The enigmatic chores of a man named Smith
As newly elected first secretary-general of the Commonwealth, former Canadian diplomat Arnold Smith is working for an organization nobody can quite explain, doing a job nobody completely understands—and some critics fear do
WHEN THE COMMONWEALTH prime ministers sit together around a table the atmosphere is at times charged with antagonism, even outrage. Yet once the dust has settled around these family-council meetings, they are generally found to have agreed on something, even if it is only on what not to say in public.
What makes the recent gathering of twentyone prime ministers in London so remarkable is that when hostilities ceased they were revealed to have collective vision. Not only did they confirm the need for a Commonwealth housekeeper, but they hired one with surprising alacrity, and with an astonishing display of unanimity.
He is Arnold Smith, a fifty-year-old Ontarioborn External Affairs official who is considered one of the most experienced and dedicated diplomatists in Canada. As the new secretarygeneral of the Commonwealth, he leaves Ottawa later this month for London to establish a secretariat at Marlborough House.
Some of his colleagues in Ottawa say he is much too good for the job, which naturally raises the question — what is the job?
The title is awesome. It resounds with the deep, portentous boom of grave responsibilities. It conjures up memories of such great secretaries-general as Trygve Lie, Paul-Henri Spaak, and Dag Hammarskjöld, men who spoke with calm detachment from lofty peaks of authority on sombre issues of war and peace. Theirs were the voices of the United Nations and the Atlantic Alliance.
Is Arnold Smith, a former Canadian ambassador in Cairo and Moscow, to take his place among these giants?
No one knows. Not even the twenty-one wise men of the Commonwealth family council. They’ve avoided giving him too much authority, but at the same time have given him enough rope to either trip himself up or enable him to climb high in international esteem.
Smith, a genial six-footer and Rhodes scholar fluent in Russian, French and English, has had reservations about the wisdom of leaving a secure career in Ottawa for so nebulous an assignment in London. “It seemed too weird and potentially empty a job,” he said during our talk at his Ottawa home. “The objectives were not clear-cut. There were too many things the secretary-general should not do, and too few that he could do.”
When I asked what had made him decide to
accept so ambiguous a job he replied, “The brotherhood of man is ambiguous, but, by God, we need it.”
Smith isn’t about to create a Commonwealth brotherhood overnight. Indeed much of what he may do will simply serve to dramatize the lack of it. His main purpose will be to promote greater understanding and co-operation among twenty-one nations of divergent character and codes.
The weirdness of the job lies in the nature of the Commonwealth itself. In it are monarchies and republics, socialist states and conservative states, white countries and black countries, big elderly nations and young small nations. They have little in common but a language and historic connections with the British Crown. They have no common economic or regional interests, no shared political ideals, not even a basic foreign policy to which each could subscribe at least in part.
What they do have, as many large families are inclined to have, are open squabbles, minor conflicts, and lingering animosities which are generally brought to head more quickly, and with more friendly give-and-take, than are the issues between strangers outside the family.
They even differ sharply on the secretarygeneral’s role. A powerful minority group led by Prime Minister “Pig Iron Bob” Menzies of Australia, a group that includes New Zealand and the British Commonwealth Relations Office, sees him as a passive motionless mailbox through which members will communicate, exchange information, and arrange meetings. It
would have preferred almost any faithful faceless civil servant to the energetic Smith who, it fears, may be so inconsiderate as to try to renovate the Commonwealth house too quickly, too well.
The other group, led by the African states, sees him as an active initiator, a creative innovator, who will help individual members attain their national aspirations.
Menzies is likely to lose out, as he has done since the job was created, and the prime ministers were asked to submit candidates. As the conservative conscience of the old white Commonwealth, he couldn’t bring himself to support the four front-runners — Smith, two Australians, and a New Zealander.
Though more of a Pearson liberal than a Pearson protégé (it was Diefenbaker who appointed him to Cairo and Moscow as ambassador), Smith would represent in Menzies’ eyes those international forces that blocked Britain’s action in Egypt during the Suez crisis, an action to which the doughty Australian elder statesman had given wholehearted support.
