Pierre Elliott Trudeau's Peace Initiative: 25 Years On

By Thompson, Brett | International Journal, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Pierre Elliott Trudeau's Peace Initiative: 25 Years On


Thompson, Brett, International Journal


It's useful to express non-conventional truths about non-conventional subjects. - Pierre Elliott Trudeau1

From politicians with the gifts necessary to inspire and mobilize others behind causes, much is expected. In return, they receive little patience and little understanding when, almost inevitably, results fall short. Former United States Vice President Al Gore, not known for such gifts while in office, was co-awarded the 2007 Nobel peace prize for his ability to draw attention to the inconvenient truth of climate change. If only, some critics said, he had demonstrated such leadership on this issue while in office. During his last term as prime minister of Canada from 1980 to 1984, Pierre Elliott Trudeau vowed not to be a politician who waited until he was out office, as if planning a retirement project, to speak out and act on what he deemed "nonconventional," inconvenient truths. With Quebec's sovereigntists in disarray following a referendum and a charter of rights and freedoms enshrined but also with significant national economic woes and tumbling popularity, Trudeau turned the waning political capital of his last months in office to the non-conventional: a personal initiative, international in scope, focused on nuclear nonproliferation.

The "Trudeau peace initiative," as it came to be known, saw the prime minister tour capitals, including Washington, London, and Moscow, to encourage east- west dialogue when the threat of nuclear war seemed great. In the history of Canadian foreign relations it made little splash, and it has been treated - in the media and the history books alike - as an insignificant and unimportant episode. That the protagonist - a man with a reputation for demonstrating sporadic interest in foreign affairs, whom pundits suggested was either grasping at legacy narratives while nearing retirement or hoping for another term - was sinking in the polls had something to do with the treatment, then and now.

According to one senior official who helped craft them, Trudeau' s five disarmament proposals were a "dog's breakfast" that muddied his message and created a public checklist that was impossible to complete,2 and the man who wrote Trudeau's house of commons speech said the mission "went on past its best-by date."3 But Robert Fowler, who was Trudeau's Privy Council Office foreign and defence policy advisor, has a different perspective:

You know the old story of the Lunenburg fisherman who's coming up from the dock with two pails of lobsters, and he meets his buddy on the way down, and they walk by each other and the buddy looks down and shouts, 'Hey, watch it! Your lobsters are crawling out... escaping!' And the guy doesn't even turn around - he just shouts over his shoulder, 'Don't you worry about that, they're Canadian lobsters, and as soon as one gets part way up, the other guy will pull him back down."4

Fowler suggests that the legacy ofthe peace initiative is a victim ofthe Canadian complex that discourages lofty goals. The initiative, he said, "has got rather historical short shrift, and a little unfairly." The events of 1983-84 were chronicled extensively in the media and in numerous scholarly works, the vast majority written in the decade following the events. Trudeau's alleged disdain for the Department of External Affairs; the reaction of officials in the United States and their labelling of Trudeau's behaviour as that of a marijuana-consuming leftist; and revelations about the motivations behind, and results of, the initiative occupy many pages.

Twenty-five years later, through access to official archives, interviews with key players, and the benefits of distance and much collective national reflection on Trudeau's legacy, one can discern more enduring themes. The initiative reflected a personalized style of diplomacy seeking to escape the constraints of traditional diplomacy, layers of bureaucracy, domestic politics, and the national press in an age of summit diplomacy and an insatiable demand for news. …

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