Bob Rae loves to tell this joke.
“How can you tell an ex-premier when you see one?” he asks.
Answer: “They get into the back seat of a car and nothing happens.”
It’s been more than a quarter of a century since Rae hopped into the back seat of chauffeur-driven cars as premier of Ontario. He left the premiership for health reasons (“the voters got sick of me”), losing the 1995 election to Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative party.
He was just 46 years old. Only two other premiers in the past eight decades left office at such a tender age (David Peterson in 1990 and Mitch Hepburn in 1942).
Most premiers leave what’s arguably the second most important job in Canadian politics at least a decade older (Dalton McGuinty, Ernie Eves, Harris, Frank Miller, Bill Davis, John Robarts), and, in some cases, two decades older (Kathleen Wynne, Leslie Frost).
Complicating matters for Rae: while he’s certainly wanted financial security for his family after decades of being “underpaid” in politics (most lawyers can easily make more money outside politics), he’s never been particularly motivated to join corporate boards and earn his fortune.
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But what significant mission-oriented, public-service job is left after you’ve been the premier, and you know you’re not going to be prime minister?
Turns out, Rae found it last year, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed him to be Canada’s 25th ambassador to the United Nations — coincidentally, the same job his father, Saul, had in the 1970s.
While Rae has certainly received his share of plaudits for his brilliant speechifying, dedication to solving intractable problems (Canadian envoy to Myanmar, overseeing constitutional negotiations in war-torn Sri Lanka, investigating the Air India terrorist bombing), he’s never been known for his exquisite sense of timing.
He became premier in 1990 just as Ontario was entering one of its worst recessions ever, virtually ensuring he’d be a one-term premier. He became interim leader of the federal Liberals (and was surely urged to consider contesting the permanent job) just as the party was falling in love with yet another Trudeau. And now, he’s been sent to New York to do Canada’s business at the UN at a time when the world is neck deep in dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Rae recently spoke about his new responsibilities in a Zoom conversation through the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto. And while he’s a fan of the UN’s overall mission and much of the work it does, he also acknowledges its shortcomings in ensuring peace and security around the world.
“It is not a nimble institution,” Rae says. “It’s lumbering and hard to move without consensus. It’s very difficult for things to happen quickly there.”
Given Canada’s failures under both Conservative and Liberal governments to win a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, should Canadians even care about the UN anymore?
“Issues on the relevance of the UN have been raised ever since it was formed,” Rae says. “But we all have common enemies to fight, such as disease and poverty. And we can do that more effectively together.”
Rae points out that some of the world’s most important institutions operate under the banner of the UN: the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Labour Organization.
“These exist for a reason,” he says. “By taking unilateral action, very rarely can we achieve anything dramatic. Do bad things happen? Yeah. But we can just say stop the world I wanna get off? If the UN didn’t exist, we’d have to create it.”
Rae acknowledges the UN is replete with dictatorships and authoritarian governments, and occasionally creates circumstances that are hypocritical, if not outrageous.
“I agree it’s ludicrous to have Iran chair the women’s-rights commission at the UN,” he says. “But we have to accept the anomalous and the absurd. You still have to participate in a place where everyone has a voice. We don’t have the luxury of living in a world where everyone thinks like us. Is it dictators on parade? No, it’s everyone on parade. So we have to figure out how to work with people to make things better.”
Rae says one of the UN’s biggest problems these days is how to deal with China’s and Russia’s efforts to undermine the liberal international order. But beyond calling out bad behaviour, the UN seems stuck on what to do. Furthermore, the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which Canada was instrumental in advancing, may not quite be a dead letter. But it hasn’t stopped Syria from becoming a humanitarian disaster.
“R2P needs a reset,” Rae says. “It can’t always mean military intervention. But it is about stopping governments from killing their own people.”
I asked Rae how he would define a successful term for himself as Canada’s ambassador.
“If I can, I will do everything in my power to get the organization to focus on issues where it can make a difference,” he says. “For example, it can on COVID-19. The UN has an obligation to get its act together and produce vaccines that are equal to the crisis. Let’s focus on what we can do on the ground. It’s not world peace in our time.”
Rae reminds us that, while the world may have outsized expectations of what the UN can do, it has a relatively small budget with which to make things happen — only $10 billion a year for security and peacekeeping.
“The UN can’t borrow money, it can’t run deficits, and it can’t tax people. It’s a club. And we have a lot of deadbeat dads around the UN,” he says, referring to the many countries, including the United States, that aren’t paying their dues on time.
COVID-19 has, of course, prevented the myriad in-person meetings that would normally be happening. Rae jokes about feeling like a U of T student again, working online from home. Personal relationships are more difficult to have in a world where that’s how problems get solved. Rae says he’s also learned “how human an institution the UN is. You think of it as a behemoth, a conspiratorial world state ready to pounce. It’s actually quite fragile. The secretariat’s budget is less than the city of Toronto’s.”
It’s perhaps amusing that Rae knows the size of Toronto’s budget, given that municipal politics is one of the few political posts he hasn’t had.
As he likes to remind people: “I’m only 72. William Gladstone was still prime minister of the United Kingdom at 84. I’m just getting started.”