The prime ministers voted by writing first and second choices on blank slips of paper. Smith won by eighteen votes to three on the first ballot, and the conference agreed to make it unanimous.
There’s more to Smith’s popularity with the newly independent members of the Commonwealth than ability. He is quite obviously colorblind. At the June conference he mixed so easily among colored delegates that the Manchester Guardian
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He must do a job —without appearing to gain powers doing it
A MAN NAMED SMITH
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said: “He just doesn’t give a damn it the man beside him has a skin that is brown, black or white. He probably doesn’t even notice.”
Among the most notable of Smith’s personal friends in the Commonwealth are G. S. "Glannie” Petris, directorgeneral in Ceylon's foreign ministry; and prime ministers Eric Williams of Trinidad, and Abubakar of Nigeria. Smith was also co-author with Prime Minister Lester Pearson of the twentyline Commonwealth declaration on racial equality which the Afro-Asians insisted should be included in the communiqué issued after the 1964 conference. The Manchester Guardian suggested after the recent conference that Smith should be asked, as his first task, “to dig this out and get it printed as an article of faith, not just for him but for all 730 million of us.”
In spite of the unanimity of the vote that elected him, Smith realizes the experimental nature of his job, and knows that there arc some Commonwealth leaders who will be suspicious of everything he does. They will pounce swiftly if he shows signs of acquiring powers and functions beyond those permitted under the terms of reference.
These are few. He cannot speak for the Commonwealth as a whole because it doesn’t exist as a whole. It is a club rather than a power bloc, an association rather than an alliance.
He cannot initiate action that might be interpreted as a violation of somebody’s sovereign rights. Nor can he arbitrate in disputes between members: it is highly unlikely that he will have much to say about white obstinacy in southern Africa or about Kashmir when he visits Rhodesia, India and Pakistan.
He may advise only when consulted by heads of governments, to whom he has access, but he cannot make recommendations unless they refer solely to the country that asks for them or to the Commonwealth generally.
These restrictions give the job its empty look because what he can do appears innocuous by comparison. If the terms of reference were strictly enforced, he would be confined to
disseminating inoffensive information, and providing the servicing facilities for all Commonwealth conferences.
There’s a subtle twist in this formula which hints at the sort of exquisite diplomacy which rarely works beyond the fringes of the Commonwealth.
Having been fenced in neatly by his terms of reference to the satisfaction of everybody, Smith is free to move the fences outward inch by inch, year by year, for as far as he dare without arousing political sensibilities. By this means he can make room for his secretariat to grow in size and stature as he acquires a tenuous hold on more functions.
“It may sound pretty vague right now,” said Smith, “but I think we can make the secretariat function in a meaningful way so that its activities can expand gradually, pragmatically.”
If the prime ministers really intended the job to be as empty as it appears now they would not have given it to an Arnold Smith. And if Smith, whose qualities of sunny selfassurance and restless pursuit of new ideas are well-known internationally, really believed he was to be as still and silent as a mailbox, he would not have accepted the job.
“My first step will be to encourage consultation at all levels inside the Commonwealth,” he said. “I would like to see the scope of intra-Commonwealth dialogue broadened. This will serve to take the pressure off the prime ministers, who will meet less often to talk longer on fewer subjects. We’ll look after the details while they deal with the major problems.
Another area open for creative exploitation by the secretary-general is the moral influence that a functioning multiracial club like the Commonwealth can exert to reduce tensions caused by racial animosities, and by the disparity in wealth between old and new countries. He expressed an interest in this problem earlier this year when, speaking to the Canadian Universities Society of Great Britain, he said. “The division of humanity between the white and other races, which coincides too closely for comfort with the division between the affluent industrialized peoples and the poor underdeveloped peoples, is. I think, the most potentially dangerous
problem in the world.”
Smith should have taken a month’s holiday during July while between jobs, but instead he was functioning as secretary-general from the moment he returned to Ottawa from the London conference.
