A three-year diplomatic balancing act

February 15 1988

A three-year diplomatic balancing act

February 15 1988

A three-year diplomatic balancing act


On Oct. 5, 1984, former Ontario New Democratic Party leader Stephen Lewis astonished many Canadians by accepting the post of ambassador to the United Nations from the federal Conservatives. Since then, observers have generally agreed that the appointment was one of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s best. Besides championing issues such as global action on the environment, Lewis, 50, serves as special adviser on Africa to UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. But Lewis has said that he may leave his job as early as this summer. He has begun work on a book about the UN and, with journalist wife Michele Landsberg and daughter Jenny, 17, he plans to return to Toronto where their other two children, Avi, 20, and llana, 22, are studying. Maclean’s Assistant Editor Julia Bennett interviewed Lewis in Toronto:

Maclean’s: Is the United Nations the same organization it was when you accepted your appointment in 198k? Lewis: No, it is not, because of a very unexpected development, and that is a love affair between the Soviet Union and multilateralism. As part of [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev’s glasnost, the Soviet Union in the latter part of 1987 suddenly decided that the UN was a focal point for its international activity. First of all, the Soviets announced that they were going to pay all their peacekeeping arrears, which amounted to something in the neighborhood of $200 million to $300 million. Then they announced that they would pay any arrears owing on the operational budget— which they did. Then, around Afghanistan, they moved heaven and earth to persuade the international community to let them amend the traditional resolution [condemning the Soviet occupation] and said that if we were prepared to accommodate those amendments, they would then vote for a resolution that asked them to remove their troops from Afghanistan. And as if that was not enough, they initiated a major resolution on international peace and security.

Maclean’s: But are the Soviets being sincere with those initiatives?

Lewis: One never knows—if it helps the world, I am inclined to give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt and treat it as a matter of realpolitik. They were walking around the corridors as though they had been liberated. There were smiles on Soviet faces that you never saw before; they were not dour and sour and combative and dismissive. And the West, I think,

was thrown into a bit of a tizzy. Now, in fact, most of the things they initiated the rest of the world did not buy. But everybody encouraged them to keep at it. At precisely the same moment the United States was retreating yet further [from the UN], and the Americans have paid only 50 per cent of their [$420-million] assessment for 1986 and 1987. So, for the moment, the classic Gorbachev initiative seems to have the upper hand. Maclean’s: You have said that if there were fundamental rifts between you and your Conservative employers, you would quit. Can you live with the Mulroney government’s policies?

Lewis: Yes, partly because I am a coward. On certain issues I have chosen not to speak and others have spoken, as is perfectly proper—Conservative members of Parliament, our deputy [Ambassador Paul Laberge], others in the mission. In other words, there are times when a fellow like myself can’t feel comfortable in a whole policy area. And what the job allows is that you do not have to be on the hook on every single item. I made up my mind when I took the job that I wouldn’t be ideologically precious.

Maclean’s: Has your own world view changed after working at the UN?

Lewis: Oh, yes. The week before I got the

job I had written a Maclean's column saying that cozying up to the Americans would kill our foreign policy. I now learn that the world doesn’t look at it that way at all. The world hardly knows. When Canada takes an independent stand on item A that is important to the world generally, that is what we are judged by. So there is room for manoeuvre that is not compromised or undermined by this very close relationship [with the United States]. I would not have believed that in 1984.

Maclean’s: To what degree does American foreign policy influence Canada's UN vote?

Lewis: It is almost negligible. Arms control and disarmament are the most sensitive areas. And that is not a surprise. As we are a NATO colleague, and we are a NORAD colleague, it is natural that those things would influence our behavior. But I can count on the fingers of one hand where an American position would influence us more than another position. Look, the whole verification resolution [asking for accurate methods of counting nuclear weapons as a condition of arms negotiations] is Canada’s. Maclean’s: But why did Canada not support a resolution in favor of expanding the Partial Test Ban nuclear treaty to a Comprehensive Test Ban—a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy since the Pearson years?

Lewis: We didn’t vote against it, we abstained, for two very good reasons. Firstly, in order to convert the Partial Test Ban agreement into a Comprehensive Test Ban agreement, you need the agreement of the nuclear superpowers. And the United States, the United Kingdom and France voted against this resolution, as they always do. Secondly, to open up the treaty is to jeopardize what we already have. That is one case where we differed from the Americans and where it made sense. Now, on the nuclear freeze resolution [called to a vote in 1985,1986 and 1987], I would personally very much have liked us to vote for it. But the [Mulroney] government votes against it. That is one instance where I take a backseat, and when I took the job I knew that these points would come up. But there is not a case to be made in my experience for suggesting that Canada is playing a lackey role to the United States. There are too many places of difference: South Africa, UNESCO, debt, Africa, UN budget reform, all of the Central American issues, human rights. Maclean’s: One of your themes is that Canada and other Western nations have let Africa down in being slow to match their surge in development with aid dollars—how much more generous can Canada afford to be?

Lewis: We can be 40 per cent more generous, which will bring us to the target donation rate, pledged among donor na-

tions in 1969, of seven-tenths of one per cent of our gross national product. There are at this moment precisely four countries that have exceeded the 0.7 per cent target: the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Maclean’s: As an ambassador, and being Jewish yourself do you think Israel should consider a plan to establish a homeland for the Palestine people? Lewis: It doesn’t work that way. Israel should seriously consider participating in an international peace conference, with direct negotiations among all of the key players, under the aegis of the

UN. For my money, the best report on that scene came out of the UN on Jan. 22, and what it says is that, a) the international community has been delinquent, not merely the participants to the conflict, and there must be a settlement, and the vehicle for that settlement is an international peace conference; and b) Israel has to be prepared to see the Geneva convention as a serious matter. It is an occupying power and it should behave consistently. I think both of those recommendations are comfortable with Canadian policy—they are certainly comfortable with me. Maclean’s: What are you most proud of accomplishing at the UN?

Lewis: I genuinely don’t feel it in a personal sense, because I have an astonishing group of colleagues at the mission. But I have felt very good about what we did on Africa; I have felt good about the position we have taken on South Africa—it has meant a lot to developing countries—and in the inter-

national community there is a very, very strong sense of a helpful country on Central America and a country whose policies are distinctly different from the United States. And above all, I have felt good about the encouragement I got to advocate the utility of the UN. To have Canada say to the world, and to the United States, that we believe in this international organization and, by God, we are not going to submit to the detractors—I like that role, and I think that’s an important role for Canada. Maclean’s: What is ahead for you—can you see yourself being involved with a

federal NDP government—or a federal coalition?

Lewis: That is when I turn in my party card. I did not become a New Democrat to see us team up with the Liberals. I cannot even hear the words ‘coalition government’ without getting into a frenzy. I could never support that. Maclean’s: Is there a chance that you will return to active Canadian politics? Lewis: No, absolutely not. I’m going to write a book—I’m really looking forward to that. I want to write about the UN, about Canada’s role. And I want to write—I hope with vigor—about American policy internationally and at the UN, and about the ways that the Americans have used and abused the organization. I’m going to make some speeches to earn some money to stay alive, and I hope I’m going to do some international things from time to time. And no more than that. No, my involvement in politics is over. Stephen Lewis is disappearing from the political scene. □