A man of the world

by Sheldon Gordon
(Photo: Tony Fouhse)

When Morris Rosenberg, BA’72, was appointed Canada’s deputy minister of foreign affairs in 2010, Embassy, the Ottawa-based newspaper that covers foreign policy, wondered about “his apparent lack of international experience.”

True, the Montreal-born lawyer was the first non-diplomat ever to be put in charge of the foreign service officers at Ottawa’s Lester B. Pearson Building, but Rosenberg is by no means a novice in the field of foreign affairs.

“I was deputy minister of health for six-and-a-half years. I was deputy minister of justice for five-and-a-half years. I’m one of the most experienced deputy ministers in the system, and in those jobs, there was a significant international relations component,” Rosenberg says. “And I actually did work in this department as legal counsel on trade law for a couple of years in the late eighties.”

A 30-year veteran of the federal public service, Rosenberg oversaw the introduction of post-9/11 anti-terrorism legislation as deputy minister of justice. As deputy minister of health, he led the federal response to the H1N1 “swine flu” crisis.

Rosenberg doesn’t agree with those in the diplomatic, academic and NGO communities who yearn for the “glory days” of middle-power diplomacy that won Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize in 1956. Those were very different times, he stresses. Canada had emerged from the Second World War as, briefly, the fourth largest military force in the world. With Europe reeling from the war and Asia still decades away from achieving a more prominent role internationally, Canada briefly wielded disproportionate influence in global affairs.

The world is a more complicated place today, says Rosenberg. “Nostalgia – looking backward – is unproductive and keeps you from focusing on the tasks at hand. To continue to be effective and protect a country’s interests, foreign policy has to evolve to suit the times.”

Since taking on his new job, Rosenberg has been using his trips to foreign capitals as an opportunity to “understand the context in which our foreign-service officers work around the globe. I’ve been very impressed with the calibre of our people; we’re not in a period of decline.”

To date, he has travelled to 19 countries. While on trips to Washington, he’s met not only with Hillary Clinton and her State Department officials, but also with foreign policy experts at U.S. think tanks “to pick their brains” on such topics as Latin America and the Arab Spring.

It is the Arab Spring that has provided the major foreign policy challenges to date for Rosenberg. “Events have a way of upsetting the best laid plans,” he muses. Foreign Affairs had to arrange the evacuation of Canadians from Egypt and Libya, worked on sanctions against Libya, Syria and Iran, and helped define the Canadian role in the NATO military mission in Libya.

Rosenberg studied political science and economics at McGill. In his first two years, “I learned the hard way about the consequences of not being prepared, and it helped me develop some discipline and organizational skills that served me well in the rest of my career.”

He also learned to listen to his professors, but to think for himself and develop his own point of view. “A lot of my role [as a deputy minister] is to deal with issue experts, whether lawyers, scientists or diplomats, and to get them to explain in plain language what they’re doing, and also to constructively challenge them, because I need to have an integrative view.”

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