Lester Pearson's Legacy Steers Foreign Policy into 21st Century

By Chretien, Jean | Canadian Speeches, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Lester Pearson's Legacy Steers Foreign Policy into 21st Century


Chretien, Jean, Canadian Speeches


It is a privilege and a pleasure to honor to a great Canadian tonight, Lester B. Pearson.

A privilege because, more than anyone else, he showed Canadians why international affairs matter to each and every one of us.

Canadians responded by taking up the challenges of internationalism. And Mr. Pearson showed the world that Canada matters to all who value peace above war; tolerance above hate; co-operation above conflict. He taught all of us that Canada can make a difference when we pull together and work for common goals.

It is a personal pleasure because Prime Minister Pearson was my first boss in Ottawa when I worked for him as parliamentary secretary in 1965. The establishment of the Lester B. Pearson Chair of International Relations at Oxford University honors the man I knew -- his intellect, his love of the university, his great affection for Britain and for St. Johns College where he studied as a Massey Scholar in the 1920s.

He was a pragmatic man who looked to the future rather than dwelling in the past. He would have been delighted in the establishment of this Chair. It is a living testimonial that combines three of his greatest passions -- Canada, international affairs, and scholarship. All that is missing is baseball.

The words "passion" and "pragmatism" may seem an unlikely combination; but in Lester Pearson, they sat together comfortably.

He was a passionate internationalist, not only because he was committed to co-operation among nations, but because he understood its importance to Canada.

In 1948, he said: "For Canada, bruised by two world wars and one world depression, decisions taken in far-away places have a vital importance for the village square. There is no escaping today the results and the obligations that flow from the interdependence of nations..."

Although interdependence affects all nations, it affects some more than others. Mr. Pearson understood that Canada was too integrated in the world to isolate itself from "the consequences of international collective decisions."

However, he also argued that we did not have sufficient power to "ensure that (our) voice will be effective in making those decisions."

In this one observation, he set the course for post-war Canadian foreign policy; the commitment to a rules-based system where interdependence could be "civilized", where all countries -- large and small -- could look to international law to protect their interests.

Mr. Pearson understood the need for ideals in foreign policy, but he was not an abstract idealist. He was a pragmatist, a man very much of this world. He spent his life pointing out the connections between our immediate needs at home and our higher aspirations for a prosperous and just world at peace.

In 1953, he told an American audience that, for Canada, our first interest is peace, because "peace for us means there must be peace in the international community."

Our second interest, he said, is the "welfare and prosperity of our people, which is inseparable from the welfare and prosperity of others."

Our third concern, he concluded, "less tangible than peace and economic well-being but no less important, is our deep attachment to certain principles rooted in our history and in our experience as Canadians."

Hindsight, we are told, is always 20/20. What was remarkable about Lester Pearson was his foresight, his ability to see the future in the details of the present.

In Mr. Pearson's time, Canada was a middle power attempting to play a useful international role in the aftermath of World War Two. Today, we are doing the same in the post-Cold War era.

Of course, there have been enormous changes over the last 40 years. The communist world has collapsed. Nations that were once poor have become major industrial powers. We have a global marketplace driven by technology. Power has become less concentrated, and is as much economic as political. …

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