Axworthy was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan to a family with strong United Church roots. A brilliant student Axworthy received his PhD from Princeton University before returning to Canada to teach at the University of Manitoba.
An active student politician Axworthy was elected as a member of the Manitoba legislature in 1973. In 1979 he moved to federal politics and became a cabinet minister in the government of Pierre Trudeau serving first as minister of employment and immigration and then as minister of transport.
In the Liberal defeat in the 1984 election Axworthy was the only Liberal from the Prairies to be elected. Axworthy played an important role in opposition forcefully attacking the government of Brian Mulroney, he was an especially vocal critic of the Canadian-American Free Trade Agreement.
When the Liberals returned to power under Jean Chretien Axworthy became one of the most important cabinet ministers. After the election he was given responsibility for the vast new Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) and launched a major overhaul of employment insurance.
Axworthy's true interest was in international relations and in a 1996 cabinet shuffle he became Minister of Foreign Affairs. Axworthy excelled in this position becoming a strong advocate of Canada's tradition of multilateralism, his greatest success was the Ottawa Treaty an international treaty to ban anti- personnel land mines for which he was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. He also campaigned against the use of child soldiers and the international trade in light weapons.
In September of 2000 Axworthy retired from public life and returned to academia joining the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. He is also a frequent public speaker on matters relating to international relations and has published a number of books on the subject. He as also served as a United Nations envoy tasked with resolving the Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute.