Canadian Public Diplomacy, Then and Now

I have recently been reviewing a new book entitled Diplomacy in the Digital Age, which is a collection of essays prepared in honour of Allan Gotlieb, a former Undersecretary of State  for External Affairs and Canada’s ambassador in Washington from 1981-89. It is an absorbing anthology, and contains valuable entries penned in some instances by those who worked with Mr. Gotlieb during his time in the USA. Quite apart from eliciting specific reactions to the content of the volume, reading it has also spurred me to reflect on the larger issue of what became of Canada’s once considerable contribution to the study and practice of public diplomacy (PD).

The Government of Canada was until fairly recently regarded as a somewhat of PD pioneer. That reputation would now be difficult to sustain. Indeed, I have come to the rather stark realization that whatever this country may at one time have achieved by way of advancing its interests through PD, those days are now long gone.

In official and political circles in Ottawa today, little or nothing is heard of PD. Diplomatic representatives can no longer connect directly with foreign populations unless their scripts have been pre-cleared, and even the use of the term has been discouraged. Within the foreign ministry (DFAIT), the function has been almost completely de-resourced.

Hence the questions must be put: what, exactly, did Canada manage to achieve in terms of public diplomacy outcomes over the past several decades?  Why has PD fallen from grace? Can any lessons of broader relevance be adduced?

Canadian academics, and several several serving and former diplomats have over time been active in the conceptualization and analysis of PD. Publications such as Allan Gotlieb’s I’ll Be With You in a Minute, Mr. Ambassador, Gordon Smith’s Virtual Diplomacy, Rob McRae and Don Hubert’s Human Security and the New Diplomacy, Andy Cooper’s Celebrity Diplomacy, Evan Potter’s Branding Canada, and perhaps even my own Guerrilla Diplomacy have been seen by some to break new ground in the field.

In addition to these intellectual contributions, the Canadian foreign ministry has been deeply involved in the practical application of PD. Beginning in the 1980s, most of Canada’s major diplomatic undertakings – the 1981 Cancun Summit on North-South relations; Prime Minister Trudeau’s 1984 peace crusade; the acid rain and free trade pacts with the USA;  the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone layer depletion, and; the Commonwealth campaign to end apartheid in southern Africa – included a significant PD component. Even if not labeled as public diplomacy at the time, a willingness to connect directly with foreign populations, the strategic use of the media, and tactics such as forging partnerships with business and civil society were integral to each of these initiatives.

In early in the 1990s, and quite explicitly so by the second half of the decade, PD moved even closer to the centre of Canadian international policy.  In the organization and delivery of the 1992 Rio Summit on Environment and Development,  throughout the so-called “fish war” with Spain in 1994, and particularly during the four year tenure of Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy (1996-2000), PD, and the related notion of soft power, were the order of the day.

Charged with implementing the severe expenditure reductions  associated with the government-wide Program Review exercise of the mid-1990s, Axworthy must have concluded that the page had to be turned on old ways, and that global order projects would accordingly have to be set aside. But he was clearly not prepared to accept that this meant inaction. To the contrary, he demanded that DFAIT officials identify innovative ways for Canada to “make a difference”. He was determined to find opportunity in adversity, even if faced with opposition on the part of the US and other major powers, and indeed of many Canadians.

DFAIT staff rose to the challenge, and came forth with a series of proposals. In the campaigns leading to the signature of the Treaty Banning Land Mines in 1997 and to the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 1998,  Axworthy attained his objectives by nurturing  partnerships with international civil society and similarly-inclined countries. He also reached out in an unprecedented fashion to the journalists, the academic community and NGOs at home, mainly through creation of the Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development and the Public Diplomacy Fund at DFAIT.

The same approach, in varying degrees, was seen in initiatives intended to limit the spread of small arms, to underscore the plight of children in war zones and curb the use of child soldiers, and to restrict the sale of “conflict diamonds” through the launch of the Kimberly Process. Canada also sponsored the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, whose final report, The Responsibility to Protect, though initially overtaken by the events of 9/11, resurfaced and was adopted in principle at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2005.

Taken together, Axworthy’s achievements were artfully – and, in part, retrospectively – packaged by officials into a remarkably coherent program which came to be known as the Human Security Agenda. Although that policy direction did not survive for long following the Minister’s departure from office, the record of activity in the second half of the 1990s stands nonetheless as enduring testament to the power and potential of Canadian PD. It was a high point which has not since been revisited. To a significant extent, I would suggest that whatever remains Canada’s positive international reputation – its brand –  still relies on these, and earlier accomplishments.

I will return to an assessment of PD’s decline in the next post.

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