Bob Rae, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations speaks at the General Assembly 58th plenary meeting in New York on February 23, 2022, on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Munk School

In Focus: Ambassador Bob Rae

Ambassador Bob Rae is a busy person. He is Canada’s permanent representative to the UN’s headquarters in New York City and this is the week of the General Assembly, known colloquially as UNGA. UNGA is the marquee event of the year, where strategic interactions regularly unfold among leaders, whether in speeches, in meetings or between their diplomatic representatives.   

Rae, who is also a Distinguished Fellow of the Munk School, is uniquely well-equipped. Prior to 2020, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped him for New York, he was a Munk School professor, teaching tomorrow’s leaders about policy and governance. By then, he was already an historic figure on Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, having won multiple elections and led both the provincial NDP and the federal Liberals, the latter on an interim basis. That depth of experience now informs his mandate to represent Canada on the world stage, where policy and global affairs intersect.

Rae seems to understand that commitment is among his greatest assets at UN headquarters. It is a place where 193 representatives puzzle out what they might be able to persuade humanity to agree on for its own good. Not only are these political waters choppy, but they are also vast and deeply complex. 

But Rae isn't intimidated. He spoke with the Munk School during the time leading up to the General Assembly high-level week, a time when Rae and his fellow permanent representatives prepared for negotiations and goal setting between their respective leaders. Rae explained that his role at UNGA is strictly supportive to Trudeau, foreign minister Mélanie Joly, and the rest of the Canadian delegation. But, with his wisdom, he recognizes the difficulty of the problems at hand. When asked about the scale of response to climate change that would be necessary to stop its progress, Rae sounded intent on meeting the challenge.  

“The challenge is not just to reduce emissions, the challenge is reducing emissions significantly every year, and doing it without unbalancing the global economy. If we don't think about the economy and how we can make it work better and how we can keep things going at the same time as we're making this big change, people will say, well, I'm not going to do this. We are all [at the UN] working in the framework of public opinion, and it's exceptionally important that we keep an eye on both issues. And now this third issue, which is resilience, building infrastructure that helps people deal with the current crisis. So, it isn't easy. It's difficult, but it doesn't mean we don't have to do it. We do have to do it. We have no choice but to do all three.” 

Historically, this is a time like no other – rife with conflict, every ecosystem threatened or surrounded by threats, and worldwide decline in democracy and human rights. Human catastrophe is so frequent now that it’s hard to conceive of a system of help that would even scratch the surface. Unsurprisingly, Rae’s take on the scale of need is modest and determined. 

“There's lots of work to do. The world needs repairing all the time, and I think that's a very important feeling that we need to have, that there's imperfections in the world. As Leonard Cohen said, there's a crack in everything, and that's where the light gets in, and you've got to find that light and find that space and find a way to make a difference and contribute.” 

“I've been incredibly lucky in having an opportunity to serve in so many different ways, and I feel quite fulfilled in doing each one of them.” 

And if he could share wisdom with a younger version of himself? “I think the best advice I can give is to try to give yourself the space to stay positive and to stay focused on what is the contribution you can make. No one person can solve all these problems.” 

Now 75, one wonders at what point Rae will feel he has given enough in service and return to a quieter life. The good news, for Canada and the world, is there are no signs of that time approaching. Disasters are spreading, tyrants are emboldened, and entire economies are in tatters. These are choppy political waters; the ship needs righting and Bob Rae remains ready to help.