Friday, December 14, 2007

Trying to save the world, one idea at a time

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail

Nov. 21, 2007


Lawyers in black suits and matching ties do battle with stick-wielding policemen on the streets of Lahore, Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, critics assail Hamid Karzai's meddling in anointing a successor as leader of the Alokozai, one of the Pashtun tribes supporting the president.

On the lawless border between the two lands, the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda plot their latest offences.

Half a world away, in a non-descript office in an ordinary building at the University of Victoria, a man with a common name but an uncommon résumé monitors developments in those lands of strife and battle.

All in a day's work for Gordon Smith.

Few on campus know his work, fewer still in the surrounding city are aware of his reputation. Yet, he is engaged on a global level on two high-profile files – security in Afghanistan, and the expansion of the G-8.

The former diplomat and high-level federal bureaucrat is the executive director of the Centre for Global Studies, a clearing house of sorts for think tanks.

“I feel like I'm part of some kind of global conspiracy to make the world a better place,” he said. He thought a moment. “Not much of a conspiracy.”

At 66, he is wrestling with some of the great questions of our age.

More than a half-century has passed since an unforgettable childhood incident in East Berlin sparked a lifelong interest in world peace.

He weighs his words before speaking, reflecting both the caution and the precision of one who had a long career as a diplomat and a bureaucrat. In formal portraits, his long face and pensive demeanour make him look as world-weary as the cartoon character Droopy Dog. The world is a heavy thing to carry on your shoulders.

After earning a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he embarked on a career in the Canadian civil service. His titles included a blizzard of secretaryships and senior-adviser positions and stints as deputy undersecretary of this and that. He enjoyed a steady rise and promotions to several key posts. A deputy minister at foreign affairs. Ambassador to NATO. Secretary to the cabinet for federal-provincial relations (after the collapse of the Meech Lake accord). Ambassador to the European Community.

After so long a career as a mandarin, he no longer gets to form policy, nor is his opinion sought by politicians as it once was. He has to content himself by contributing to the debate.

“Nobody from government, from the political or public service level, has ever called me, or asked me for my advice or views on anything,” he said.

“You do it because you hope to stir up a more informed discussion on these things. I think that's happening.”

Earlier this year, he prepared a study titled Canada in Afghanistan: Is It Working? In it, he argued that NATO might have to negotiate with elements of the Taliban. He also suggested a marketing board should be established to purchase the poppy crop for medicinal purposes.

As for Afghanistan, “we wear it.”

He said Canada might have unwittingly engaged in a war in Afghanistan, but having done so – and having suffered military losses, and having killed Afghan civilians – the country cannot now simply set an arbitrary date for departure.

“You just can't walk away from it, even if we got in there not knowing what we were doing. We're there.”

He rejected as unrealistic calls for a pullout, or a date for withdrawal, or the replacement of the Canadian military in hard-fought Kandahar by another NATO ally.

“The political debate in this country is to me – I was going to say the word pathetic, but that's too strong – is superficial.”

His other portfolio is less emotional. He has been hard at work making the case for the G-8 group of nations to expand. The addition of China, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa may some day lead to a G-13.

Mr. Smith was born into a family in which public service was seen as a duty. His maternal grandfather, Gordon W. Scott, a chartered accountant from Montreal, had been provincial treasurer in the Quebec government. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he was pressed into service by Munitions Minister C. D. Howe as a dollar-a-year adviser.

Early in the war, he joined Mr. Howe and industrialist E. P. Taylor aboard the Western Prince, which sailed from New York to Britain with a cargo of aircraft for the Royal Air Force. The three men were travelling to promote the sale of Canadian munitions to their wartime ally. About 600 kilometres west of landfall, the liner was struck by a torpedo fired by a German U-boat. The three all managed to get into lifeboats, but the one carrying Mr. Scott capsized and he was lost at sea.

A grandson today recites the date – Dec. 16, 1940 – as though it happened much less than 67 years ago. Mr. Smith's father was absent for much of his childhood, spending four years in military service.

When the boy was aged 12, his family toured Europe. He asked to visit East Berlin, which was under Communist control. The Berlin Wall had not yet been built, nor had the city recovered from the desperate battle that had levelled it in 1945.

“The rubble was all there. People were living in the basement of bombed-out buildings.”

One stop on their tour included a cemetery in which thousands of Soviet troops had been buried. A keen photographer, young Gordon took out his Leica camera to snap a shot of a bust of Stalin.

As he did so, a worker dressed in blue coveralls stepped forward. He addressed the boy in English.

“Take a picture of that bastard?”

The worker spat on the ground.

Soldiers who had been standing guard at the graveyard came running as if to arrest the man.

“Our guide swooped me up, threw me in the car, and off we went back through Checkpoint Charlie,” he said.

From that day on, he said, issues of war and peace have never been far from his mind.

A boy whose curiosity unwittingly caused an incident in which the outcome for the protester will remain forever unknown has spent the rest of his life trying to solve, rather than provoke, conflict.

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