate change, making a series of progressive commitments on curbing global warming in front of a world audience.
(c) The leader of the world's biggest nation doesn't get out much. This was a rare opportunity to listen in person to the leader of a nation whose economy will equal in size that of the U.S. by mid-century. And is racing to become a leader in solar, wind and other alternative technologies while still trapped in a 19th-century coal economy, as the U.S. is.
(d) By traveling to the U.N. confab on the East River, Hu was taking an important symbolic step in bringing a traditionally insular China more forcefully into the community of nations.
Instead of contributing to that exchange of ideas about how to save our species, or even sit there and listen to the progressive ideas put forward by Hu, Merkel, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama and so on, our nominal PM was meeting with Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor, to complain about the "Buy America" provisions of the U.S. federal stimulus package. The Gotham mayor has zero authority over U.S. trade policy, except as it applies to stimulus-related procurement practices of the five boroughs. (Even then, the borough presidents each have more authority than Hizzoner.)
Our PM acted in the narrow self-interest, as he perceives it, of Canada. His peers uptown were helping shape the future of a planet in trouble. For all the world to see, Canada, which used to "punch above its weight" diplomatically, chose not to be a leader. The head of state of the Maldives was there, but we weren't. A bad day for Canada diplomatically, and it will be long remembered.
The misguided walkout on Ahmadinejad.
The representatives of Canada and some other nations walked out of the General Assembly chamber when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to speak. Even if he wasn't a Holocaust denier, there would be much to detest about Ahmadinejad.
But a mass walkout wasn't the no-brainer it appears to be. Yes, the recent Iranian election was disputed by tens of thousands of protesters, many of whom were jailed, many severely injured by riot police. But admittedly not for better, Ahmadinejad is the public face of Iran, its representative on the world stage, because the supreme council of mullahs for which Ahmadinejad is a mere frontman has decided it shall be so. As such he speaks for that council, and we need to know what it's thinking. Ahmadinejad also speaks for the most important nation in the Middle East, in that its nuclear ambitions could trigger a Mideast nuclear-arms race.
Those tens of thousands of Iranians who protested the outcome of the recent election, knowing they were risking their lives in doing so, are representative of millions of Iranians who oppose the Iranian status quo. For them, and for moderate Iranians of unsettled regard for the status quo, the surest way of driving them into the extremist camp of the mullahs and Ahmadinejad is to insult their country. Whatever faults they recognize, and protest against, in their country, their pride as Iranians eclipses those greivances when their nation is insulted - no matter how richly Iran deserves to be insulted and isolated in the minds of many outsiders.
A more judicious way of handling this admittedly difficult diplomatic challenge, I think, would have been for Canada's seat in the General Assembly not to be vacant during Ahmadinejad's rant against Israel and capitalism, but instead to be occupied by the second-in-command of Canada's U.N. mission. We would do this to show our respect for the roughly 70 million people of Iran. More practically, we would observe the body language of Ahmadinejad, a theatrical attention-seeker playing to his base, to assess just how seriously we are to take various of his comments. To assess when he is speaking for the theocratic regime for which he is a stooge, and those moments when his comments accurately represent the populist sentiment of Iranians. And we would do it in order to occupy the high ground. In condemning a vile, racist rant, one is more credible in having witnessed it than merely having read a transcript.
It was protest enough for Canada's head of state and our U.N. ambassador to boycott the Iranian leader. It was protest enough to later join other nations in condemning the hateful things Ahmadinejad had to say. But we should have been represented in the Assembly chamber to endure what the man's address. What those leaders who walked out on Ahmadinejad, including ourselves, fail to grasp is that in Tehran and Shiraz and Esfahan, the walkout was regarded as Western intolerance for Iran, not its current president.
(Photo of Mahmoud Ahmadineejad addressing the 64th session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 23 by Richard Drew, AP.)