Northern Insights

An Interview with John Baird

Canada plays a key role in North American geopolitics — one essential to the stable functioning of many central global institutions, including NATO. Here, the nation’s former foreign minister talks Donald Trump, the fight over free trade, the vacuum created by U.S. withdrawal from a world leadership position, and the future of the Atlantic alliance in the face of a resurgent Russia.

Thomas Demand. Embassy, 2007, (detail). © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York.

Thomas Demand. Embassy, 2007, (detail). © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York.

Octavian Report: What's your take on NATO’s durability and the big strategic challenges facing it?

John Baird: I think NATO was in danger, after the Cold War, of becoming obsolete. Certainly, 9/11 had an impact, but I think the growing Russian aggression in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, in Moldova and Georgia, and their tough talk in the Baltic, is making NATO more relevant.

I think Trump's — and a large segment of the American people's — problems with globalization have an impact on their perception of NATO, particularly the notion of free riders: NATO members not spending their share. It's a legitimate concern. Trump has, perhaps, been undiplomatic and inelegant. But I think there's a larger issue there.

OR: How have the issues that raised their heads on this front during your time as foreign minister continued to play out?

Baird: In two ways. NATO's most effective when it serves as a deterrent. I was troubled when Russia — a nuclear power — annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. Obviously, Ukraine is not a NATO country, or even a NATO candidate country. What really concerned me was that had Latvia or Estonia been invaded, I couldn't say definitively what the NATO response would be.

Of course, it should be crystal clear. With any invasion of a NATO country, Article V would be invoked immediately, and there would be a military consequence. If I couldn't be sure that that would happen, I'm sure the Russians — or any other adversary — wouldn't be sure either. That's a problem.

OR: How best should the organization increase its strategic communication, apart from military or policy planning?

Baird: I think it's beyond strategic communication. When I was a cabinet minister, if I were under criminal investigation I know for a fact I'd have to resign. It's black and white, it's crystal clear. That would be the consequence. I'm not sure what the discussion would be around the NATO table if Latvia’s borders had been breached by a hostile party. I know what I would be saying: that this attack on one is an attack on all, and there would have to be a clear military response. The fact that I wasn't certain that the others around the table would feel the same way I find disturbing.

OR: What do you attribute that lack of certainty to?

Baird: Under President Obama, I think there was a sense among many countries that he wasn't a loyal friend and ally that could be counted on.

Then there was the weariness of war among the American public, not just because of Iraq and Syria, but because of the campaign against ISIS. I think a lot of Americans are becoming more inward-looking and are just weary of battle and war.

OR: Do you think that the vision of the U.S. as the crucial leadership player in NATO is accurate?

Baird: Absolutely. In NATO the U.S. is the leader, period. There's an old saying, but it's incredibly true. If there is no U.S. leadership there is no leadership.

Even when President Obama said they were leading from behind in Libya, there was American leadership. That's a good example where countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Canada, stepped up to the plate with some Arab colleagues and did the heavy lifting and did not count on the United States to do it all. I thought that was a good day. But I'm not sure. Like I said, during my time as foreign minister, if the border in Estonia has been breached by five or 10 kilometers, what would be the response? I think there would be a lot of debate and a lot of hesitance about a military response. I think the adversaries to freedom should fear the response. I'm not sure they do.

I'm hardcore. I would want a response. I believe in NATO, I believe in Article V. That is the whole reason it exists, and we can't have any namby-pamby diplomatic sanctions efforts on something that grave.

OR: Why do you think Russia is enjoying this newfound geopolitical strength and importance?

Baird:  Putin is a forward-leaning leader. I'm not saying that as a compliment, but he is a strong leader who wants to make the Russian Federation relevant again. He's been very clear in saying that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe of great consequence. I think he wants respect, and I think the regime change in Libya deeply offended Russian sensibilities. Look at their vote in the Security Council. There's been a real consequence to that in the day-to-day conduct of foreign policy. They want to be relevant. There were the allegations of interference in the American election. There is the Catalonia issue in Spain. There's been some suggestions about the Brexit referendum. They want to be relevant again in a way that perhaps they weren't after the fall of the USSR.

George H. W. Bush's leadership — bringing them into the G8, et cetera — was good as an initial step, but there really wasn't enough tending to that relationship.

OR: Do you see Trump as able to counter this?

Baird: I suspect the trajectory has not changed. The trajectory was going a certain way under Obama, and I think it certainly is continuing under Trump.

OR: What's your take on the standoff around NAFTA?

Baird:  I think this is one of the few core things that Donald Trump cares about, and I think there's a growing concern about globalization in many parts of the United States where people think it hasn't worked for them, or believe that it hasn't worked for them, and this is on the Left and the Right. I think Bernie Sanders spoke to it on the Left on isssues like economic inequality, and Trump to the Right on things like national security and the changing face of America. They look at the trade deficits with countries like Mexico or China, and the whole architecture of trade internationally just doesn't work for Trump and his people. I'm not just talking about the mass public. Look at his people, whether it's Peter Navarro, Robert Lighthizer, or Wilbur Ross. They don't believe the whole trade architecture works for the United States and the American people.