It has been a week now since I returned from Foreign Policy Camp in Vancouver – an amazing enterprise largely ignored by the mainstream media.
What to make of the Camp?
The event was superbly organized, innovatively delivered and very well attended by a diverse selection of Canadians drawn from across the country – students, teachers, NGO representatives, business-people, the interested public. CIDA and DND had several delegates each, and all participants were eligible to contribute to a survey of government performance, the findings of which are now available.
DFAIT, curiously was not represented. The absence was noted.
One might wonder what kinds of factors might have combined to keep Canada’s foreign ministry from attending a major national conference on foreign policy. Have the budget cuts been so deep that any travel by anyone is now impossible? Was the Department under political instruction not to attend? Were officials just too busy dealing with all of the urgent issues – such as rising waters around several officials associated with the Richard Colvin affair – to spare time to attend to issues which might merely qualify as important?
I don’t have these answers.
Yet book touring all fall and engaging many audiences on both sides of the Atlantic nonetheless did provide some useful perspectives. With that experience in mind I can offer a few observations related to DFAIT’s unprecedented predicament and the challenges facing Canadian international policy generally.
Despite serial attempts at reform, the Department has mainly failed to adapt to the imperatives of globalization. It remains overly state-centric, hierarchic, rigid in structure and risk-averse in culture. At a time when it might be focussed suppley on managing the clusters of cross-cutting issues which are not the responsibility of other government departments or other levels of government – public administration and policy development, international science and technology issues, the rule of law, rights and democracy, and governance, to name a few – the Department must instead devote its energies to identifying further cuts.
Nor has DFAIT been able to resist the continuing militarization of Canadian foreign policy. It’s influence was reportedly near invisible in high-level discussions on Afghanistan held during the crucial period of 2005 – 07, when arguments favouring a move from stability operations in Kabul to aggressive counter-insurgency in Kandahar were permitted to trump the case for peace-support.
The DND-driven decision to depart from ISAF and join Operation Enduring Freedom, aka the GWOT, was hugely consequential, yet the larger implications for Canada’s security and the management of its overseas brand apparently received scant attention. War has since come to dominate competing international policy priorities.
With so little going on in Ottawa in terms of strategic planning, policy development and global analysis, it was re-assuring to hear so many new voices in Vancouver.