Within forty-eight hours he had fired off cables to the Commonwealth heads of government, requesting approval for his choice of deputies from Africa and Asia; had rented his Ottawa home for the five years he will be working in London; had decided to select a Briton as head of the secretariat’s political division; had borrowed a Whitehall administrator to have his headquarters in London ready to function the day he arrives; and had drawn up a tentative itinerary for his first official tour of Commonwealth countries.
It is still too early to say precisely how much the secretariat will cost, but if Smith’s salary of twenty-five thousand dollars a year is any guide, no one is going to get rich by joining it. And in all, Smith doesn’t expect to hire more than fifteen senior officers.
“We’ll probably get along on about half a million dollars a year for a while,” he told me. “This will have to cover salaries, equipment, rentals, secretarial staff, office maintenance, and general secretariat expenses. There won’t be room for Parkinson’s
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Law to make itself felt too quickly.”
Total costs arc allocated among Commonwealth members on a pro rata basis. Britain puts up 30 percent, Canada 20.8 percent. India 11.4 percent, Australia 10.4 percent, New Zealand 2.5 percent, Pakistan 2.4 percent, and the other fifteen countries 1.5 percent each. Canada’s share amounts to roughly a hundred thousand dollars a year.
Smith will submit annual reports to the twenty-one heads of government he serves, who will either approve what actions he has taken, or send him back behind the fences of his terms of reference.
“I can’t imagine anybody restricting Arnold to any great extent once he's convinced that something needs doing,” said one of his senior colleagues at External Affairs. “He’s been carrying on a crusade here for years to improve the department’s communications. His attitude was that havin': Canadian ambassadors report to Ottawa by mail when other forei"n services were using telephones, telegraphs, teleprinters and radio was so much o'd-fashioned nonsense.
“His method of protest was to jam the wires with telegrams. I remember a telegram he sent from Cairo. The third on 'íe began with the words. 'In conclusion . . . Then it went on for another four pages.
“He was right, and largely due to his efforts we now have as good a communications system as they come.”
Communications have loomed large in Smith’s horizon throughout his career. Born in Toronto in 1915 he went to Upper Canada College, the Lycée Champoléon in Grenoble. France, and then to the University of Toronto where he earned his Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He would have returned to Toronto in 1938 but for the growing threat of war in Europe. Instead, he answered an ad in a London newspaper and became assistant editor of the Baltic Times, a bimonthly published in Tallinn, capital of Estonia.
“The paper was being used by a group of Estonian businessmen to warn the Baltic states that they should unite against possible German or Russian aggression," Smith told me. “I had no real experience, but as I had just married my wife, Evelyn, who comes from Alberta, and 1 needed a job, we agreed that it might be exciting and worthwhile."
It was during this period in Estonia that they both became fluent in Russian, no mean accomplishment considering that Smith was moonlighting outrageously. He took over as editor of the paper, was a parttime press attaché for the British embassy, local representative for the British Council, a four-times-a-week lecturer at the University of Tartu.
After the Russians occupied Estonia in late 1940. months passed before the Smiths were allowed to leave Tallinn. Then they were given enough food to last eight days and sent by train to Odessa on the Black Sea. via Leningrad and Moscow.
“The food was quite enough really.” said Smith, “except that we ran out of caviar on the last day. which was a bore because we could buy champagne at any wayside station."
From Odessa they sailed to Turkey
and made their way south to Cairo, where Smith was immediately recruited into a special political-warfare section established in the British embassy. When he wasn’t writing inflammatory leaflets inciting the occupied Mediterranean countries to revolt against the Germans, he was lecturing in political science at the University of Fuad (now the Egyptian State University ).
Two years later he transferred to the Canadian foreign service, and returned to the USSR as a member of the diplomatic mission in Kuybyshev, seat of Stalin's government during the German siege of Moscow.
