Lester Pearson and the Suez Crisis: Lessons in Canadian Diplomacy (Part 2)

Lester Pearson on the cover of TIME, 1963.

Lester Pearson on the cover of TIME, 1963

Only twenty years into its foreign policy independence, Canada’s top diplomat had ended what could have been an explosive crisis. Lester B. Pearson, by catalysing the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force, helped to ensure the peaceful withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egypt and allowed the British and French to reverse their planned occupation. Pearson’s actions were not universally lauded, especially within Canada. Diefenbaker’s Conservative Party viewed Pearson’s work at the ESS as a betrayal of the “mother country,” and a forfeiting of Canada’s independence by allowing foreign policy to be influenced by the United States. The Conservative foreign policy critic characterized Pearson as acting as “the United States’ chore boy.”[1] Despite these objections, Pearson’s actions would mark the beginning of a long tradition of peacekeeping in Canada.

Until the end of the Cold War, Canada was one of the highest UN troop contributors and participated in almost every peacekeeping mission of the 20th century. Pearson’s prominence at the ESS was not unexpected; he had much experience at the UN, having previously been President of the General Assembly, and was on good personal terms with many delegates. This may have given him an additional advantage when trying to muster support for the tentative peacekeeping force. As UNEF moved from the legislative to the organizational stage, Pearson remained closely involved, shepherding the fledgling force to its deployment. At Pearson and St. Laurent’s request, Canada contributed more than half of the personnel, a number that would eventually reach eight hundred persons.[2] The Egyptian government rejected the idea of Canadian troops who had similar uniforms to the British,[3] and who swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II, due to fears that they would be used as an outlet for British military authority over the Canal. To compromise, the Canadian contribution was made in the form of logistical and administrative support.

A year after the events of the ESS, in October 1957, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his participation in that session with regards to the inception and configuration of UNEF.[4] Many informally proposed the idea of a United Nations force, but Lester Pearson provided the catalyst for its official acceptance. As he says, the idea was not a new one, but it needed “a midwife”.[5] Pearson’s unique, Canadian position gave him this opportunity. Canada’s position as a member of the Commonwealth and having economic and cultural ties to the United States allowed it to be the perfect intermediary between the conflicting opinions of the United States and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, Canada’s reputation as a quasi-neutral “conflict moderator”[6] at the UN made Pearson’s proposal authentic in the eyes of critical Afro-Asian members, who were quick to label the actions of the United Kingdom and France as imperialistic.

The proposal was the result of careful diplomacy on the part of Pearson, who thought that the UNEF option ensured that the British and French would be able to extract themselves from an embarrassing involvement with some dignity and that peace be established and maintained in the region, while still respecting Egyptian sovereignty.[7]  To some degree, the resolution was also the result of Pearson and the Canadian delegation being in the right place at the right time. A decade after its founding there was still much room at the United Nations for new ideas, given that an undertaking of the sort had never been done before. The delegates at the ESS were working without any definitive historical precedent and so were free to invent new solutions. To Pearson, the idea of a UN force must have seemed so appealing because it met the interests of most, if not all, of the competing factions. It allowed the United Kingdom and France to save face, maintained Egyptian sovereignty over the Canal, led to an Israeli withdrawal that would not be seen as a defeat by the Knesset, and accorded with the condemnatory opinions of the United States, the Soviet Union, and the anti-imperialist Afro-Asians.

The Suez Crisis is the crown jewel of an era that coincides with Pearson’s tenure at the Department of External affairs and is often referred to as “the Golden Age of Canadian Diplomacy.” This era saw Canada adopt an active and vocal role at the United Nations, and, as can be seen in the Suez affair, influence international relations to a degree beyond what is normally expected of a middle-power.The Nobel Committee was not mistaken in remarking that “the Suez Crisis was a victory for the UN and for the man who contributed more than anyone else to save the world at that time.”[8]

PM Harper on his first official visit to Israel (pmwebphotos via Flickr)

PM Harper on his first official visit to Israel (pmwebphotos via Flickr)

Yet today, Canadian diplomacy has declined. The dual afflictions of current Canadian foreign policy are a lack of imagination and an abdication of global responsibility. Support for multilateralism, the key to peaceful conflict resolution and international order is lacklustre at best. The current government has replaced it with bellicose rhetoric and meaningless posturing. Despite claiming to be Israel’s best friend, the Harper government’s ceaseless but action-less outrage directed at Iran does noting to ensure the security of the “Jewish state”. Putting aside the legitimacy of supporting Israel to the unquestioning degree the Harper government does, its actions on the world stage are completely ineffective at achieving this goal. Instead of publicly and colourfully decrying Iran at every opportunity, would it not make more sense for Canada to become actively engaged in the nuclear negotiations with that country so as to ensure a peaceful solution that guarantees Israel’s safety?As in the Prime Minister’s refusal to attend the Colombo conference, the vocal animosity of the Conservative government removes the possibility of Canada ever taking on meaningful responsibility during negotiations with Iran. This removes Canada from the equation and thus removes any possibility of our government contributing towards a solution that meets its interests.

In other words, you can’t win the game if you don’t play. In a multi-lateral world, the only way for a middle power such as Canada to make a difference is by cooperating with others. To be frank, neither Sri Lanka nor Iran cares much about Prime Minister Harper’s presence at the Commonwealth Summit or the zealous “pro-Israel” rhetoric of prominent cabinet ministers. Canada is insignificant on the world stage when it acts alone and blindly. However, as Lester Pearson demonstrated, when it takes full advantage of international institutions and multilateralism, it can amplify its influence to a massive degree. Until the powers-that-be realize what made the Golden Age of Canadian Diplomacy golden, don’t expect any Nobel Prizes anytime soon.

(Read Part 1 here)


[1]           Andrew Cohen, Lester B. Pearson (Toronto: Penguin Group, 2008), 123.

[2]           Ibid.

[3]           Ibid.

[4]           Cohen, 123.

[5]           Cohen, 122.

[6]           Norman Hill, Pearson: The Unlikely Gladiator (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), 47.

[7]           Pearson, G., 153.

[8]           G. Jahn, quoted in Pearson, G., 153.