Former senior diplomat Gordon Smith and his Centre for Global Studies are influencing Canadian foreign policy on security, climate change and children's rights-to name a few not-so-minor world conundrums.
GORDON SMITH HAS BEEN A DIPLOMAT AND A DEPUTY MINISTER, an ambassador and a prime minister’s sherpa as Jean Chretien’s personal representative at G7 and G8 summits. For those many years he was a player, in on meetings and able to directly contribute to policy decisions. These days, as head of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria, he is an outsider with an insider’s perspective.
Within days of the election of Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government, Smith stood atop a soapbox provided by the Globe and Mail to offer some advice to the incoming prime minister. In a single column, he touched on many of the urgent matters faced by the new government: Deal with Hamas and political Islam; reverse the decision to separate the departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade; create a made-in-Canada policy on climate change with an energy policy ensuring the greatest benefits from technological advances; supply Canadian diplomats and soldiers with the tools they need.
Further, he pointed out how security issues are seen differently by the rest of the world than by the United States. “Many more people are killed in internal conflicts by AK-47s and machetes than by terrorists,” he wrote. As well, the world has too many poor people. It is not a surprise to learn the training camps of al-Qaida are populated by those from the poorest regions of Pakistan.
The suggestions were wide in scope and optimistic for someone who has spent most of his life wrestling stubbornly resistant challenges.
“We’re interested in having an impact on policy,” Smith says of the work of the Global Studies Centre, “and on the lives of people.”
At 64, he remains keen on influencing decision makers. From experience he knows problems and their solutions. And he knows that the unintended consequences of decisions can often be better perceived from a distance, away from the exercise of power.
Smith displays a diplomat’s graciousness in manner, as well as the slight pause of one accustomed to weighing words before speaking. These traits, combined with a rigorous intellect honed at McGill University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made him a formidable presence in the foreign affairs department. He also served as Canadian ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Those were jobs exercised in the corridors of power, where outsized desks, fine carpets, and private government jets came with the post. At UVic, his office is found in the Sedgewick Building, just another of a warren of modest workplaces.
The Centre for Global Studies was created in 1998 as a think-tank in which campus scholarship would be wedded to real-world policy-making. The model has been to create “a centre of centres” sharing resources while addressing such issues as technology, globalization, climate studies, human security, and child rights. The centre’s operations depend on continually finding sources of revenue, an entrepreneurial undertaking responsible for providing 90 cents of every dollar spent. “No one’s salary, including mine, is secure,” he notes.
Smith considers Canada a “largish middle power” on the world stage, a nation not seen to be burdened by an agenda of self-interest, nor to be motivated by long-standing grudges.
Still, he wants Canada to go beyond being a bridge between factions on the world scene. “What do you do with bridges? You walk on them,” he says. He would like to see a continuation of innovative approaches, whether engaging non-governmental organizations in an anti-landmine campaign, or doing an end run on the US State Department to lobby congress to deal with acid rain.
Smith came to public service and security issues as a birthright. His maternal grandfather was Gordon W. Scott, provincial treasurer in the government of Quebec Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Scott joined Munitions Minister C.D. Howe as financial adviser as one of the dollar-a-year men working towards the war effort. Scott, Howe and industrialist E.P. Taylor were aboard the Western Prince, bound for Britain with a cargo including aircraft for the Royal Air Force when the liner was struck by a torpedo fired by a U-boat about 400 miles off the coast of Ireland. Scott, 52, managed to get aboard a lifeboat, but it overturned and he was lost.
“Conflict and human suffering have always engaged my attention,” Smith says.
As a boy, he received a memorable lesson about the divided world of the 1950s. He was travelling in Europe with his family, passing through Checkpoint Charlie and visiting both sectors of a Berlin yet to be riven by a wall. He brought out his Leica at a graveyard for Soviet soldiers killed in the war. As he snapped a photograph of a bust of Stalin, a worker at the site spat in disgust. The antipathy towards the Soviet dictator was not lost on young Smith. “That had a real impact on me.”
Later, Smith was enduring an unhappy spell of studies at the University of Chicago when news of the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba reached the public. He remembers stories of yachts being stolen as desperate citizens fled the city and its feared date with nuclear incineration. The release of archival material in recent years has only served to show how much closer the world was to nuclear war than was appreciated in the aftermath of the crisis.
At MIT, where he completed a doctorate in 1966, Smith’s thesis advisor suggested a study of bomb-damage estimates produced by the Royal Air Force after Germany re-armed in the 1930s. The RAF came to the alarming conclusion the German air force was capable of landing a “knockout blow” against Britain in the first 24 hours of war, in part, because the RAF had made its own unrealistic estimates about damage it could inflict on German industrial capacity.
“Did (the estimates) have an impact on buying more Spitfires and Hurricanes? No. It had a stronger role in (British prime minister Neville) Chamberlain believing he had to sue for peace.”
The pages of history are filled with catastrophes in which such distortions led to unintended consequences, from Vietnam to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the US conquest of Iraq. A wider purpose of the centre, as a think-tank, is to contemplate and warn of such fiascos before they occur.
One area in which Smith is pessimistic is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A.Q. Khan, known as the father of the bomb in Pakistan, admitted selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.
“It’s urgent that the world do more than we’re doing now to control nuclear weapons and nuclear knowledge coming out of the former Soviet republics,” he said. “That costs money, but it is money well spent. We need to make sure there are no more A.Q. Khans out there.”
The result of failure could be the detonation of a nuclear device in a major city.
“I think it is a matter of time before this does happen,” he said. “Maybe a decade.”
There was a pause in the conversation, as the unthinkable was contemplated over coffee at the genteel University Club. It gave one pause for hope that Canada’s voice of sanity on the world stage might prevail.