In recent years a spate of books and reports by Jennifer Welsh, Andrew Cohen, Canada 25, and many others have set out in some detail Canada’s recent international performance and perceptions thereof.
To know where to go in international policy, you must know where you have been.
Having a narrative, of course, is one thing; having an assessment is another. How did this country arrive at what many consider to represent an all time a low tide?
In my estimation, this has occurred, in roughly equal measure:
* By default. That is, the inevitability of a relative decline post-1947 in Canada’s power and influence as other countries rebuilt or emerged; the generally shrinking place of the state in the overall globalization mix, and; the movement of the locus of activity upwards, outwards and downwards to supranational, transnational and sub-national actors, respectively.
* By design. That is, the deliberate reductions in DFAIT resources; the ascendance of micro-management and centralized control; the nature of recent ministerial appointments; the downsizing of Ottawa’s world-view, and; agglomeration of decision-making function at the executive level.
* As a result of long term domestic trends. That is, the fragmenting of the old middle class, non-partisan consensus which used to exist around a suite of widely-held notions (Pearsonian internationalism, middle power role, generous aid donor, conflict resolver, helpful fixer, peacekeeper, provider of good offices) in favour of a focus on more highly particularistic special interests (climate change, aboriginal issues, weapons of mass destruction, rain forests, terrorism, women’s rights, pandemic disease, genomics, etc.)
This splintering – for better or worse – of international policy values and interests will make it difficult to again catalyze public opinion around broad Canadian objectives. That said, public diplomacy, or PD, as a technique for delivering international policy results through dialogue, plays directly to Canada’s soft power strengths (image, reputation, brand). Equally significant, it minimizes the weaknesses and vulnerabilities associated with diminished hard power, ongoing capacity limitations and this country’s generally shrinking space in the planetary scheme of things.
With an admirable reputation and positive image, public diplomacy is Canada’s strongest comparative advantage in international relations. It is almost incomprehensible that this function has taken among the hardest of hits in the recent round of resource reductions. Not only is this akin to shooting yourself in the foot when you are in a race, but it forces even greater distortions and misallocations throughout the diplomatic network.
The Public Diplomacy Officers assigned to Canadian missions abroad are on the front lines of reductions, and in some cases the removal of their budgets for programming, travel or representation. The very significant administrative overheads and related costs associated with keeping these people in place is difficult to justify when in many cases no real work can be done.
How might a compelling value proposition be rebuilt?
The bottom line, I believe, will involve restoring DFAIT in general, and PD in particular to the centre of a whole-of-country, whole-of-government Canadian grand strategy for international policy re-engagement. In this, diplomacy and development would displace defence as the policy instruments of choice.
This strategy would be crafted in explicit response to key contemporary developments in world political economy:
* power shift, in favour of the (re)emerging Asia-Pacific region
* the coming into place of a new suite of global challenges, distinct from the Cold War threat set in that most of these transnational issues are rooted in science and driven by technology
* the rise of heterpolarity as the basis for world order
Canada is unique in this highly competitive world in that it bridges: to Europe, through our history; to the USA and the Americas, through our present priorities and orientation, and; across the Pacific, to Asia, the largest source of new Canadians and the dynamic centre of the new global economy.
It is long past time for this country to use those bridges, diplomatically, as conduits to a brighter international policy future.
The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference – dealing now with one of the foremost issues, among many, which is rooted in science and driven by technology – will offer manifold opportunities to engage constructively.