Disorderly World: Understanding the global governance gap – Part II

A tall order

Within western governments – and not least in Canada – there is scant sign that this message has resonated, or even registered faintly. Mired in hypocrisy and beset by contradictions, most administrations are thrashing about in a thorny thicket of chronic underperformance and face a crisis of credibility, if not legitimacy.

What, then, to do if we are to avert plunging over a civilizational tipping point beyond which there may be no return? there are at minimum three pre-requisites:

Get to global governance. The Breton Woods institutions represent a bygone era and are foundering. Think disastrous military interventions in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, disarray in NATO, the serial failure of neoliberal economic prescriptions, paralysis at the UN and the implosion of the ill-starred G-7 Summit in Charleviox. There has been some institutional renewal  (the G-20, Asian Infrastructure and Development Bank, Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and progress  (the African Union and ASEAN), but none of it is nearly enough. Heteropolarity, globalization  and shifting power won’t wait.

Up the diplomatic game. As a non-violent approach to the management of international relations characterized by dialogue, negotiation, compromise, representation and problem solving, diplomacy is part art, part science and part alchemy. At a time when the world’s most serious challenges – climate change, pandemic disease, environmental collapse, to name a few – are immune to the application of armed force, diplomacy is needed more than ever. You can’t send out an expeditionary force to occupy the alternatives to a carbon economy, or garrison against Ebola, or call in an airstrike on a warming planet.  But in North America, and in much of South America, Europe, and Africa, foreign ministries are under-resourced (if not gutted) and in crisis. Diplomacy’s business model and organizational structures are in desperate need of radical reform, rigorous innovation and substantial reinvestment.

Jettison outdated  thinking. The globalization age is volatile, complex and uncertain. Ambiguity and paradox reign. Yet the mind-set of most Western leaders features three hallmarks carried over from the previous historical epoch. These include:

  • Subscription to a binary world view: everything is perceived as black/white; good/bad; win/lose. From rigid alignment during the Cold War with the “Free World” or the “Commies” to today’s equivalent of “you’re with us or with the terrorists”, there remains no place for subtle shades of grey.
  • Characterization of the overarching threat as universal and undifferentiated: the enemy is everywhere and it’s all the same. The Soviet Union, China, Viet Nam, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea and others once constituted the ubiquitous “Red Menace”. Now it is ISIL, Al Qaeda, their affiliates, plus the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah and many more who together are treated as an ever-present source of dread and are reputed to endanger everyone, all of the time.
  • Militarization of the international policy response: reach first for the gun, maintain a permanent war footing, and rely on the politics of fear to engineer domestic support. Few will forget the fearful symmetry of containment, deterrence, proxy war and Mutually Assured Destruction; fast forward to the present and find the endless War on Terror – drone assassinations, counterinsurgency, and the proliferation of bases, “stabilization operations” and special forces.

Plus ca change.

Combine the persistence of a simplistic world view with a blunt, but far reaching assessment of the threat, and you have an international policy prescription for permanent defense dominance at the expense of diplomacy and development.

They are diminished as the Leviathan grows.

And there’s the rub.

Disorderly World: Understanding the global governance gap – Part I

For analysts of contemporary international relations, perhaps only one thing is clear: this is neither the world envisioned by the signatories of the Atlantic Charter, nor that of the post-Cold War triumphalists.

As a result of continuing globalization (the defining historical process of our times) and heteropolarity (the emerging world order model), power is shifting and the operating environment for diplomacy and foreign policy is undergoing  profound transformation.

Emotion, conviction and ideology, thriving in the echo chamber of the social and digital media, and are now privileged over facts, evidence and rational assessment.

Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and Robotics constitute new frontiers, but the lasting implications are largely unexplored.

We have entered terra incognita, and the risks are multiplying.

Strange days

Under pressure from a staggering array of vexing, S&T-driven, transnational issues – the new threat set – state-centricity in international relations is waning fast. The lack of an effective institutional response has revealed a global governance gap of striking magnitude.

Donald Trump, abetted by a clutch of retreaded generals and assorted other barbarians inside the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, has accelerated the decline of America’s global prestige and influence. This has created a vacuum; rising Asia, and in particular China and India, has emerged as the primary beneficiary.

Brexit, internal divisions, and the rise of xenophobic, right-wing populism in many parts of Europe have preoccupied the EU. Just when the world most needs the moderating influence of a strong and united Europe, both the organization and its members are looking inwards at precisely the time that they should be looking out.

