NEWS, Sunday, January 12,
2003, p. A01
The 'Michelangelo of networking'
Canadian acts for Annan in N.
Korea Maurice Strong 'man of influence'
Lynda Hurst Lynda Hurst
Maurice Strong: 'A maverick independence'
Canada's Maurice Strong is in North Korea today to assess the country's
humanitarian situation on behalf of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
It's almost certain he's really there to find out what's behind the isolated
regime's current belligerence. As a U.N. spokesperson phrased it, "He is willing
to listen to whatever the North Koreans will bring up."
In throwing out U.N. nuclear-weapons inspectors last month, North Korea
ignited the fury of the United States. In withdrawing Friday from the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has added to the disquiet of a world already
unnerved by the looming war in Iraq. Someone has to try to defuse the stalemate
before it escalates still further.
But why has the 73-year-old Strong, albeit a man of many incarnations, been
tapped to do it?
The billionaire businessman who made his fortune in the oil industry is best
known for his rebirth as an untiring promoter of environmental globalism, a
stance that's hardly endeared him to conservative elements in the U.S.
How does overseeing, most famously, the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit-
which kick-started the Kyoto accord- translate a decade later into mediating a
political crisis that could lead to nuclear war?
Observers say people forget, or don't know, that Strong has had a long-time
connection to the inner reaches of the U.N.
Indeed, for a man who's been described as the "Michelangelo of networking,"
who consults, advises or sits on more than 40 boards and foundations and has
close friends that range from the Rockefellers and Rothschilds to Mikhail
Gorbachev and Henry Kissinger, his public profile in recent years has been
He led Ethiopian famine relief in the mid-'80s and was a major player on the
U.N.'s restructuring commission in the mid-'90s. But in 1996, he was appointed a
special adviser by Annan, one of several, but the one widely regarded as having
particular influence. His diplomatic activities on Annan's behalf are rarely
What is known is that Strong has been quietly involved with North Korean aid
since 1995, when the country's state-run economy collapsed amidst drought,
famine and several other natural disasters.
In 1999, he met concerned Chinese and South Korean leaders over what can be
done with a country that spends exorbitant amounts on arms while as many as 2
million of its people have died of hunger. Before he arrived in Pyongyang late
last week, he was in Beijing meeting officials. As North Korea's sole communist
ally, China may have a vital role to play- if it's persuaded to do so.
So, if some wonder why Strong, David Malone, president of the U.N.-monitoring
International Peace Academy in New York, asks why on Earth not Strong?
"He's a figure of significant influence internationally, a subtle and highly
attuned operator," says the former Canadian ambassador to the U.N. "He is a good
agent because he is a blank slate on the North Korea issue. He doesn't seek
Malone thinks the impasse between North Korea and the U.S. and International
Atomic Energy Agency will end up before the Security Council within weeks.
Before it gets there, Annan wants to know what exactly North Korean leader Kim
Jong-il is really thinking.
Strong is being counted on- at least by the U.N., if not Washington- to find
out what offensive strategy, if any, has he in mind.
"I doubt he's carrying any messages from the U.S.," says John McNeill, a
historian at Georgetown University's school of foreign service in Washington,
D.C. "Insofar as he attracts any notice in Washington, it's for international
environmental action. But Strong has a maverick independence."
The fact that he is Canadian, though a highly unusual one, will count in his
favour, says John Polanyi, the Nobel Prize-winning University of Toronto
chemist. Strong won't be seen by North Korea as a servant of the U.S., which is
viewed there as the one that's been ratcheting up the current hostility.
"I'm delighted he's there, it's a marvellous step, because talking at this
high level is extremely important. It should have been done in Iraq and we might
not be at the stage that we're at there."
Polanyi, a leading advocate of nuclear disarmament, says it is crucial to
determine the reasons for North Korea's reckless actions- "presumably it has
some other purpose in mind than attacking the rest of the world."
