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?

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Diplomatic Surge? Part I – From buzz to becoming

These should be heady days for diplomats. After a long stretch languishing in relative obscurity, the willingness to explore diplomatic alternatives to the use of armed force in the pursuit of international policy objectives has become suddenly, well, fashionable.

The arrival of the Obama administration, and especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, has unleashed a torrent of commentary on soft power, smart power, branding and public diplomacy. Harvard Professor Joseph Nye – the guru of soft, and now, in the vernacular of the moment, smart power – is becoming almost a household name. Special envoys have been appointed, difficult issues broached, executive orders signed and new directions indicated. Diplomatic studies specialists, long neglected by both the media and the mainstream, and rarely if ever consulted by decision-makers and opinion-leaders, are finding themselves surprisingly popular. Even within the sometimes rarified heights of international relations scholarship, diplomacy is receiving unprecedented attention.

The short road from heresy to liturgy is getting even shorter.

Foreign ministries and diplomats everywhere will welcome the attention; they have been through a rough patch and now have their work cut out for them, doing things like assisting with broad-based development, supporting democracy and human rights, and building bridges to civil society. Moreover, practitioners have rarely been better positioned to address pressing professional issues, to burnish the tools of the trade and to engage publics abroad through dialogue and partnership. In much of the world, the image and reputation of the West in general, and the USA in particular, has huge potential on the upside.

In short, statecraft is on a roll, and the timing could scarcely be better.

For those accustomed to toiling unnoticed in the diplomatic wilderness, all of this is giving rise to something akin to an out of body experience.

Carpe diem.

What might be said of this promising trend? How might the diplomatic difficulties of the past few decades be explained? And where to now – can smart power deliver as advertised? In this calculus I see both change, and possibly a disconcerting hint of continuity.

Some observations. Firstly, the new political leadership in the USA appears to have re-discovered that diplomacy per se matters. In the face of a profusion of unresolved conflicts and unaddressed global threats and challenges, many rooted in science and driven by technology, a fresh willingness is in evidence to give negotiation, compromise and meaningful exchange an overdue test drive. But the machinery and its operators have been idling on the sidelines in recent years. A major tune-up, if not a complete re-build will be necessary.

Secondly, and in that regard, the delivery of something broadly similar to the core of former Secretary Rice’s program for transformational diplomacy – representational reform, the retooling of organizational structure and bureaucratic process, and enlargement of the resource base – will be imperative. The implementation of this strategy will not in itself, however, suffice if talking is to triumph over fighting as the international policy instrument of choice. The dominant world view, too, needs a complete refit.

Thirdly, then, and perhaps most fundamentally, it seems to me that diplomacy reached this critical impasse as a result of the imposition of a particular ideological perspective which conditioned, if not determined the political and intellectual environment in which the foreign ministry and foreign service have had to operate.

Let me deal summarily with the first two points:

1. Over the long history of delivering international policy results for states, diplomats have had to manage issues such as territorial disputes, treaty and legal problems, and ideological competition. In the early 21st century, these sorts of challenges, to which might be added terrorism, migration and criminality, are still out there, but have been joined by a daunting set of S&T based issues: climate change and pandemic disease; resource scarcity and environmental collapse; weapons of mass destruction and genomics, to name a few. Most serving diplomats are not equipped, in terms of background, knowledge and experience, to handle successfully these types of files.

2. The prescription for transformational diplomacy recognizes that diplomacy needs to be re-invented from the bottom up, and that this will involve a complete rethinking of the diplomatic business model and reimagining of the essential skill set of the diplomatic person. I am convinced completely of the need to reconstruct the foreign ministry. In OECD countries especially, these tend to be among the oldest of central government institutions. Westphalian conventions are profoundly embedded, and the culture tradition-laden, hierarchic and risk averse. Placing adequate emphasis on overcoming these internal obstacles will be crucial.

Globalization has radically altered the role and place of states in the international system diplomats, diplomacy and the foreign ministry have not adapted well The main diplomatic institutions must accordingly be reconsidered fundamentally or face irrelevance, if not oblivion. Success at this game of catch-up will require vision and dexterity. Which brings me to the third point. Foreign ministries and diplomats have their shortcomings, but are their other reasons that performance has faltered? Might this affect the ability of the apparent diplomatic surge to endure?