In September 2015, United States president Barack Obama, on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, presided over a meeting of 50 or so countries determined to reinforce the UN’s capacity to mount effective peace operations. If they deliver, the outcome could prove a major boost to the UN’s overstretched 120,000 or so peacekeepers.
Lester B. Pearson would have approved.
Antony Anderson, a broadcast producer and writer, has written a volume centred on Pearson’s manoeuvres in 1956 to rescue London from its folly in the Suez crisis. Having never pulled off the documentary he had hoped to draw from this episode of diplomatic history, Anderson has turned the extensive research he carried out into book form.
Too much of The Diplomat: Lester Pearson and the Suez Crisis is given over to Pearson’s early life, a charmed one dominated by a youthful passion for sports and great academic facility. After joining Canada’s young foreign service he rose rapidly to become Canada’s first ambassador to the United States in 1945. Long admired by Mackenzie King, he was appointed Canada’s second solo secretary of state for external affairs, when the first, Louis Saint-Laurent, replaced King as prime minister. The Diplomat introduces Pearson as an affable and quietly brilliant man who worked well with others and whose private life seems to have been unimpeachable.
Although these early pages make for somewhat dull reading, interesting themes emerge, notably the irritation of many Canadian politicians and diplomats with the continuing imperial claims emanating from London, even after World War Two shattered British capacity to project power at the global level. During the first half of the 20th century, a number of Ottawa politicians and mandarins managed quietly to cut the umbilical cord that had caused London to loom larger in Ottawa’s diplomatic policy calculus than did Washington. Pearson, an admirer of British political culture, was not as single-mindedly committed as was the mastermind of Canada’s early autonomous foreign policy, O.D. Skelton (whose selected letters were reviewed in the LRC in June 2014), but he enthusiastically contributed to the outcome.
The book shifts into high gear when dealing with Pearson’s chairing of key UN debates provoked by the United Kingdom’s precipitated post-war withdrawal from Palestine. Pearson helped develop UN support for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab State, which triggered all-out war and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 when Israel declared independence. He displayed none of the condescension and hostility toward Jews and the project of a Jewish homeland that so many in the world of international diplomacy then held. This episode ushered in Canada’s reputation as a fair-minded and autonomous middle power. All of Anderson’s enviable journalistic skills are on parade, as he shifts from capital to capital through the writings and statements of a fascinating cast of characters interacting with his protagonist. Pearson realized before most others that the casualties absorbed by the UN in Palestine, including the assassination of its early mediator, Count Bernadotte, argued for a larger, better armed and equipped UN field presence in subsequent crises. Therein lay the seeds of his idea that the contending forces in the Sinai should be separated in late 1956 by a sizable force of military personnel rather than the unarmed, weakly protected observers who had been sent by the Security Council both to Palestine and to Kashmir, in each of which they proved largely ineffective.
Drawing on archives as well as news sources, Anderson does a brilliant job of isolating nuggets of political and diplomatic life in Washington, London, New York and Ottawa that breathe energy into the daily grind of crisis management and diplomatic routine. (One deficit: there is little material on a major actor in the Suez drama: France.)
A key figure in the narrative, the British Conservative politician Anthony Eden, appears here as a tragic one. Privileged, rich, assured, handsome and talented, he stood on the right side of history in the run-up to World War Two, resigning as a young foreign minister to protest one of London’s serial capitulations in the immediate pre-war years. Typically, Pearson, not yet a political figure himself, somehow found himself playing tennis with Eden during those early years and maintained a connection with him subsequently. Winston Churchill, who clung to power as prime minister into his dotage, kept Eden waiting for the brass ring until 1955. By then, Eden was well past his prime, often irascible, erratic, deluded and, following a botched operation, under the influence of amphetamines. He viewed the Suez crisis as a life or death one for Britain, so dependent on Middle East oil. Because Ottawa kept registering cautionary notes against the use of force, Eden and his colleagues saw Canada as desperately “wet.” More worryingly for London, Washington’s position was even more reserved. And the U.S. response could not be dismissed.
But the United Kingdom and France were prepared to do so in what they saw as an existential struggle to sustain their waning international power. Pearson, who operated largely by intuition and calculated improvisation, appreciated that these volatile circumstances created diplomatic space for Canada, which entertained close ties to all three countries. While he consulted widely, ultimately he alone, with great tactical flair and creativity, adapted his evolving proposals to a variety of challenges. His key objective was to avert a full-scale British and French occupation of Egyptian soil by advancing the idea of a UN “police force” with encouragement from the United States and other UN members. Meanwhile, another major crisis broke out over the Soviet invasion of Hungary in late October. The atmosphere throughout the UN, at grips with two significant international upheavals, was electric. And Pearson was steering the ship on Suez.
On November 6, 1956, having at last assembled the fleets and troops necessary to do so, France and Britain shelled Port Said in an attempt to “enforce peace” colonial-style, inflicting considerable loss of life. But with Egypt and Israel offering ceasefires, and with global public opinion and their most important ally clearly against them, they had waded into waters too deep. Among other problems, Washington had blocked UK access to International Monetary Fund resources vital to propping up sterling, which was under great pressure in financial markets. Although the French wished to fight on, Eden had little choice but to acquiesce in a ceasefire.
The solution was Pearson’s brainchild, the UN Emergency Force, which, by deploying an early vanguard faster than might be possible today, saved face all around. It endured on an ambitious scale for over ten years, but fell victim to Nasser’s misjudgements in 1967 leading to the Six-Day War.
After a slow start, Anderson delivers a brisk, gripping yarn making excellent use of his research, including multiple interviews with surviving actors in the drama. Meanwhile Pearson, brilliant in diplomacy and arguably highly effective as a minority prime minister a decade after the Suez drama, is front and centre throughout. He emerges as engaging but elusive. That Anderson captures him so well is a tribute to his metier as a storyteller.