There are rational arguments to be made, he says, that can be listened to,
and in turn made, by Strong. If North Korea feels threatened by its own economic
weakness and isolation, "that can be addressed. If the reason it is selling
weapons is to get hard currency, that can be addressed."
He has the ear of influential people the world over for good reason, Polanyi
adds. "What most characterizes him is his belief that history is what you make
Strong has a legion of fans in environmental circles, but skeptics as well,
who don't like his business affiliations and question the depth of his passion
for the cause. Though hugely admired in the business world, there are critics
there who think his Father Earth-ism is either hopelessly idealistic or
But both groups are intrigued by a man who was vice-president of Dome
Petroleum at 25, president of the Power Corporation at 29 and the first head of
Petro-Canada but who now sits on the boards of or advises alternative-energy
"He's a man of many parts," says Malone. "A man of action and influence."
Strong himself sees no contradictions in his life's work. A childhood spent
in Winnipeg during the Great Depression produced an adult who was "a socialist
in ideology, a capitalist in methodology," he once said.
"He's a puzzle to many people, including me," says Robert Bothwell, director
of U of T's international relations program. "I have an uneasy feeling about his
having so many interests. Sometimes I think there is less there than meets the
Bothwell says Strong's tenure as head of the Canadian International
Development Agency in the mid-60s was "not impressive. And though he was brought
in as the great miracle worker at Ontario Hydro in 1992, he did nothing to stop
it spiralling further into disaster."
But then, 1992 was an exceedingly busy year. Twenty years earlier, Strong had
organized the first, small U.N. environmental conference in Stockholm, but the
Earth Summit in Rio was a much more complex affair with disparate political
A green card holder with an 80,000-hectare ranch in Colorado, Strong has
contributed to both the Republican and Democrat parties because, as he once
admitted, he "wanted influence in the U.S."
He hasn't hesitated to lambaste the Bush White House for abandoning the Kyoto
accord or for not attending the latest Earth Summit in Johannesburg last year.
Certainly, some U.S. diplomats retain a distaste for him. The late Charles
Lichenstein, deputy U.N. ambassador during the 1980s, told the conservative
National Review in 1997 that Strong is "a very dangerous ideologue, way over to
He is regularly demonized by the American far right, which claims that
underneath the save-the-Earth icing, Strong's real agenda is to transform the
U.N. into a world government, in which the U.S. would lose primacy, except as a
Whether he's networking with power-brokers at the studiously mysterious Bilderberg Conferences or at the
annual Davos Economic Summit, he is ever plotting a power grab by the U.N., they
They point out that Strong was a key member of the Commission on Global
Governance, which in 1996 called for an end to the veto power of the five
permanent members of the Security Council- the U.S. included.
But in his 2001 book Where On Earth Are We Going? Strong appears to rule out
a world government. He argues that managing the technological society requires
an entirely new governing structure; not a traditional hierarchy, but "a network
of institutions, governmental and non-governmental, local, regional, national
Strong has helped a protege or two along the way. James Wolfensohn, president
of the World Bank, was hired by Strong straight out of Harvard to work at one of
his Australian oil subsidiaries. Forty years later, Wolfensohn appointed him his
special adviser at the World Bank. A long-time Liberal, Strong was also happy to
start the career of former finance minister Paul Martin back in his days at
Contacts matter to Strong. And getting the job done, whatever conflicting
interests are in play.
"One of the great underlying truths of environmental politics is that the
environment is supranational," he has written. "It transcends the nation state.
At the very least, it has to be dealt with multilaterally."
The same, it didn't need saying, applies to negotiating world peace.
Which is why he is in North Korea as an envoy of the U.N. "And it really
doesn't matter," says Polanyi, "if the U.S. likes him going in or not."
In his latest incarnation as political mediator, Maurice Strong is still not
prepared to let history passively happen.
Category: Front Page; News
Uniform subject(s): Foreign
policy and foreign relations
Copyright © 2003 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved.
Doc. : news·20030112·TS·0GKEI7O3I