Shaky institutions, toxic politics, and a wavering commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law have prevented  a number of potentially significant powers from achieving anything close to their promise. Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Egypt, Nigeria, and a host of other countries remain on the sidelines as the status quo crumbles.

All of this has been complicated by the persistent machinations of a cunning, calculating, and increasingly bold Russia intent upon reasserting itself as a great power. The bear is wide awake, and hungry.

Add to that the spectacle of a demented eagle unable to fly, a dragon foraging far and wide, tigers on the prowl … The erstwhile global village is looking more like a zoo – if not the intergalactic bar in Star Wars.

Bottom line?  Analysts and decision-makers today face the daunting challenge of navigating in uncharted spaces, of identifying and managing multiple vulnerabilities, and of responding to the strategic imperative of converting adversity into opportunity.

Part IV – Innovation. adaptation and foreign policy in the age of globalization: Is Global Affairs Canada fit for purpose?

Blogger’s Note: The following series is drawn from the unabridged version of a commentary which has been published in edited form this month by The Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.


In considering all of the above, it must be emphasized that there exists a direct, dialectical relationship between results and resources, yet federal spending on diplomacy has been in a pattern of decline for decades. In its first two budgets the Trudeau government has done next to nothing to address that situation. To perform effectively, diplomats need to be provided with access to all of the available tools of their trade, including training, personnel support and travel, and this cannot be done in the absence of sufficient finance.

Working smarter is necessary, but will be insufficient without re-investment.

Read more…

Part III – Innovation. adaptation and foreign policy in the age of globalization: Is Global Affairs Canada fit for purpose?

Blogger’s Note: The following series is drawn from the unabridged version of a commentary which has been published in edited form this month by The Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.

It won’t be easy, but for starters:

