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Baird in U.S.: Days of easy 'middle path' for Canadian foreign policy are over

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Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird gestures as he addresses the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum closing plenary in Washington, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

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Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird gestures as he addresses the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum closing plenary in Washington, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON - A Washington audience heard an anecdote Wednesday about a young John Baird as the foreign affairs minister illustrated how much Canada's foreign policy has changed during his time in politics.

Baird told more than 1,000 people at an American Jewish Congress convention about his days as a staffer in the Mulroney-Campbell governments, to drive home a point about Canada's increasingly idealistic foreign policy.

During a briefing that touched on the subject of rocket attacks on Israel, Baird recalled a civil servant telling him it wasn't easy in the Middle East to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, or "the white hats from the black hats."

He sat there stunned, without saying a word. He said he began doodling on a page, and listed items under a white hat: "Israel," "liberal democracy," "our best friend." And under a black hat, he wrote: "Hezbollah," "international terrorism," "our worst enemy."

"Twenty years later, we don't have briefings like that anymore," Baird said to applause. "There is no room for moral relativism."

Baird's address included familiar warnings about Iran and other neighbours of Israel that would imperil its existence.

"The days are gone when Canada's foreign policy was defined simply by taking the middle path, by testing the temperature of those around the table, and landing somewhere not too hot, not too cold," he said.

"Relativism isn't leadership — it's the easy way out."

Baird was preceded on stage by Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and presumptive front-runner should she choose to run for president in 2016.

Each spoke kindly of the other, and delivered a similar joke about who was Wednesday's true headliner.

"I'm really warming up the crowd for John," Clinton said, to laughs.

On substance, the pair delivered similarly skeptical messages about Iran.

With nuclear talks resuming this week in Vienna, Clinton encouraged people to give diplomacy a chance, but expressed doubt that current efforts would stop Iran's nuclear program and called for new sanctions should the efforts fail. Even President Barack Obama has put the prospects of success at 50-50.

"We will have to be tough, clear-eyed and ready to walk away," Clinton said.

"No deal is better than a bad deal... We cannot and should not accept any deal that endangers Israel and our own national security."

Baird, meanwhile, ridiculed the idea that Iran was pursuing nuclear technology for peaceful reasons. He said Canada also has nuclear-power facilities — although, unlike Iran's, he said, they're not buried under the earth and are located near the actual power grid.

He complimented Clinton's successor as secretary of state, John Kerry, for having the courage to jump "head first" into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which he described as possibly the world's most intractable geopolitical problem.

But he was particularly effusive when referring to Clinton, whom he called a friend.

"It was tremendously kind of her to come and be the warmup act for Canada today," he joked.

"Seriously, though, Hillary and I are from different sides of the political aisle. But I struggled to find reasons to disagree with her when we were counterparts and worked closely together.

"I came to have huge respect for her strength and her leadership."

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