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Was Pearson’s Success an Accident?

Spring 2009 Query

Was Pearson’s Success an Accident?


Did Canada’s greatest ever deal-maker buck an otherwise pedestrian national record of diplomacy?

When Lester Pearson walked into the General Assembly on November 1, 1956, France and Britain were involved in a shooting war in the Middle East that Canada condemned. So did the US and the Soviet Union. Everyone wanted a way out. All day, diplomats had been rushing up to John Holmes, a junior member of the Canadian delegation, asking him: “What’s he got? We hear Mike’s got a proposal? It’s high time. Can he do it?”

Mike, as he had been known since he was a pilot-in-training in the Great War, did have a proposal. Later that evening, after the Assembly had passed a resolution calling for a full ceasefire, he would suggest an emergency international force to supervise it. It would become the basis of another resolution, two days later, which would introduce peacekeeping. Pearson would do it.

Suez was his finest hour. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his creative diplomacy the next year, the citation said that he ‘had saved the world.’ It conferred a saintliness upon Pearson; he would forever be known as the saffron-robed prince of peace, uttering mystical incantations on a mountaintop. It would also confer a new vocation upon Canada. Always a misnomer for a country which had fought three major wars in the twentieth century and was a founder of NATO, peacekeeping has become a part of Canadian mythology and iconography.

Was all this an accident? Was Pearson’s success at Suez, and more broadly, his diplomacy of the post-war period, a product of good fortune and happenstance?

In a word, no. If Pearson seemed an overnight success at Suez, he was a sensation decades in the making. Put simply, there was nothing accidental about Pearson at Suez, nothing accidental about the luminous foreign service which he had gathered around him, and nothing accidental about Canada’s international stature in those heady days in the middle decades of the last century, which became known as ‘the golden age of Canadian diplomacy.’

By 1956 – and long before – Mike Pearson was the best known Canadian in the world. For twenty-eight years (eight as foreign minister), he had been everywhere and done everything. He was the West’s choice to become Secretary-General of the UN in 1946 and 1953 (vetoed twice by the Soviets). He was elected president of the General Assembly in 1952. He was one of the four-member committee that proposed the State of the Israel, and one of the ‘three wise men’ asked to review the principles of NATO, the creation of which, in 1949, he called his greatest achievement. He was the first foreign minister to visit Nikita Khrushchev in 1955. By Suez, he had spent more than a quarter century attending international colloquies, and he knew all their players, most by their first name.

But this was not just one man’s experience. After the war, when it was hard to find money for foreign or defence policy, Canada decided to expand its foreign service – which Senator John Kennedy would later call “perhaps the finest in the world.” In many ways, it was. Pearson was its apotheosis, but it was filled with a corps of brilliant, shrewd generalists.

By the mid-1950s, Canada had made a commitment to foreign aid (the Colombo Plan) and to a muscular peacetime army, as well as to activist diplomacy. It had gone into the world with envoys, arms and alms. They were the hard currency of credibility.

So, no, Pearson and the role Canada played at Suez were no accident. Canada had positioned itself to succeed, and when the moment came, it seized it.

Today? A different story. The world is bigger and Canada is, of course, relatively smaller than it was after the war. But Canada has also chosen to do less. For years, despite the occasional diplomatic inspiration, it has allowed the arms of its internationalism to atrophy.

No one expects ideas, arms or aid from Canada anymore (though it has maintained a significant presence in Afghanistan). By and large, the world does not ask much of it anymore and, in turn, Canada does not ask much of itself. Were Canada to achieve some great diplomatic coup today, it would be an aberration. Or, an accident.


Andrew Cohen is a syndicated newspaper columnist, professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, and the author of five books, including Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press)

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