Ambassador Bob Rae: Clever Casting for a Kairos Moment

The United Nations is facing the same power-game challenges as Canada. Bob Rae’s intellect, authenticity and sane relationship to power seem perfectly suited to the moment.



Lisa Van Dusen

July 6, 2020

There are few prerogatives of prime ministerial or presidential power that are more creative than the ability to change a life and perhaps the course of history by appointing the right person to the right job. There’s an element of matchmaking to it, of major-league coaching and of Hollywood casting. For high-stakes titles, such as vice president of the United States, the selection process can be less like an audition and more like — as Democratic senator, Indiana governor and perpetual shortlister Evan Bayh once quipped — a colonoscopy with the Hubble telescope.

My first lesson in this truth happened in Ottawa in 1984 when, as a very, very young press assistant to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, I was talking to my boss, the great former Toronto Star Washington bureau chief Bill Fox. As we walked along a snowy Wellington Street after work one evening, Fox stopped and turned. “We’re announcing the new UN ambassador tomorrow,” he said with a Cheshire grin. “Who is it?” I asked, expecting any one of a selection of names that definitely did not include the one I was about to hear. “Stephen Lewis,” Fox replied. We both burst out laughing.

The appointment was among those rarest of political punctuations — a positive bombshell. It was also — as Fox might have said and likely did say — a rocket. Lewis was neither a Tory nor a career diplomat. He was the socialist scion of a New Democratic Party dynasty and a respected former leader of the Ontario NDP. Making him ambassador to the United Nations was a declaration of independence by a new, Progressive Conservative prime minister in a town of competing, testing, power bases. It was a brilliant idea that proved even more brilliant in practice, as Lewis revealed his value as a diplomat on Mulroney’s fight against apartheid and the world’s fight against HIV-AIDS.

Justin Trudeau’s appointment Monday of Bob Rae as ambassador to the United Nations doesn’t deliver quite the same counterintuitive shock value — Rae made his career in the NDP, became premier as leader of the Ontario party, then switched to the federal Liberals in 2006 and led that party as caretaker between his college roommate Michael Ignatieff’s departure and Trudeau’s arrival — but it shares that unassailable quality. The fact that opposition Twitter feeds were — beyond the usual propaganda trolls inadvertently confirming the wisdom of the choice — mostly crickets in the hours immediately following the announcement attests to that.

At a time when the challenges of international relations are — to grossly understate the case — not always what they appear to be, Trudeau’s appointment of Rae to the UN sends its own sort of signal. At face value, Canada’s most problematic bilateral files at the moment — also the most problematic bilateral files of every non-authoritarian, functionally democratic government — are Donald Trump and China, two parties engaged in an apparent tag-team effort to fill the public sphere with daily, destructive belligerence.

He studied under Isaiah Berlin at Balliol and went skinny dipping with Rick Mercer on national television. Perhaps most important at this moment in history, Rae is known for his honesty, authenticity and sane relationship to power.

But Trump and Xi Jinping also represent an aspiring, anti-democracy world order that has weaponized corruption and lying on an epic scale. Canada’s Trump problem is not about America, it is about the disruptive, dishonest and now-deadly behaviour of a rogue president. Canada’s problem with China is not about the people of China, it is about the disruptive, dishonest behaviour of a geopolitical player whose wardrobe change from publicly reassuring ascendant superpower to bullying, hostage-taking, pandemic-leveraging, totalitarian thug has been dizzying. The wider implications of both those bilateral relationships and the contagion of anti-democracy corruption they represent have been increasingly evident at the UN, where Canada’s inability to secure a rotating seat on the Security Council on June 18 was just one manifestation of the sort of multilateral divide not seen since World War II. Trudeau’s choice of Rae to represent Canada at the UN is the latest indication of where we stand in that divide.

“I’m a great reader of George Orwell,” Rae told reporters during his Ottawa news conference on Monday in response to a question about China’s latest bilateral provocation — a disingenuous travel ban during a time of restricted travel in retaliation for Canada’s  response to last week’s security seizure of Hong Kong. “I think to fully appreciate the world today you have to read 1984. Some strange things are going on.”

Bob Rae is known for certain qualities. The son of the late, distinguished career diplomat Saul Rae, who also served as Canada’s UN ambassador, Rae is a Rhodes Scholar, a humanist, and a very funny man — a quality he cited as an advantage in times like these during his newser on Monday. He studied under Isaiah Berlin at Balliol and went skinny dipping with Rick Mercer on national television. Perhaps most important at this moment in history, Rae is known for his honesty, authenticity and sane relationship to power. During a global clash of worldviews in which one side uses misrepresentation and misdirection to tilt the balance of power, honesty and authenticity are also weapons.

The Greek word kairos refers to a critical, opportune moment — roughly translated as a window of opportunity, the essence of the aphorism “timing is everything.” This is one of those moments for Canada, for the United Nations and for the son of a diplomat finally filling his father’s shoes.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.