Lester Pearson and the Suez Crisis: Lessons in Canadian Diplomacy (Part 1)

The Associated Press via the Globe and Mail

To date, only one Canadian has ever received the Nobel Peace Prize. Lester B. Pearson, Secretary of State for External Affairs from 1948 to 1957 and Prime Minister from 1963 to 1968, won the award for his role in the creation of the UNEF, the peacekeeping force that ended the Suez Crisis. His performance at the Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly showed a deftness of diplomacy and a commitment to a peaceful world system that has been since unmatched. Under Pearson’s guidance as Secretary of State for External Affairs, Canada, which had only twenty years earlier assumed responsibility for its foreign policy, was able to influence events on the world stage to a degree beyond what is expected of a middle power.

Although Pearson was not the only contributor to the development of the UN force, he was the principal actor, as his Nobel Prize attests. In a two-part article, I will show how Canadian diplomacy in the 21st Century would be greatly enriched by a return to the principled, imaginative, and ambitious style pioneered by Pearson and his colleagues and best exemplified by the solutions they found to the Suez Crisis.

Pearson’s inventiveness in proposing the United Nations Security Force sprang partly from necessity. He rebuked Anthony Eden’s plea for support in the crisis, fearing that such an action would have disrupted Canada’s close economic relationship with the disapproving United States, undermined the NATO alliance by inflaming tension between the US and the UK, and would irredeemably lower the opinion of Canada in the eyes of the United Nations, the Arab world, and the Afro-Asian members of the Commonwealth.[1] American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Pearson shared the fear that disunity between the two principle powers of NATO would give advantage to the Soviet Union. Pearson was fearful that Britain’s use of force would incense the anti-colonial voices in the African and Asian Commonwealth countries, who, when pitted against the pro-British attitude of Australia and New Zealand, could irreversibly divide the organization.

After Pearson’s unsuccessful appeal at the NATO Ministerial Conference for caution and Atlantic solidarity,[2] St. Laurent determined that it was “within Canada’s United Nations responsibilities to…become involved…and actively engaged…in the [Crisis].”[3] What is significant about Pearson’s actions before going to the United Nations is that his conversations with the British and American governments led him to appreciate the gravity of the divergence in American and British policy. Pearson’s desire to bridge this gap so as to maintain NATO unity, his desire to protect the Commonwealth from internal rupture, and his belief that Canada was in a position to achieve all this would lead him to take an active role in the General Assembly.

Before leaving for New York, St. Laurent’s Cabinet had instructed Pearson that Canada’s best interests lay in a resolution that “was not unduly critical of Britain and France.”[4]  Pearson introduced to the Cabinet the idea of an emergency UN force that would be deployed so as to police the area and provide an alternative to an Anglo-French ground invasion.[5] St. Laurent considered that such an action may be necessary, and instructed Pearson that if the situation demanded it, to “throw out the idea in a general way”[6] and convey the response back to Ottawa.

A ceasefire resolution proposed by the United States was passed that advocated the return of Egyptian and Israeli forces to the armistice lines defined in 1949.[7] Pearson, as the Canadian representative, chose to abstain from the vote, remarking “[that] if Canada were going to take any initiative in this, we had from the beginning to detach ourselves from both sides.”[8] The Canadian delegates met with their foreign colleagues to gauge opinion on the hypothetical intervention of a UN peacekeeping force and reported back to Pearson that such a proposal would be well supported.[9] Pearson proclaimed to the Assembly that the opportunity was ripe not for a solution that would see a return to “the same state of affairs,” but an effective political settlement of the greater Egyptian-Israeli dispute.[10] To that end, he proposed that the United Nations “move in and police the cease-fire” and declared that “[he] would therefore like to see a provision in [the] resolution…authorizing the Secretary-General to begin to make arrangements for a United Nations force” and that Canada would contribute to it.[11]

PresidentRajapaksa via Flickr

PresidentRajapaksa via Flickr

Pearson’s actions reveal a diplomat who was able to take the world as it was and adapt accordingly. This flexibility seems to be absent in current Canadian foreign policy. Sixty years after the Suez, Canada’s foreign policy has become increasing reliant on rhetoric and grand but unsubstantial denunciations of perceived wrongdoing. Diplomatic finesse, as made famous by the skilful way Pearson juggled the myriad of opinions in 1956 has been replace by ham-fistedness. This self-crippling inability to compromise -or perhaps inability to judge which situations require compromise and which require intransigence- was exemplified by Prime Minister Harper refusing to attend the Commonwealth Summit this past year in Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister cited unanswered questions related to human rights abuses during and after the Sri Lankan civil war as justification for his absence.

This action achieved virtually nothing in the way of resolving these issues. Instead, the Prime Minister removed himself from the equation and thus eliminated any opportunity to encourage discussion or confront the regime on these issues. Other leaders, such as Britain’s David Cameron have decried the injustices, but nonetheless chose to attend the conference and raised the issue while there. The Prime Minister’s inflexibility made the Canadian voice irrelevant.

Although the human rights abuses committed during the Sri Lankan civil war are admittedly a different affair than the Anglo-French-Israeli conspiracy to invade Egypt, the guiding principle in approaching these problems need not be as drastically different as the gulf between Lester Pearson and Stephen Harper. Both situations require that middle ground is found so that effective solutions be achieved. In Prime Minister Harper’s case, this compromise means attending the summit so as to gain a voice and prompt the regime to make changes. The Prime Minister’s inaction shows that among many things, Canadian foreign policy has lost the sense of proactive risk that allowed a seemingly insignificant British Dominion to end a crisis that could have sparked a third world war. A return to the flexibility, even-handedness and vision of Pearson would benefit Canada immensely, as discussed further in Part 2 of this analysis.


[1]           Lester B. Pearson, Mike: The Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson, Volume Two, ed. John A. Munroe and Alex I. Inglis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973), 246.

[2]           Pearson, L.B., 242.

[3]           Pearson, L.B., 243.

[4]           Geoffrey Pearson, Seize the Day: Lester B. Pearson and Crisis Diplomacy (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1993), 147.

[5]           Pearson, L.B., 244.

[6]           Ibid.

[7]           Pearson, L.B., 245.

[8]           Pearson, L.B., 246.

[9]           Ibid.

[10]         Pearson, L.B., 247.

[11]         Ibid.