For so many citizens, Brian Mulroney represents the past in this country. This is what Stephen Harper is counting on. Yet Mulroney’s personal difficulties aside, his nine years in office represented a kind of era that was one of this country’s crowning achievements in internationalism. In a phrase: he was everything this present government isn’t. While some surmise that the former PM is chagrined at the distant treatment he has received from the government, it could just as easily be true that he has rejected the present emanation of Conservatism specifically because of how it has sullied the Canadian image in the world. We need to consider why that is so.
Liberals dislike recognizing this fact, but it’s true: Brian Mulroney had an international influence that conceivably matched Lester Pearson’s. Just think of his international engagements and what he accomplished.
Like it or not, he helped to lead Canada into a more engaged process with the United States. Widely criticized for being too friendly with three different presidents, especially in matters relating to free trade, Mulroney nevertheless kept up the kind of relationship with American leaders of various stripes (not just presidents) that permitted him to confront our neighbours in ways most today would be too timid to attempt. His refined gift for friendship and personal diplomacy permitted him to use a kind of “tough love” the American’s weren’t used to, as when he prodded them into signing an Arctic agreement on the Northwest Passage against their own urges. That was nothing compared to his confrontations with successive presidents on ballistic missiles, Cuba, Star Wars technology, and their initial opposition to the reunification of Germany.
Mulroney’s affability was matched by determination and insight. He was personal friends with most global leaders – Gorbachev (Soviet Union), Helmut Kohl (Germany), Francois Mitterrand (France), Boris Yeltsin (Russia), to name a few. He pushed them towards considering the environment as a vital global issue. He sought and achieved an agreement on acid rain with the Americans. His disagreed strongly with Ronald Reagan’s simplistic view on the fragility of the planet. In 1987, he supported the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer. A year later, in Toronto, he held the first ever summit on climate change with world leaders. He worked with his diplomats and environmentalists, taking a leading role in establishing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He led Canada to be the first nation to sign the Biodiversity Convention. It’s no accident he has been labeled Canada’s “greenest” PM.
Mulroney believed there was a pivotal role for Canada to play in the world and he used the United Nations as the chief vehicle for maximizing that influence. In this he was the polar opposite of Stephen Harper. He didn’t avoid the UN, but used it at every opportunity to push for improvement in the world. During his tenure, Canada participated in every UN peacekeeping mission. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Mulroney used his considerable leverage with George Bush Sr. to develop a response with the international community through the UN and not to attack unilaterally. At the United Nations itself, Canada’s reputation was significantly on the rise and the Canadian prime minister’s tact and persuasiveness was appreciated. His handling of the Ethiopian famine crisis was masterful. Given how Mulroney worked the system to gain the eventual freeing of Nelson Mandela, who many claimed was a criminal at the time, we quickly understand that if he were in power today, Omar Khadr would now be in Canada.
In recognition of his persuasive internationalism, Britain, Russia, France and the US approached Mulroney in 1991, asking him to take on the role of Secretary General. He was sorely tempted, but the domestic pressure of Meech Lake and Charlottetown made it impossible. In what must have been an exquisitely painful moment, Mulroney declined.
Despite what many think of Mulroney today, Canada rarely stood higher internationally than during his years as PM. Some in the Conservative caucus today recall those times, quietly aching for their return, and frustrated that their leader has overseen the decline of the Canadian influence. They would acknowledge, if they could, that Mulroney would have assured that this country secured the seat on the Security Council that we so sadly lost recently. Mulroney himself is fully correct in rejecting a kind of Conservatism that seeks to divide a country domestically and isolate it internationally. His was the kind of Conservatism that mattered in the world and we are the poorer for the absence of this kind of expansive global reach in the present regime.