  1. Redefinition of purpose and structure. Recast the mandate and mission of Global Affairs Canada to create a central agency for the management of globalization and the integration of international policy across government. Functioning at a higher level will require some fundamental re-engineering, legislative action, and a more sophisticated approach to the use of social and digital media. To better generate intelligence and to take full advantage of the vital connection to place, the reform package should feature a more flexible approach to representation, and a smaller, flatter, more focussed headquarters, with more foreign service and an enlarged role for missions abroad.
  2. Identification of strategic priorities and interests. Since the last over-arching international policy review in 2005, the global operating environment and landscape have become almost unrecognizable. The implications for Canada of power shift from the North Atlantic to the Asia Pacific, the emergence of a heteropolar world order, and the explosive growth of Big Data have not been thought through. Add to that the outstanding questions about managing a growing number wicked, transnational, S&T-based threats, ranging from climate change to pandemic disease, and it becomes evident that a full and fresh assessment is overdue. The appointment of a Departmental Science Advisor, the restoration of analytical capacity and charging the department with developing an international science strategy and plan would represent a beginning.
  3. Cultural transformation. Foreign ministries are renown for their authoritarian social relations and hidebound adherence to orthodoxy. After almost 10 years of battering – with little resistance – in the face of the Tory onslaught, greater openness and transparency will not come easily. Many existing executives are more comfortable with international treaties than with branding. Some of the clever courtiers who thrived on managing upwards will likely find it difficult to make the transition from risk aversion to risk management, and from following orders to rewarding experimentation and extracting knowledge from failure. Nonetheless, the days of ambitious careerists getting ahead at the expense of those they supervise, while specializing in making the boss look good, must end. Ditto for blessing the received wisdom, judging ideas by their provenance rather than their quality, and, often under the guise of team playing, engaging in corporate cloning. Continuous learning – including from failure – and an openness to experimentation represent a more promising way forward.
  4. Leadership transfusion. Any properly functioning foreign service must retain a rotational core, post abroad and promote from within the ranks, and wherever possible support long-term career planning. That said, to enlarge professional development opportunities and to augment expertise in certain specialized areas, a degree of cross-ventilation is required. Clearly, more than a few of today’s senior officials who prospered during the dark decade achieved their positions by stifling dissent and otherwise acceding to the draconian strictures imposed by the Harper government. These are not members of a leadership cadre required to offer fearless policy advice, speak truth to power, or to otherwise deliver an activist, innovative foreign policy. Through a more targeted approach to recruitment and an expanded program of secondments and exchanges both within and outside of government, now is the time to turn the inside out and bring the outside in. To weed out chronic underperformers and ensure personal and professional adaptability, make demonstrated managerial proficiency outside the foreign ministry a pre-requisite to promotion into EX group or assignment overseas as Head of Mission.
  5. Organizational flattening. In an era of lateral partnerships, connectivity and networks, GAC’s organizational structure serves to impede innovation and discourage creativity. The Department’s hallmarks remain its rigid hierarchy, insularity and jealously guarded fiefdoms. In 2017 the department has as many layers between desk officers and the minister’s office – at minimum, seven – as it did when I joined the foreign service in 1981. This costly and inefficient model slows bureaucratic process and disempowers those at the working level who are closest to the issues and actually know the files. The foreign ministry would benefit from fewer stovepipes and silos, and the encouragement of multiple professional identities. For the Head of Mission, this may mean new fashioning a role as a coach, a country or regional brand manager, a network node rather than top dog. Foreign ministries will never become Silicone Valley style idea incubators or “skunk works”, but absent movement away from the cathedral in the direction of the bazaar, progress in building a more modern, effective and supportive workplace will be impossible.
  6. Tapping new networks. Connect directly with members of burgeoning diaspora communities and harness the potential of this largely untapped resource for political (intelligence), commercial (market access) and scientific purposes. Initiate the targeted recruitment of first and second generation Canadians pre-equipped with vital language and cross-cultural skills. Assign political officers to major Canadian cities with a mandate to forge productive and mutually beneficial relationships based upon cooperation with, and respect for diaspora communities. Engage civil society by renewing long-neglected partnerships with universities, think tanks and NGOs at home and abroad. Reinstate sponsored visits by foreign opinion leaders and rebuild international education programs to dramatically increase the numbers of both foreign students in Canada and Canadians studying abroad.
  7. Flexible overseas representation. The connection to, and knowledge of place are diplomacy’s indispensable features; representational rebalancing and re-profiling are essential. But the days of cookie cutter chancelleries and fixed models governing the establishment and operation of missions abroad are long past. Contemporary circumstances demand the design of smarter, lighter and sometimes more fleeting diplomatic footprints, including storefronts, souks, barrios, banlieues. World cities and major capitals may warrant high visibility and a distinctive physical presence, but in other cases portability, adaptability and the avoidance of lingering legal and administrative overheads will be crucial. As bricks give way to clicks, Canada will need at least as many brass plaques on hotel room doors as it does gates on permanent diplomatic premises. Manuals, regulations and standard operating procedures need to make space for virtuality, improvisation and imagination.
  8. Enlightened diplomatic practice. In conflict zones and elsewhere there will always be a place for traditional diplomacy, with designated envoys transacting the business of governments among themselves, often in confidence. However in the 21st century, as engagement, advocacy and lobbying have become increasingly determinant in securing desired outcomes, it is public diplomacy , abetted by burgeoning use of the social and digital media which arose from the revolution in information and communication technologies, that has become mainstream. Science diplomacy, a specialized sub-set of public diplomacy especially attuned to grand challenges such as management of the global commons and the control of weapons of mass destruction, is particularly relevant. Elevate science diplomacy, which remains almost invisible within the current mix of available tools, to top priority status, and reallocate resources accordingly. Absent the robust pursuit of knowledge-based, technologically-enabled solutions to the vexing array of S&T-rooted issues which together constitute the new threat set, Canada will be unable to achieve its promise as an evidence-driven problem solver. This country was once a leader in these areas, but now trails the pack. That must change, with GAC, in close association with science-based departments and agencies, equipped to lead the way forward.



Part II – Innovation. adaptation and foreign policy in the age of globalization: Is Global Affairs Canada fit for purpose?

Blogger’s Note: The following series is drawn from the unabridged version of a commentary which has been published in edited form this month by The Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.


Relief and reconstruction

Clearly, some demonstrable diplomacy of the deed will be required if the Government of Canada is re-establish its liberal internationalist credentials. But for that to happen, a fundamental rethinking of international policy directions will be essential. The once storied foreign ministry – and indeed the entire diplomatic ecosystem – needs a major overhaul.

This is now job one.

Canadians have been promised a progressive, activist and engaged foreign policy. Yet apart from the fact the diplomatic corpse has been running mainly on fumes, expecting that kind of performance from today’s GAC is something akin to asking a nearly brain-dead former athlete, ignored for years and left on a gurney in the hallway, to get up and run a marathon. With limbs shrunken and torso emaciated, muscles atrophied and reflexes dulled from years on life support, this won’t happen unless reconstruction and relief are provided.

Read more…

Part I – Innovation. adaptation and foreign policy in the age of globalization: Is Global Affairs Canada fit for purpose?

 Blogger’s Note: The following series is drawn from the unabridged version of a commentary which has been published in edited form this month by The Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.



