The 39th Parliament
The art of the political snub
Last Updated Nov. 16, 2006
There is an art to the political snub. Sometimes it's vocal, often it's silent, and it's always controversial.
Witness these recent "snubs."
When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004, most countries sent lower-level delegates to his funeral, fearing that they could offend Israeli or Palestinian leaders by sending in the higher ups. Canada sent Pierre Pettigrew to join the likes of Britain's Jack Straw.
When Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005, the Queen decided not to attend the civil ceremony, a decision that was widely called a snub that signalled her disapproval of the nuptials.
When governor general Adrienne Clarkson declined to attend a memorial for Alberta's late lieutenant-governor Lois Hole because she was representing Canada abroad, critics labelled her decision as a snub.
And here's one snub for the ages. In 1994, Russia's Boris Yeltsin didn't bother to leave a plane to greet Ireland's leader Albert Reynolds after it landed. Reynolds, who was waiting for Yeltsin on the tarmac, cancelled a lavish reception and ended up settling for a meeting with the deputy Russian prime minister, who told him that Yeltsin was too tired and too ill to see him.
So is snub the right word to describe these actions or, in many cases, inactions? A dictionary definition says to snub is to "treat with disdain or contempt, especially by ignoring" and, alternately, "to check or reject or reject with a sharp rebuke or remark."
Posturing, or not?
So is it all bluster and posturing? Not all the time. When China backed out of a meeting between President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a conference in November 2006, it was seen as a snub that marked the culmination of almost a year of cooling relations. Beijing has taken offence at a number of moves by Harper's government since its election in January, including accusations that China conducts commercial espionage and persecutes religious minorities, and a demand for the release of a Chinese-Canadian being held in a Chinese prison. When the previous Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin, welcomed Hu on a state visit in September 2005, the two countries talked about a "strategic partnership." But under the Tories, it has been more like a silent partnership — even though China eventually relented and said Harper and Hu would meet at the APEC summit after all.
"On the political level, relations between China and Canada are quite poor," Robert Bothwell, the director of the international relations program at University of Toronto, told CBC.ca before the Chinese government changed its position. "I'm actually surprised that the Canadian side thought that they were going to get a meeting."
He cites statements by government members about Taiwan and giving honorary Canadian citizenship to Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, as among the actions that have changed Ottawa's stand on China. Canada used to send Team Canada missions, for example, with high-level politicians to seek trade deals.
Bothwell says that if that's Ottawa's position, "that's fine — but you shouldn't in return expect that they're going to do you any favours."
Tit for tat
Even between countries that have good relations, small arguments and disagreements can lead to snubs. In 2003, George W. Bush was set to embark on his first state visit to Canada. Then Jean Chrétien announced Canada was not going to support the war in Iraq. Bush cancelled his visit, said he'd be busy, then invited Australia's Prime Minister John Howard to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for a visit. Howard supported the Iraq war and the rebuke was clear.
George W. Bush and Paul Martin during Bush's visit in November 2004. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)
A year later, Bush made his first state to Canada, and surprised his host, prime minister Paul Martin, with a political hot potato by asking Canada to join his missile-defence program. Months later, Martin opted out in a move that was described by the Washington Post as a "snub." An angry Washington promptly delayed a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
These high-level meetings between leaders are not set aside to get a lot of work done, or deals to be detailed. Rather, they are ways for leaders to build a relationship and signal to the public that there are strong relations. It also offers face time and a nice photo op.
These meetings "are usually just a barometer, especially when you've got heavy-duty [politicians] going," Bothwell said. "The most you can hope for is an exchange of generalities which would set the tone for exchanges further on down."
When it comes to responding to a snub, politicians can decide to inflame things further or find a way to normalize relations. While responding to Beijing's initial snub regarding the meeting with the Chinese president, Harper said he would continue to trumpet "important Canadian values" and continue to talk about human rights while promoting trade. Of course, the Chinese then offered a meeting, but said it would reject criticism of human-rights issues in the country.
Before China reversed its position, however, Bothwell said it would be best if Ottawa went with the flow and didn't make a big deal of the snub.
"I think we should be mature about it and not whine," he said. "We should take our lumps and say, 'Well, that's their attitude and we have other things to do and life goes on.'"
As proof there are fences to be mended and that political memory can be short, there was the G8 meeting held in France in 2003, just months after the Iraq war was launched and declared won. There was Bush and there was French leader Jacques Chirac, who had been vocal in his criticism of the U.S.-led war, and there was everyone else, expecting sharp words. The two men met, shook hands and Bush said he had a "very positive" conversation with the leader. Then Bush left Evian in a flash, 24 hours early, leaving seven leaders behind. Not a snub, the White House said, just tough scheduling.
Past Canadian political snubs
Richard Nixon and Pierre Trudeau: The U.S. president and prime minister did not enjoy good relations. Nixon said once during a visit by Trudeau to the United States in 1971, that he was a "pompous egghead." Bothwell says "most of Nixon's officials agreed with Trudeau so they paid no attention to what Nixon was saying and just carried on, so it can happen that way, that's the best kind of thing."
Lester B. Pearson, left, and Lyndon B. Johnson sign an auto free-trade deal in 1965. External affairs minister Paul Martin is beside Pearson and secretary of state Dean Rusk is with Johnson. (Associated Press)
Charles de Gaulle: In 1967, the French president broke protocol in Quebec and uttered his famous rallying cry "Vive le Quebec libre!," enflaming separatism and drawing a rebuke from Pearson ("Canadians do not need to be liberated"). "Most of [de Gaulle's] officials disapproved of that and they made that very clear to their Canadian friends."
Lyndon Johnson and Lester B. Pearson: "President Johnson, the American president in the 1960s, was quite aggravated with Canada over the Vietnam War, but he didnít refuse to see prime minister Pearson," Bothwell said. "He just made it quite clear he didn't want to see him. And when they did meet, Johnson made it pretty plain that he didn't want to be there. So, that's an unusual one, it was one where there was actually a meeting but it was pretty unpleasant."
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