His first major posting came in 1958 when he returned to Cairo as Canadian ambassador, and discovered that he was expected to heal the wounds in Anglo-Egyptian relations caused by the Suez incident. His patient efforts to bring about a reconciliation were constantly sabotaged by trivial incidents in either Cairo or London. Nasser saw British intelligence agents under every pebble in the desert: London persisted in regarding Nasser as a despotic tyrant, utterly failing to recognize that he was the symbol of legitimate Arab nationalism. It took Smith eighteen months to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Between 1961-63 Smith was Canadian ambassador in Moscow, and it was during this period that he developed a taste for Russian paintings. He has put together a modest collection of abstract art. some of it dating
back to the early days of the Bolshevik revolution.
“You must remember,” he told me, “that any painting in Russia that isn’t picture-postcard stuff is called abstract™. This means it is decadent, frowned upon officially, and must be looked for underground. I once told Kosygin, then a first deputy premier, that he should encourage abstract painting because by comparison with Western art it was very good. He replied that if he could sell all the abstractni in the Soviet Union to foreigners, he would rid himself of a difficult ideological problem, and cover the national defense budget at the same time.”
Governments rarely listen to the cries of a Cassandra, and the ambassador who uses even the coldest logic, the hardest of information, to fill his dispatches with dark foreboding is risking his career. Smith accepted this risk in September 1962, when, during a temporary absence of the British and American ambassadors from Moscow, he was secretly informed that Khrushchov planned a showdown with the United States over Berlin.
“I can't say how I received this information, but it was reliable as we discovered later,” Smith explained. “The showdown was timed for November, just two months away. Khrushchov intended to sign a peace treaty with East Germany, and seal off Berlin by throwing tanks across the road and rail links with the West, and by ordering the Soviet air force
to shoot down any allied aircraft that tried to get through the air corridor.”
Khrushchov’s purpose, apparently, was to demonstrate once and for all to the Communist world, and to Red China in particular, that the United States was frightened of the Soviet Union, that President Kennedy’s tough line on Communism was so much bluff. He knew that he would be
forcing Kennedy into a position of
having to retreat or fight a global
nuclear war. There was no in-between course, nothing that could prevent war if President Kennedy declined to have the United States accept such humiliating terms. If he should accept them, Khrushchov planned to save Kennedy's face by going to the UN and offering to sign a general testban treaty.
“In my view,” said Smith, “the world has never been so close to
nuclear war as it was in those few weeks that followed my detailed warning to the West in mid-September of what Khrushchov planned.”
Curiously, Smith’s warning was greeted with considerable skepticism in the Western capitals until early October when two events galvanized Washington into action. The new U. S. ambassador checked out the information with Smith when he returned to Moscow, and informed the U. S. State Department of its reliability, just as the first U-2 photographs of the Soviet missile build-up in Cuba reached the president’s desk.
The link between the Soviet intentions laid out by Smith, and the threat posed by the missiles in Cuba, was too obvious to be ignored.
“I think President Kennedy reacted brilliantly,” said Smith. “By forcing an immediate showdown on Cuba in late October, he placed Khrushchov in precisely the position that he himself would have been in a month later. It was up to Khrushchov to retreat or start a global nuclear war.
“The week of the Cuban crisis was unbelievably tense for us in Moscow. The Soviet Union and the United States had been building up to a critical test of strength for years, and there’s no saying what might have happened had the U. S. not been able to beat the Russians to the draw.”
Smith has been assistant under-secretary of state at External Affairs in Ottawa since his return from Moscow two years ago. He works at a pace that some of his more decorous colleagues find almost indecent: he is impatient of obsolescent administrative practices, and reacts with lively interest to the stimulus of original thinking. He has a reputation for being rough with those who can’t keep up with him. and a number of Ottawa officials are nursing bruises where they have been hit by the careless swing of his shoulders.
There is an appealing flair and style about Smith that makes the gamble he is taking appear as typical of the man. He is fundamentally a realist, yet there is that dash of idealism in his nature which would relish the challenge and ultimate potential of the job.
The future of the Commonwealth secretariat will depend upon Arnold Smith because he is, and will be for the next five years at least, the secretariat. ★