The continuing evolution away from state-centricity requires that diplomacy become more public, inclusive and participatory. Responding to that imperative, and recognizing that the foreign ministry is not a cathedral, the foreign service is not a priesthood, and diplomacy is not liturgy, collectively represent the sine qua non for bringing Canada “back”. By privileging talking over fighting, embracing innovation and re-thinking diplomatic practice and representation abroad, Canada can both advance its interests, effectively pursue its policy goals and make a significant contribution to global peace and prosperity. Absent radical reform and a commitment to praxis, however, none of these outcomes are likely to eventuate. This commentary surveys the past 50 years of diplomatic history, assesses the current government’s record to date, and suggests eight preconditions for real progress.


(Text begins)

Canada veritably oozes soft power, which is earned rather than wielded, and has never been able to achieve its international policy objectives through the use of coercion. Today, however, that wellspring remains largely untapped. Rather than being strategically channeled in support of the advance of Canadian interests, policies and values globally, it is being wasted.

It has not always been thus. For the better part of the last half century – with the notable exception of the past decade – this country has managed its international image and reputation to rack up an enviable record of success. Creativity, cross-cutting partnerships, and effective diplomacy have been hallmarks. The work of a high functioning, adequately resourced foreign ministry played an indispensable role in achieving these results.

From Trudeau to Trudeau, there have been some significant accomplishments.

But not lately…

Read more…

Sharpening the effectiveness of Canada’s diplomatic corpse in five (un)easy pieces

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) — which represents more than 1500 active and retired Canadian foreign service officers — held its first deep-think conference last week in Ottawa on the “foreign service officer of the future.”

While the discussion at the conference was under Chatham House Rule, as a former diplomat and (record?) five term elected member of PAFSO’s Executive Committee – and even though I wasn’t invited to speak – I was delighted to know that PAFSO is thinking about the future of foreign service. Such an exercise is timely and relevant, given that in the face of the new threat set facing humanity (climate, biodiversity, global commons, pandemic disease, alternative energy, and food and water security, to name a few), diplomacy is our best bet.

There are no military solutions — these issues are immune to the application of armed force.

Bomb Ebola?


That said, when it comes to diplomatic practice and institutions, there is much work to be done. Time to raise the bar, and up the game. And while diplomats are certainly already working to improve the foreign service — OpenCanada recently reported on the efforts to make the service gender balanced, for instance — I have additional advice for diplomats currently working in the field. Here are five steps each can take to improve the quality of our foreign service immediately.  

Read more…

Cultural diplomacy writ large: Is Canada anywhere to be seen on the world stage?

Blogger’s Note: On December 14, 2017 I appeared before the Senate Foreign Affairs and International trade Committee to provide testimony on the place of culture within Canada’s suite of international policies and relations. A lengthy Q&A session followed my oral presentation, the transcript of which  may be found below.



Many thanks for the kind invitation to share my thoughts with you on this important matter.

When I was reflecting on the subject, I was drawn to what might be considered a radical assessment, at least in the sense of a fairly high level of analysis of trying to get to the roots of three key issues which I think are in play today. I’m going to set out my argument in terms of background, foreground and a conclusion, a bit like a briefing note. I would like to begin by posing three of what I think are the most fundamental questions.

When we speak of culture, diplomacy and science, what exactly do we mean? In each case, if at all, how are these big blocks of human enterprise interrelated?

Culture is perhaps the most all-encompassing yet amorphous of the three concepts, but it is not airy-fairy and fuzzy. In fact, it can be defined or understood as a collectivity of the norms, customs, characteristics, traditions, artistic expression and behaviour of human groups. It’s transmitted through social learning, which I think is key.

Science, which is often regarded as dense and impenetrable, is an empirical, objective and evidence-based method of knowledge creation which through interrogation, trial and error, and rigorous analysis provides systematic insights into the nature of things. Its methods include postulation, experimentation, data analysis and theorizing.

Diplomacy, sometimes described as the world’s second oldest profession and usually terribly misunderstood, is actually an approach to the management of international relations characterized by dialogue, negotiation, compromise, problem solving and complex balancing. Its tools include soft power, the power of attraction, advocacy, persuasion and influence.

Culture and science, along with education, media relations and advocacy, when bundled together and used by governments internationally to pursue their interests, promote their policies, and project their values is commonly labelled “public diplomacy.”

Let’s dig deeper by unpacking and examining the connections among and between these three critical but too often misunderstood aspects of Canadian foreign policy.

Read more…